Sunday, November 08, 2015

Here come the bathroom wars

Since the defeat at the polls of Houston's civil rights ordinance, I've been thinking what we can learn from afar from this campaign experience.

Houston voters struck down a non-discrimination ballot measure Tuesday, delivering a blow to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights movement that had campaigned heavily for passage.

Prop. 1, known as Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance, would have barred discrimination on the basis of race, age, military status, disability and 11 other categories in a variety of areas. (Religious organizations and institutions would be exempt from the requirements.) 

It was HERO's protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, however, that attracted the most attention and made the ballot measure the center of the LGBT community's efforts this election.

The circumstances in which such measures are fought are always particular and immediate to their place and time. But each also may offer some insights useful to the continuing struggle for full equality for any of us who differ from conventional norms.

There are always recriminations after a defeat like this. Michelangelo Signorile provides a catalogue for this occasion:

Political strategists warned LGBT activists in the days ahead of the vote: There was little Spanish-language outreach, no big ad buy in Spanish-language media -- in a city that is 44% Hispanic -- countering the lies of the opposition, who'd certainly been doing their own outreach. Monica Roberts, a long-time African-American transgender activist, warned of little outreach in the black community, which makes up 24% of the city. ... And no ads by LGBT rights proponents held the equal punch that the nasty hate ads embodied. Instead, they overwhelmingly ran nicey-nice ads about good neighbors and equality and human dignity.

I have no way of knowing whether that is a fair assessment of the campaign's failings. I've certainly seen and experienced similar indictments after gay rights campaigns before -- and these complaints were usually somewhat accurate. The people who get us into and lead these fights -- economically secure, usually white, LGBT leaders -- are usually not the same people as the queers who would have to put themselves on the line in their own communities to win them.

And this time around, the right wingers and Christianists made sure the fight was about public bathrooms. Apparently we walked into this one.

Restrooms are not specifically mentioned in the measure, which is why conservatives were accused of fearmongering. Still, it was the ordinance’s supporters, not its opponents, who appeared to first raise the issue of bathrooms last year. A draft of the bill included a section, later removed, that would have let transgender people use the bathroom that best reflected their gender identity. Opponents seized on the issue and never let go.

Weeks before Election Day, the Campaign for Houston aired a TV ad that shows a man stepping into a woman’s restroom and hiding in a stall. Then a girl wearing a school backpack walks in. The ad, shot in black and white, ends with the man entering the girl’s stall and shutting the door. It was one of several ads they released, but “the one we ran the most,” Mr. Woodfill added.

Creepy and false, but damned effective.

Public bathrooms are always a bit fraught for most women -- maybe most people. After all, we enter them in order to perform what most of us think are very intimate function -- in a place open to strangers! My friend, Rinku Sen, explains cogently why we (all humans) are so good at perceiving "race" even when we are not aiming to be "racist."

The last two decades of neuroscience have revealed the existence of implicit bias, an unconscious form that determines our behavior, even without instruction to discrimination. Such bias stems from the human brain's efficiency and its programmed need to determine in a flash who is in our group (safe) and who is not (dangerous).

And just as quickly we filter our reactions to unknown persons by tribe and race, we also filter for gender -- anyone of the "wrong" or of hard-to-determine gender creates anxiety. Bathrooms are the perfect arena for this.

Once upon a time, pretty much all LGBT people inspired this kind of gender anxiety in pretty much everyone (even some gay people). The accomplishment of the gay movement, through mass coming out and a lot of individual bravery, has been to render many of us just a normal part of the social fabric.

But some people (not all LGBT) who can't or won't conform to gender norms still set off alarms in the anxious environment of public bathroom. I know -- I'm a 68 year old white woman-identified woman who has that effect in airport restrooms. It's annoying to have women gasp when you emerge from the stall. This reaction is no threat to me, but it might be to a young person or a person of color using what others thought was the "wrong" facility.

We can expect right-wingers to run with this anxiety as far as they can stretch it. In California, proponents of an initiative to repeal the right of students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of the gender with which they identify have until November 20 collect enough signatures to qualify for the 2016 election. They just might do it; that will probably depend on whether national anti-gay organizations have thrown down the money to do the job.

Even if this threat passes as previous initiative attempts have, the Houston defeat means fights over bathroom access aren't going away. Some of the most vulnerable members of our communities will be on the line in these fights. How are we all there with them?

Graphic via Media Matters which has taken up the thankless task of reminding journalists that equal rights are not solely about bathrooms.


Rain Trueax said...

It's amazing what scares people or what can be used to scare them. I can't imagine why women would care as the stalls are private. I've seen men come in with their little girls and I totally get it-- likewise a husband to help his crippled wife. That this became an issue in Texas is amazing. Many bookstores have long had bathrooms with no gender designation. I'd a lot rather a man who put the lid up over the woman who didn't and sprayed the seat lol. I think though we are going to go through a nutty time and not much way around it. What I see at Facebook is a sampling of the craziness out there-- and these are people I have regarded as friends. Sometimes I try to response; sometimes I know it not only is a waste of my time but gives them more coverage for their nuttiness.

Hattie said...

Why not go unisex?

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