The defeat of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) dealt a blow to the movement for LGBT rights.
After a string of victories — including the Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality, the end of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military, and the coming out of trans celebrity Caitlyn Jenner — the bathroom issue seems to have stalled the march of progress.
Opponents of HERO drew on the specter of the pervert man in the women’s bathroom to muster mass opposition to LGBT rights. Using signs outside of polling places reading “NO Men in Women’s Bathrooms” and television ads that showed a man following a little girl into the bathroom made the message clear: Voting for this ordinance allows predators easier access to precious and defenseless girls and women. This rhetoric taps into people’s gender-based fears about women’s sexual vulnerability to men’s violence.
The bathroom issue might strike many as a trivial matter, but for many trans people, myself included, choosing which bathroom to use is not a trivial matter.
This decision usually comes down to whether we “pass.” Every day, those of us who meet or exceed society’s expectations about gendered appearance norms enter public bathrooms without notice. Would anyone bat an eye if Laverne Cox entered the women’s room or Chaz Bono used the men’s room? Of course not.
But for many of us, the choice of which bathroom to use can be a life-or-death decision. Those of us who cannot, or do not, fit into the categories of “male” or “female” are the ones who bear the brunt of the strange looks, outrage and violence. The perpetrators of these acts toward us are not the “perverts” declaimed by the opponents of LGBT rights. They are the people who refuse to accept gender variance and insist that everyone conform to rigid notions of how men and women ought to look and behave.
It is true that violence against women and girls is a real problem in our society. But instead of discriminating against trans people in a misguided effort to protect women, our collective efforts ought to focus instead on why our current social norms for gender, especially for masculinity, victimize women.
The fear of the man in women’s restrooms, misunderstanding of trans people, and the violence women experience in society are all linked. Gender and sex are still understood to be biologically based and naturally given. Thus we say “boys will be boys” and “girls are feminine,” yet these childhood tropes also morph into the right for men to be violent and for women to be ever vigilant about their bodies.
Unfortunately, the defeat of HERO may be a signal that any form of national equality legislation that includes trans people cannot be won by popular vote. More importantly, the “no” vote from Houston should act as a wake-up call for the LGBT movement.
In the past, gays and lesbians fought under the slogan of “Just like you,” emphasizing their conformity to society’s mainstream values and beliefs. If the LGBT movement is to work toward bettering trans lives, it might be time to change tactics and fight for loosening gender norms that restrict all people.
Thatcher Combs is a transgender graduate student in sociology at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
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