It’s not hard to tell that election season is around the corner in North Carolina. Once again, conservative politicians and their allies are lining up to bash weak and unpopular groups in an effort to stoke fear and gin up the least well-informed segments of their political base.
First, it was immigrants and refugees in the political crosshairs and now, rather amazingly, it is, of all groups, transgender people.
If this is an issue to which you’ve only paid sporadic attention, here’s the basic lowdown:
In recent days, Gov. Pat McCrory – a man surrounded by too many genuine policy, political and ethical problems to count – has decided, with the tacit approval of even so-called “libertarian” think tanks, to make a transgender high school kid from Virginia a political football in North Carolina.
As multiple journalists have reported – none more effectively than writer Greg Lacour in an excellent article in Charlotte Magazine on Monday – McCrory took this disturbing step last Saturday when he released a letter to Attorney General Roy Cooper – his presumed opponent in next fall’s election – demanding that he join a lawsuit that involves Gavin Grimm, a 16-year-old boy from Virginia who has been seeking to have his basic human rights respected.
“Where the heck did this come from?
The root of it is a pending federal civil rights case that involves a 16-year-old transgender boy and high school junior named Gavin Grimm. Last year, Gavin sued his school district in Gloucester County, Virginia, after the school board prohibited him from using the boys’ bathroom at Gloucester High School.
But what’s vaulted the case into a matter of national import is the continuing war over The Restroom Thing—a fight over recognition of transgender people as worthy of the same basic rights as the rest of us, which flared up in Charlotte in March and will soon again. What’s pushed it onto McCrory’s must-address list is its potential as a wedge issue in the governor’s race.
The restroom thing
In other words, what is at issue in all of this is, amazingly enough, the question of bathrooms and who can use them.
You see, Gavin Grimm is, like thousands and thousands of other Americans, someone who has undergone gender reassignment. Thanks to the miracle of modern medicine and growing awareness and understanding in many circles, Grimm is transitioning from the gender he was assigned at birth to the one he knows is him.
What’s more, happily, he has parental support and backing from his school and peers. This is from the complaint filed on his behalf in federal court:
“When the 2014-15 school year began, G.G. was pleased to discover that his teachers and the vast majority of his peers respected the fact that he is a boy and treated him accordingly. G.G. quickly determined that it was not necessary for his safety to continue to use the nurse’s bathroom [which he had been told to use], and he found it stigmatizing to have to use a separate restroom. The nurse’s bathroom was also very inconvenient to G.G.’s classrooms, making it difficult to use the restroom between classes. For these reasons, G.G. asked Mr. Collins to be allowed to use the boys’ bathrooms….On or about October 20, 2014, Mr. Collins agreed that G.G. could use the boys’ restrooms. For approximately the next seven weeks, G.G. used the boys’ restrooms without incident.
Unfortunately, as the complaint goes on to explain, a group of adults and conservative activists got wind of the news and before long, a full scale school board brouhaha had been manufactured. You can only imagine how loving and kind many of the comments from those challenging Grimm’s access to the boys’ bathroom were as the affair proceeded.
Ultimately and not surprisingly, the school board caved and directed, in the spirit of Plessy v. Ferguson, that separate single stall restrooms be set aside. The case is now on appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, where activists at a conservative “Christian” group with the misleading name “Alliance to Defend Freedom,” have been championing the discriminatory policy.
Cue the McCrory demagoguery
This brings us to Governor McCrory’s recent effort to insert himself into the discussion and, quite cynically, make the matter an electoral issue in 2016. According to the Governor’s recent statement, the Obama administration, which supports Gavin’s right to be (and live as) who he is, is bent on a radical federal takeover of local school policy. This is from McCrory’s Facebook page:
“I asked Attorney General Roy Cooper to stop the federal government from taking over our schools, and challenge the ACLU and President Obama’s attempt to force local districts to open sex-specific locker rooms and bathrooms to individuals of the opposite biological sex….This federal overreach is unacceptable and must be stopped.”
You got that? According to Gov. Pat McCrory, transgender people do not exist. They are merely people of one gender masquerading as people of the other – undoubtedly to some nefarious end.
What’s more, efforts by the federal government to acknowledge transgender people (human beings who have, almost by definition, suffered enormous pain and hurtful treatment) and assure them at least a modicum of equal treatment when it comes to some of the most basic human functions, amount to a monstrous assault on state’s rights.
Somewhere the George Wallace of 1963 is smiling.
What’s next? Will McCrory summon TV cameras and stand in a bathroom door when courts finally order equality for transgender people? The statement is, by any fair assessment, one of the lowest in a long list of low moments in the McCrory governorship.
Happily, Attorney General Cooper declined McCrory’s demand to intervene in the suit. Yesterday, in response, and in an act that seems as if it would be appropriate in any number of current issue areas, the Governor announced that he would sign on to the brief that will be submitted by South Carolina in opposition to Gavin Grimm.
Trying to understand the fear
If one takes a moment, it is not terribly hard to grasp what drives a lot of the panic in some circles about where other humans use the bathroom (and the political opportunism with which it so neatly fits). While some on the Right continue to espouse the downright bizarre and cockamamie theory that men bent on “perversion” will take advantage of equality for transgender people in order to disguise themselves as women and commit unspeakable acts in bathrooms, what’s really at work here for most people is simple fear and ignorance.
As with so many issues related to gender and sexuality that have been repressed in our country for so long, Americans still have a long way to go when it comes to truly understanding the challenges that confront transgender people.
The much celebrated Saturday Night Live video from last weekend in which actors portrayed family members talking past each other at the Thanksgiving table (click here to view it) captured some of the essence of this reality with this exchange:
Younger man: “Transgender is not a ‘trend,’ Mr. Valt.”
Younger woman: “Yeah they were, but they couldn’t say anything, so they led sad lives and died.”
And so it was and too often is. The desire of transgender people to live as who they are is nothing new. As with lesbian, gay and bisexual people, however, for centuries this overwhelming imperative in their lives has simply been repressed by a majority population that found the concept foreign, mysterious and therefore profoundly frightening.
Happily, in one of humanity’s most important bursts of freedom in recent decades, this repression is easing and more and more people are embracing their true identities publicly and without shame.
At such a time, one would have hoped that informed and, presumably, intelligent public officials would take the opportunity to educate and to lead the public and help it move toward the light of tolerance and love. Unfortunately, right now in North Carolina, the temptation to pander to people’s worst instincts and bully the weak has proven overwhelming for some, including quite sadly, the state’s top elected official.
Note: To learn more about this issue and how schools can and ought to be allowed to respond to the needs of transgender children, click here to read an August 2015 report from the American Civil Liberties Union entitled “Schools in Transition: A Guide for Supporting Transgender Students in K-12 Schools.”