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Williams: When bathrooms become a civil rights battleground

A segregated drinking fountain on the county courthouse lawn in Halifax, N.C., photographed in 1938.
A segregated drinking fountain on the county courthouse lawn in Halifax, N.C., photographed in 1938. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

When I was 13, a friend of my mother approached mom with an idea that would give me some spending money, but that would ultimately expose me to the norms of the dominant society from which, at that point, I had largely been protected.

Mom’s friend was the housekeeper for a prominent family in Fayetteville’s well-to-do Haymont Hill area. The house was a lot of work for one person and the family had agreed that she could choose someone to help her part-time.

I was all in when I heard that she could likely get me a couple of dollars for an afternoon’s work. That was impressive in that mom had said she once did such work for as little as $5 a day.

The first afternoon I was given a tour of the big house, including the basement where I was “to use the bathroom.” The help’s bathroom was an old, corroded toilet in a corner of the cluttered and dingy room. Someone had put up a flimsy partition so that it kinda had three walls. I had not encountered the “white” and “colored” bathroom signs in Fayetteville, but I had seen the signs on television, along with the dogs and fire hoses.

I was really happy that I had used the bathroom at school before my walk to Haymont and had not stopped for a Coke. Hold it for a couple of hours? Piece of cake. I returned to the house a few more times over several weeks. But I prepared by drinking no water after lunch.

I was reminded of my brief career as a maid when I heard the discussion about the need to repeal the Charlotte LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance.

Opponents honed in on a provision that allowed transgender people to use the bathroom assigned to the sex they identify with. The opponents’ allies in the legislature engineered a special session Wednesday to pass legislation, later signed by Gov. Pat McCrory that, in effect, repeals the Charlotte ordinance and bans local anti-discrimination ordinances. The bill enacts a statewide anti-discrimination measure that excludes discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity and prohibits local governments from allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that is assigned to the gender they identify with.

During the Wednesday legislative hearing, Sen. Buck Newton, a Republican from Wilson said the legislature had to act because Charlotte leaders “decided to push a very radical and dangerous policy by allowing men to share a bathroom and shower facilities with young girls and women.” Charlotte’s ordinance, he added, “violates common sense and laws on criminal trespass and indecent exposure.” He blamed the ordinance on “radical left wing groups” and “political correctness mobs.”

On Thursday, Rep. Skip Stam, a Republican from Apex and a primary sponsor of Wednesday’s legislation, in a brief interview clearly separated himself from the idea that transgender people presented a threat to others in restrooms and argued the legislature did not pass a law that discriminates. Schools, for example, he said are directed to make accommodations for transgender students. However, the restrictions on schools allowing transgender students to use the restrooms of the gender that they identify with was necessary because “that violates the privacy of a lot of other people.” Further, he said the intent is that people can use bathrooms that correspond to the gender on their birth certificates. People who are “surgically” transgendered can have their birth certificates changed, he said.

The prominence of the bathroom issue in the recent debate illustrates a history in America where bathrooms become a battleground over civil rights. Requiring separate toilet facilities were among the most important laws to people who implemented Jim Crow laws in the post-Reconstruction era.

For more insight on why this is a 21st century fight, I turned to a remarkable young woman I know who is the daughter of my friend, Leslie, a Wake Forest resident. Chinyere Ezie is a staff attorney with the LGBT Rights Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Ala. She represented Ashley Diamond, a transgender woman jailed with men in a Georgia prison, where she was repeatedly assaulted and denied continuation of the hormone treatment begun long before she was incarcerated.

This country has a “legacy of restricting bathroom use” as part of overall efforts to “marginalize and humiliate” people who are different, Ezie said in a conversation Wednesday. “Across the country there are anti-transgender bills that marginalize transgender people and criminalize the ordinary human conduct of where they go to pee.” This year, she said, there have been more than 100 bills filed at various levels of government around the country that have “a LGBT animus.” In recent weeks, she added, there have been about two dozen measures to regulate transgender people’s use of bathrooms.

She said health and safety and privacy rights have always been reasons for restricting the use of public bathrooms.

There are no facts that show that allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choosing is a realistic threat to other people, Ezie said.

But the harmful impact of the debate on transgender youth is evident, she said, adding that they are among the most endangered children in America. Their suicide rate is high, she said. “Almost 60 percent will attempt suicide at some point,” she said.

The inability to use a bathroom of their gender identity in school, Ezie said, adds enormously to “very severe psychological stress from being stigmatized and separated from their peers.” She said she has heard of transgender students who wet themselves because they couldn’t get to the bathroom – usually a facility for teachers – that they’ve been told that they can use.

The political language used around these bathroom bills basically tells transgender youth that they are “predators in restrooms ... freaks and monsters,” Ezie said, when “they really need support.”

Under present conditions, these youths can’t look forward to a much better life as transgender adults, Ezie said. She noted the suffering of Ashley Diamond, imprisoned for burglary, and her continued struggles after release from prison. About 126 transgender women – mostly women of color – murdered last year with little public notice and “very little investigation.”

Ezie said she is passionate on the subject because “our communities are better than this.”

As Ezie spoke movingly of the struggles of transgender youth, I recalled my 13-year-old self seeing clearly for the first time how others saw me as less-than.

I did, indeed, prepare for my bathroom restrictions on the job. But one day, for reasons I no longer remember, I was in the Haymont house alone for about an hour. Although I didn’t have an overwhelming need to go, I went upstairs to the master bedroom suite’s bathroom and leisurely did what people do every day without angst and drama.

Linda Williams: 919-829-4524