Watching the fallout in North Carolina from afar has been instructive.
For one, the economic consequences for a law that, among other things, bars local LGBT anti-discrimination ordinances range from the mostly symbolic (a canceled Bruce Springsteen concert) to the significant (the loss of job-creating investments by companies such as PayPal and Deutsche Bank). The threats we heard in Georgia regarding House Bill 757, which didn’t go nearly as far but was vetoed by Gov. Nathan Deal, apparently weren’t idle ones.
It has also been illuminating to watch reactions to a provision of the law not considered here: requiring people to use public restrooms based on their gender at birth.
I haven’t counted headlines, but much discussion of the law, both positive and negative, has focused on the transgender bathroom issue. What’s fascinating is how, even more than in Georgia’s religious-liberty debate, people are talking past one another.
To the law’s opponents, the bathrooms bit is just one more indication of the “bigotry” of some people, who need to get over themselves and get with the times.
But I don’t hear a lot of complaints from the law’s supporters that transgender people are icky, or something. What I hear are worries women and girls will be in danger from some men — all too willing to identify with some of the worst male impulses — who take advantage of the ambiguity created by new bathroom policies.
In other words, the problem is less about transgender persons than those who would exploit laws intended to help them.
The hearing given to these concerns has been, shall we say, less than sympathetic. It boils down to: That doesn’t happen. In fact, a guidebook on the issue by the Transgender Law Center, “Peeing in Peace,” basically suggests a) women’s rooms weren’t safe before, and b) “minor discomfort” by those wary of new arrangements “is a small price to pay.”
There are two problems with the “don’t worry” response, besides the question of why some people’s discomfort is more important than others’. First, experience with such laws is relatively limited in both time and geography. If they become more prevalent, the results could change. (Ironically, this is basically one of the arguments by LGBT advocates against expanded religious-liberty measures in Georgia.)
Second, that response just isn’t true. In February, a man making no attempt to identify as a woman cited gender-identity protections after disrobing in a women’s restroom at a public swimming pool in Seattle. In October, the University of Toronto scaled back its policy of “gender neutral bathrooms” after two women reported incidents of cellphone-camera voyeurism.
(Speaking of colleges, and irony: U.S. colleges have been embracing gender-neutral bathrooms, despite such safety risks, at the same time the Obama administration has become so intent on reducing campus sexual assaults and harassment it has issued regulations that curtail due process for accused male students.)
But back to the North Carolina law. It should be possible to address the plight of transgender persons without making women feel more vulnerable. That would, however, require concessions not just by the state’s legislators but by those too busy yelling “bigot” to address even legitimate concerns.
If there can be no compromise on even an issue like this, we can pretty much flush the notion of self-government.