Rights in America: Bathroom Battles

America can claim it has paved the way for equality all it likes, but the legal situation for LGBT rights in the US looks abysmal.

A free and equal land? Doesn't seem like it. (Photo: Bustos.House.Gov).

A free and equal land? Doesn’t seem like it. (Photo: Bustos.House.Gov).

When President Obama leaves the White House this November, he will do so with the legacy of having seen the Supreme Court legalise gay marriage in all states. This was no mean feat, despite polls before the ruling from The Wall Street Journal and CNN claiming that 60 per cent of the U.S. public supported same-sex marriage. Despite last year’s momentous ruling that marriage is a constitutional right for all couples regardless of gender, the fight for gay and transgender rights in the US is by no means over.

Recent legal rulings from southern states have pushed the topic of America’s gay rights situation back into the global media. The governor of North Carolina has defended a new law in the state which excludes sexual orientation and gender identity from their anti-discriminatory laws. It is legal to be both transphobic and homophobic in North Carolina, in short. According to NBC News, the new law “prevents local governments from passing ordinances that prohibit discrimination in public places based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

North Carolina’s decision was particularly centred on the issue of transgender people and public toilets. When the city of Charlotte passed a new act that stated people could use public bathrooms for the gender they identify with (as opposed to that on their birth certificate), Republicans acted immediately. Following Charlotte’s progressive decision, the General Assembly of North Carolina held a special session, calling law-makers from recess, to overturn the city’s law. Their ruling also bans schools from allowing transgender students to use the bathrooms they identify with.

This decision has garnered massive opposition amongst civil rights activists, and many are drawing parallels to American society before President Johnson’s Civil Rights Act in 1964 outlawed racial discrimination.  In The Telegraph, Rob Crilly writes that “Bathrooms have long had a special civil rights significance. Along with lunch counters and water fountains, bathrooms were segregated along race lines under Jim Crow laws.” Businesses in affected states have also spoken out about these changes. For example, PayPal has withdrawn their plan to open an operations centre in the North Carolina city Charlotte, with their CEO Dan Schulman stating that the new legislation “perpetuates discrimination,” and “violates” the company’s principles. Rock legend Bruce Springsteen also cancelled a concert planned for Greensboro, expressing in a statement his disapproval of the law, and that cancelling was his way of “raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards.”

 “Bathroom bills” are causing national conflict between conservatives and liberals. (Photo: The Telegraph).

“Bathroom bills” are causing national conflict between conservatives and liberals. (Photo: The Telegraph).

Conservatives in the US claim that allowing transgender people to use the bathroom they identify with is a threat to the privacy and safety of cisgender people. (Civil rights organisations have pointed out that no statistical evidence of this violence actually exists.) These “bathroom bills” are incredibly regressive, and highlight the vitriol of reactionary Republicans. Other states, including Florida, Arizona, Texas and Kentucky, have or are soon to be considering similar legislation to ban transgender people from the public bathrooms for their identified gender. According to The Telegraph, at least thirteen states have considered such legislation so far this year.

It’s not just the southern states trying to implement discriminatory legislation and reduce protection for LGBT citizens. In the central-northern state of Michigan, the House Speaker Kevin Cotter has opposed guidelines released by the State Board of Education for helping transgender students. The recommendations suggest that students should be addressed by their chosen name and pronouns, as well as being allowed to use the bathroom that they prefer. Cotter said, “Parents have very real concerns about the potential abuse of increased bathroom and locker room access that puts their children at risk.”

Many evangelical Republicans believe Obama’s administration has reduced religious liberties. (Photo: Slate)

Many evangelical Republicans believe Obama’s administration has reduced religious liberties. (Photo: Slate)

“Religious freedom” legislation has also been making tracks in the US. These bills, supported by Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, seek to make it legal for businesses to refuse to serve LGBT people on faith grounds. (Filibuster readers may be reminded of the highly controversial “gay cake” discrimination case in Northern Ireland.) Whilst Georgia fortunately vetoed a religious liberty bill, the state of Mississippi recently passed such legislation.

The “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,” allows businesses to refuse gay couples based on religious values. Phil Bryant, the state governor, said that the bill “protects sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions,” and would “prevent government interference in the lives of the people.” The law says it protects those who believe in the following principles: marriage should be recognised as the union between a man and a woman, “sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage,” and the genders of “man” and “woman” are defined by objective biological characteristics “at time of birth.”

In Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal vetoed a bill that “would have given faith-based organizations […] the option to deny services and jobs to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.” Deal, notably a Republican, said that he did not veto the bill owing to pressure by corporations as reported by media sources, but instead because he felt that it did not show that the state was home to “warm, friendly and loving people.”

Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to LGBT legal rights:

Republican candidate Ted Cruz is passionate about his commitment to ensuring religious liberty, or liberty for Christians at least. His website proclaims, “The founders enshrined this right to live according to our faith in the First Amendment, and we must continue to celebrate and safeguard citizens’ God-given rights.” Fine. Great. What is incredibly worrying though, is that Cruz has appointed vitriolic anti-LGBT activists to a “Religious Liberty” panel who will consult him on policy. This panel includes the “Benham brothers”, David and Jason Benham, who believe that there is a homosexual agenda “attacking the nation”, Bishop Harry Jackson who tried to sue for a referendum to overturn Washington DC’s marriage equality legislation in 2009, and Tony Perkins who once called gay rights activists “hateful, vile and pawns of the devil.” Overall, Cruz doesn’t seem to be surrounded with a very tolerant bunch.

The wave of homophobic and transphobic legislation taking over the United States has been interpreted as a reaction to last year’s Supreme Court marriage equality ruling. And it’s a big reaction. Regression such as this is saddening to see, and a cause for great concern amongst civil rights activists. Such structural discrimination perpetuates a culture of isolation for gay and transgender people, particularly young people. If the United States wants to be able to truly call itself the land of the free then all citizens must be granted protection from discrimination. Liberty and equality don’t have to be mutually exclusive to one another.

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