California legislation could change the debate about transgender restroom access

As some states channel LGBT backlash through anti-trans bathroom bills, where does California stand?

The restroom at the Sacramento LGBT Community Center is gender neutral and open to homeless residents.

The restroom at the Sacramento LGBT Community Center is gender neutral and open to homeless residents.

Photo by Evan Duran

In March, when North Carolina lawmakers sped through legislation that effectively restricts transgender people’s access to public restrooms, the state set a grim precedent by playing to an old fear—that the so-called “other” wants to watch you go potty.

“What we have seen historically … is resistance to changing the norms of restroom access,” said UC Davis law professor Courtney G. Joslin.

The same tactic was employed—unsuccessfully—four decades ago in an attempt to derail the 1972 passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender and, at least theoretically, guaranteed equal rights for women. According to Joslin, opponents tried to convince Congress that the amendment’s passage would force men and women to go to the bathroom together.

That didn’t happen, nor has any other negative prediction involving integrated restrooms, says Joslin and others. Yet that hasn’t stopped bathroom hysteria from time-traveling to the present and latching onto a different effort to curtail civil rights.

Introduced, adopted and signed by the governor in 12 hours on March 23, North Carolina’s Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act made it illegal for someone to enter a gender-specific school or government restroom unless it matches up with the gender on their birth certificate. At least seven other states have tried adopting similar restrictions since last year, though none succeeded until the Tar Heels.

A joint policy paper from the Center for American Progress and Fenway Institute traces the growth in discriminatory bathroom policies to a conservative backlash against recent advances in LGBT rights, primarily the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling. Aside from states with lavatory fixations—Minnesota, South Dakota, Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida—there are approximately 200 anti-LGBT bills that have been introduced nationwide this legislative session alone, according to Laura E. Durso, the director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank.

“These aren’t going away any time soon,” she said. “What this wave is showing us is that there is this hole in the law that needs to be filled.”

And that there’s a need for basic education.

The bathroom bills, in particular, attempt to exploit fact-free fears that transgender people are bucking social norms—and submitting themselves to untold harassment—simply so they can ogle others.

That was the narrative pushed by the group Texas Values, which convinced Houston voters to repeal an anti-discrimination ordinance last year by claiming such protections would expose children to cross-dressing predators.

Back in reality, it’s the transgender community that reports skyrocketing mistreatment when forced to use the wrong restrooms, according to a growing body of research.

Something like that happened to a homeless youth who spoke to SN&R. Elyah was assigned the female gender at birth, but feels more comfortable using the men’s room and has been reprimanded for doing so. But the gender-nonconforming youth, who doesn’t identify with either sex, says that’s better than what their transgender female friends endure. Elyah gets nasty looks. Their friends get kicked out.

“I get a slap on the wrist,” Elyah said.

And this is in nonbizarro California, where access to public school programs, activities and facilities were expanded to students of all gender designations under 2013 legislation. And where the University of California has been degendering its restrooms since 2014.

State lawmakers are considering broadening that approach to all single-occupancy public restrooms in California, which would, in effect, declaw a trumped-up controversy. Assembly Bill 1732, the Equal Restroom Access Act, passed its first committee test last month and is now before the Assembly’s appropriations committee.

“It is as simple as changing a sign,” Durso said of the proposal. “And what it signals to a community is a welcoming atmosphere.”