Real lives in the crosshair of North Carolina’s bathroom law

by Roch Smith Jr.

When the North Carolina state legislature called a special session last week to pass House Bill 2 (HB2) overturning Charlotte’s anti-discrimination ordinance that, among other things, would have allowed transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify, it kicked off a state-wide firestorm of debate. Much of the support for the bill involved fearful hypotheticals. The discussion is different when we think about the real people involved.

If your motivation is to marginalize people and cause them pain, to punish them for who they are because you don’t perceive them to share your humanity, I have nothing for you today. If you agree with conservative Greensboro blogger Joe Guarino when he writes that the state’s action was necessary because “the cultural implosion we have seen is the result of profoundly evil forces in various spheres gaining the upper hand,” then, at another time, we need to have a discussion about compassion and the meaning of evil, but, for now, I’ll leave you to your crusade.

On the other hand, if you, like me, think that we can consider each other’s differences and concerns with an eye on traditional American principles and common dignity, then we can talk.

If your reaction to the idea of allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice is “that sounds strange,” I get it. It would have to me too, before I met Jack.

Jack (not his real name) frequented a neighborhood bar I used to go to. He was funny, impish and a great conversationalist. He was also female when I met him. I watched over months and years as hormone treatments had him appear more and more like a man. At some point he grew a goatee and started using the men’s room. Jack did not became strange or dangerous as he changed or because he switched bathrooms. He was still the same kind person. Strange would have been for Jack to keep using the women’s room.

When we consider real specific people, it becomes a lot harder to maintain prejudices and misconceptions. And if we don’t know any trans people, then we either inform ourselves or proceed under a lack of understanding. Let me see if I can contribute a little understanding.

First, here is what it is NOT a reason why people transition from one gender to another: Tens of thousands of people have not started dressing as a different gender, undergoing hormone treatment and surgery and changing their bodies while enduring ridicule (or worse) as part of some plot whereby they would some day be legally allowed to use the bathroom of their new gender whereupon they would begin sexually preying upon people, presumably getting away with it because… well, they’d have a perfect disguise, I suppose, and they would all evade jail because… well, evil forces will prevail, or something.

I think you see how ridiculous it all sounds when one attempts to ground an opinion of transgender people and bathrooms on the notion that sexual predation is a likely consequence. This is the same kind of argument once used against allowing gay people equal rights: that they were deviant sexual predators and we needed to protect ourselves. We cannot let that same ignorance grip us again.

Trans people (various studies, put them anywhere from 0.05 percent to 1.5 percent of the population) are just people with circumstances regarding their gender that are different from the majority of the population. They change their gender because of an authentic understanding of themselves—to correct disorder, not to delve into it. For many, there are years, sometimes decades of discomfort and distress.

Richelle is 60 years old and lives in Greensboro. She was born male and lived as such for 59 years. She was married for 38 years and has a granddaughter. Despite a lifetime of what she describes as “hypermasculine” professions, including driving a truck, she says she felt, from the time she was 10 years old, that she was not a man. Now she is becoming a woman.

As part of the medial protocol for her transition, Richelle must “present” as a female for a year before she can undergo sexual reassignment surgery, which she will in June. She has been taking synthetic estrogen for over a year. She is buxom with shoulder length blond hair. Her manicured nails are painted red.

For now, because of HB2, governmental facilities, from libraries to college campuses, must require that Richelle use the men’s restroom. After her surgery, the law will allow her to change her gender on her birth certificate and then North Carolina will allow her to use the women’s room.

There are 17 states where people may change the gender on their birth certificates without undergoing surgery. This shoots a big hole in the notion of HB2 as offering some kind of “protection.” HB2 allows transgender people from certain other states to use a restroom matching the gender on their birth certificate without having to have sexual reassignment surgery, but if you are from one of the states that requires surgery before you can change your birth certificate, you’ll be treated differently under HB2. This “birth certificate provision” is unfair and ineffective at anything other than creating hardship for trans people born in the wrong state.

Enforcement of the birth certificate criteria is hard to imagine too. What do the lawmakers who thought this was a good idea imagine might happen? Someone sees someone who doesn’t appear quite masculine or feminine enough for them and calls the cops? Then what? A cop asks, “Sir, are you really a man?” And if he isn’t convinced, issues a citation to drag the guy into court where he can show his birth certificate to a judge? I mean, really, Barney.

Richelle says she just wants people to allow her to be herself. When she goes to the ladies’ room, she says, “Nobody ever questions me. I go into a stall, sit down, just like a lady does, and go about my business.”

Kevin (not his real name) is 33, he transitioned from female to male between the ages of 25 and 30. He has a mustache and a blue-collar job in Greensboro. His wife just gave birth to their now 10-month old baby from one of his embryos. When I tell him that’s a little mind blowing, he understands.

As a mentor to transgender youth, Kevin worries about a law that would require children in transition to use a bathroom that does not match their appearance. “It’s not safe,” he says. He knows of kids locally from 8 to 17 who present as genders different from their birth gender. Mayor Nancy Vaughan says she is aware of a local elementary school that has two transgender students. A law that forces a little girl to use the boys bathroom at her school or the men’s room at the public library is beyond preposterous. It’s cruel and irresponsible.

To the extent that worries remain about bad behavior in bathrooms, there are already significant laws on the books in North Carolina that make it illegal to expose oneself to a member of the opposite sex, to peep on people or to molest people. It’s not true that new laws were needed.

If we really want to understand what’s right, we can think about Jack, Richelle, Kevin and the kids he mentors—real people with real lives—or we can allow our compassion and the American ideal of equal treatment under the law to succumb to a fear of the unknown and imaginary evil forces. !