The public toilet is just a new battleground for an old prejudice

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    Let’s take North Carolina’s now-notorious “bathroom bill” to its illogical endpoint.

    Let’s say Donald Trump wins the presidency (I know, I know; but bear with me for the sake of argument) and appoints the next justice to the Supreme Court, which then rules on behalf of bigotry and affirms HB2 — passed by both houses of the state’s legislature, signed by Gov. Pat McCrory and challenged in a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice — stating that individuals must use public and school restrooms corresponding to the gender identity they were given at birth.

    What I’d like to know is how the governor plans to check.

    Will there be a sentry before every public bathroom — like the uniformed matrons who used to attend the “ladies’ lounges” in fancy department stores — scrutinizing the birth certificates of all who enter?

    Picture the line-up, worse than the one outside the “women’s room” during intermission at the opera: a restless queue of people hopping on one foot while simultaneously fishing through pockets and purses for proof that their gender matches the sign on the door.

    ¿Dama o caballero? Lady or gentleman? Girl or boy? Cowboy hat or stiletto heel?

    And what happens when Francesca, who just wanted to wash her hands before the second act of “La Bohème,” unfolds the weathered parchment that says her given name was Frank? Does the sentry point her — yes, in her peach chiffon and matching pumps — toward the room with the short line and the urinals?

    Or what if our friend with the near-to-bursting bladder is, shall we say, of the Q persuasion of LGBTQ? That is — queer, or maybe questioning. Will the bathroom police whisk them (gender-neutral pronoun, not grammatical recklessness) away for a private, pants-down check to see what’s what and who’s who?

    Where this bathroom bill is concerned, I’m pretty Q myself. As in querulous. As in quarrelsome. As in quaky.

    What’s really at play here

    Because the legislation is not about privacy. Face it, the design of public bathrooms, except for the one-seaters in some restaurants, pretty much quashes any prayer of privacy; through the chasm under the saloon-style doors, you can hear the next person unwrap her tampon; you can watch your neighbor’s Doc Martens tap rhythm to the restroom Muzak.

    And it’s not, despite the bluster of McCrory and other supporters, about safety. Ron Baity, the pastor of a Winston-Salem Baptist church, claimed HB2 would thwart male sociopaths who might cross-dress in order to enter opposite-sex bathrooms and molest children. “He could be there to bring damage to a young girl,” he said.

    Does the FBI even have a category for crimes like that? Because they are practically non-existent. Not to mention that an actual transgender person is much more likely to be the victim of an assault (in a bathroom or elsewhere) than the perpetrator of one. A small 2008-09 study of trans and gender non-conforming people in Washington, D.C., showed that 70 percent of them had been denied access to restrooms or experienced harassment or physical assault while in them.

    And in a much larger study of 6,450 trans and gender non-conforming people, conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, nearly 80 percent of respondents said they were harassed while in school.

    In fact, the school districts and cities that have taken the high road on this issue (thank you, Chicago and New York City public schools, and Philadelphia, with gender-neutral restroom signage for restaurants and bars) did so in the interest of protecting the rights and privacy of trans people, not punishing them with embarrassment and exclusion.

    So what’s really behind North Carolina’s legislation? You don’t have to scratch the rhetoric very hard to find the fear and prejudice seething underneath.

    Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick responded with apocalyptic fury to the Obama administration’s recently issued guidelines urging public schools to treat trans students according to their gender identity. “This will be the end of public education, if it prevails,” Patrick thundered.

    Plain old discrimination

    That one knuckled close to home. It’s been nearly 20 years, but I remember the stone-in-the-stomach moment when I was abruptly fired from a scheduled guest teaching gig in a New Jersey high school. No explanation … until the school’s librarian phoned me on her lunch hour and, speaking in stage whispers, asked me to meet her for coffee in Center City, miles from her suburban campus.

    There, Deep Throat revealed the reason for my dismissal. An assistant librarian had learned that I’d written on queer themes and had received an award from the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. He then wrote a letter to the principal claiming that I would corrupt the kids with my “destructive lifestyle.” Wow. And I’d just been planning to teach them free-verse poetry.

    Fortunately, that happened in New Jersey, which (thank you, Garden State) included sexual orientation in its non-discrimination laws. The New Jersey State Arts Council, which sponsored the artist-in-residency program, leapt immediately to my side. The assistant librarian got a transfer to a different school, and I earned the green light to enlighten (or corrupt) students with the words of Walt Whitman, Nikki Giovanni, and Langston Hughes.

    Flash-forward a couple of decades, substitute “transgender” for “gay and lesbian,” and hear the same bigoted smear all over again. How ironic that North Carolina’s state motto, coined in 1893, is “Esse Quam Videri” (“to be, rather than to seem”) — because the lives of trans people serve as a sharp reminder not to make assumptions about someone based on how they “seem”: their name, length of their hair, style of their clothing or the bathroom in which they feel most comfortable.

    What does anyone want in a public restroom? A splash-free toilet, paper that won’t scratch, a functioning soap dispenser, a sanitary and earth-preserving way to dry your hands. A door that locks. Maybe some pithy graffiti to pass the time.

    So here’s a homework assignment for McCrory, Patrick, Baity and anyone else on what is sure to be — in the long arc toward justice that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. forecast — the losing side of this latest battle for human recognition and civil rights:

    Take a field trip into a public bathroom that does not match your gender identity. Gents, notice the floral air freshener and the Kotex machine; gals, give it a try standing up. Notice every hostile stare. Pay attention to your own roil of discomfort, your urge not to pee, but to flee.

    Then, back at school, slap a rainbow sticker on the guidance counselor’s door and quit worrying about who uses which toilet. Spend your insufficient public education dollars on the work that really counts: teaching students and staff about empathy, about kindness, about the glorious and baffling bouquet of human expression, which, we are learning, cannot be neatly bifurcated — in bathrooms or anywhere else — into “his” and “hers.”

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