Bathrooms become battlegrounds in anti-discrimination debate

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – As bathrooms become battlegrounds in the national debate over anti-discrimination laws, a city council’s decision to protect the restroom choices of transgender people in Charlotte, North Carolina, was cheered Feb. 23 by rights advocates as a courageous move. But it may not stand for very long.

Gov. Pat McCrory told The Associated Press that the bathroom provision denies privacy rights for people who expect to share restrooms or locker rooms only with people born with the same anatomy.

“It’s an extreme regulation that changes the basic norms of society,” the Republican governor said, adding that he would like the state legislature to pre-empt any local governments from enforcing such ordinances. “I don’t want to have 100 different rules” across the state, he said.

As sweeping changes take hold across America in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing gay marriage last year, advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have sought to build on that momentum by securing broad protections against discrimination in cities and states nationwide.

Most of the 20 largest U.S. cities now enforce state laws or local ordinances that include allowances for people to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with, said Cathryn Oakley, an attorney with the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign who helped generate support for Charlotte’s ordinance.

And as conservatives push back, they are increasingly finding that concerns about bathroom encounters resonate more with voters than other aspects of such laws. In Jacksonville, Florida, a council member withdrew a measure similar to Charlotte’s last week after encountering just such pressure.

“We’re currently tracking 192 bills, the vast majority of which are anti-LGBT with major themes being trans bathrooms and rfras (religious freedom restoration acts) focused on marriage,” Mark Daniel Snyder, spokesman for the Equality Federation, a gay rights group, said in an email.

Charlotte’s ordinance is broader than just bathrooms, prohibiting hotels for example from refusing to rent a room to a lesbian couple, City Attorney Robert Hagemann stressed.

“The restroom issue has gotten an awful lot of attention,” Hagemann said. “The primary aspect of what the council did is to prohibit discrimination in public accommodation. That’s not just restrooms.”

A turning point was Houston, whose city council approved an ordinance similar to Charlotte’s. After a campaign that invoked concerns about bathroom safety last year, voters overwhelmingly overturned the ordinance in a referendum.

“The opposition has really run with this inflammatory, discriminatory messaging, and unfortunately they have found some traction,” Oakley said.

Transgender advocates, meanwhile, have worried openly that conservatives are using the bathroom issue to drive a wedge between them and other members of the LGBT movement.

“It’s absolutely not fair. What they’re trying to do is roll back some of the progress that the LGBT community as a whole has made over the last several years by targeting some of the most vulnerable – and unfortunately least understood -members of our community,” said Demoya Gordon, a Lambda Legal staff attorney who works on its Transgender Rights Project.

Charlotte’s vote drew an overflow crowd on both sides Feb. 22. While supporters carried signs broadly asserting “equal rights,” opponents urged the council to “Vote No on the Bathroom Bill.”

The ordinance was approved by a vote of 7-to-4, adding “sexual orientation,” “gender identity” and “marital status” as attributes protected from discrimination when it comes to public accommodations in restaurants, retail stores and other businesses.

The ordinance legalizes the ability of transgender people to use bathrooms based on the gender they identify with, even if it’s different from their anatomy at birth. The local law doesn’t define gender identity, but federal workplace guidelines suggest that transgender people should be able to choose either the men’s room or the women’s room, depending on which feels most appropriate or safest to them.

Violations could be treated as misdemeanors, punishable by fines of $500 or 30 days in jail, although the council staff noted that nobody has ever faced such punishment under other aspects of the city’s existing anti-discrimination ordinance.

The ordinance does not address accommodations in public schools, another flashpoint in the national debate. In South Dakota on Tuesday, transgender activists were trying to persuade the governor to veto a bill requiring students statewide to use bathrooms corresponding to their sex at birth.

North Carolina’s cities and counties are creations of the state, and the General Assembly can override local ordinances. Republican lawmakers have passed several laws recently to rein in city councils – particularly those led by Democrats – who they believe overstepped their authority.

House Speaker Tim Moore said that he and other Republicans will be “exploring legislative intervention to correct this radical course” once the legislature convenes again in late April.

If Charlotte’s bathroom protections are overturned, Gordon said it would send a message that transgender people can’t do “one of the most essential things that people do every day … except under really dangerous and harassing conditions.”

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