Why We Should All Be Terrified of Anti-Trans 'Bathroom Bills'

This week, the South Dakota House of Representatives failed to override a veto of a bill that would have forced trans students to use the wrong bathrooms. Such legislation doesn't only codify prejudice into law and increase anti-trans vitriol: It also...

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Mar 4 2016, 4:15pm

Americans should be aware of an increasing danger to their children and the moral fabric of this nation. The social justice movement for the liberation of transgender people is being met by backwater lawmakers who value their ignorant and prejudicial views more than the safety or survival of transgender children. In South Dakota, a proposed law titled House Bill 1008 would require students to be designated to gender specific restrooms based on their anatomy at birth. As it passed through state legislature, the bill required a veto by Governor Dennis Daugaard in order to be stopped.

Chase Strangio is a Staff Attorney with the ACLU's LGBT & HIV Project. "The ACLU of South Dakota has been monitoring the anti-trans bills that were pre-filed before the start of the legislative session," he explained in an interview with Broadly. According to Strangio, there were a total of four anti-transgender bills proposed, and they primarily targeted students. "Working with the national ACLU, I was involved in a coalition of groups that worked to stop all of these bills." Strangio has been directly involved in the fight against HB 1008, and describes a climactic effort that included personal testimony from students.

Photo courtesy of Chase Strangio

"When first asked about the bill when it made its way through the legislature, Governor Daugaard expressed support for the measure and explained that he had never met a trans person and did not feel that he needed to before taking action on the bill," Strangio said. But with young transgender people and their parent organizers applying pressure on the governor, he agreed to meet with them. "After meeting with the students last week, Governor Daugaard explained that the meeting helped him to see through the students' eyes," Strangio said. "He vetoed the bill on March 2, 2016 and sent it back to the House asking them not to override his veto."

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But on the morning of Thursday, March 3, Strangio and the ACLU learned that, despite the bill sponsor previously stating he wouldn't move to overturn the governor's veto, efforts had begun to accomplish exactly that. Strangio said that lawmakers received this message:

"I am respectfully requesting that you vote to override the veto on HB 1008. This is a critical issue that deserves our attention now. This bill addressed the issue by protecting the lives of our children as well as making provisions for the gender confused. Please do not let the threats of the ACLU or any other organization sway you from making the right decision. Thank you for your time."

What followed on Thursday was a debate between South Dakota lawmakers using violent rhetoric and lies about transgender children. "In support of the override, several lawmakers took the floor to explain how the bill that targeted and ostracized trans young people was really for their own protection because they are 'confused' and should be dissuaded from 'choosing' to be trans," Strangio said. "Lawmakers distorted the high rates of suicide attempts in the transgender community to claim that trans-ness was like a 'virus' and that lawmakers had a responsibility to try to stop its spreading."

"This kind of anti-trans vitriol stokes fear of trans people and further entrenches the idea that our identities are inherently fraudulent. When you have people in power claiming that trans people need to be protected by being erased, it contributes to a climate of violence and harassment against our community."

We, as a society, have accepted the idea that transgender people are perpetrating a fraud just by existing and are less human than the rest of us.

Fortunately, the move to override Governor Duagaard's veto did not pass. HB 1008 is dead. Earlier in the short life of this bill, Strangio presented personal testimony to lawmakers, urging them to see that this bill, and other laws like it, are wrong and will strengthen widely held prejudice, ultimately causing violence in the lives of transgender people. Strangio told lawmakers that, if he were growing up in South Dakota today, the chances are he would not live into adulthood. "Listening to the floor debate in the South Dakota House today was excruciatingly painful for me," he told me. "I can only imagine what it was like for young people in South Dakota to hear such horrible things said about them by the lawmakers who ostensibly represent them and their interests."

The codification of prejudice into law is real. Strangio, the ACLU, and the transgender student activists on the ground in South Dakota are firsthand witnesses to the life cycle of a bill that, if codified into law, would cause irreparable harm to a generation of marginalized Americans. This is one tangible manifestation of transphobia, and it makes Strangio think of the anti-trans discourse we allow to take place in less formal environments, such as trans-critical op-eds penned for powerful media platforms. He believes these informal arguments against the validity of transgender identity seep into the halls of U.S. lawmaking.

"I continue to believe that the large platforms given to pieces that "debate" trans identity–platforms, like the New York Times and the New Yorker, give legitimacy to the idea that transgender young people (and all transgender people, really) can be targeted and erased. There is no "debate" about whether trans people exist–we do," Strangio said. "We are harmed by the idea that there are two sides to whether we deserve to be treated and recognized as human beings. When lawmakers across the country propose bills that target transgender young people, and police departments arrest transgender women just for walking down the street, and transgender people of color are harassed when checking into hotels, it is because we, as a society, have accepted the idea that transgender people are perpetrating a fraud just by existing and are less human than the rest of us."

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Strangio highlights the severity of the political movement against trans people today, he says that "there are anti-trans laws and ballot measures being proposed across the country–many targeting young people." Though HB 1008, and other transphobic legislation, specifically targets restrooms, the issue extends far beyond those banal, tiled places to pee. "The immediate consequence of the laws is to bar transgender students from access to restrooms and locker rooms," Strangio said. "But they also contribute to an increase in gender policing across the board and heightened surveillance of people who do not conform to expected gender norms."

So it isn't just transgender people who suffer because of these laws. They're sad, sick measures to transport our country into some illogical nethersphere governed by a perverted gender roleplay where girls with short haircuts might have to flash their vaginas at the bathroom door in order to prove they're not transgender, in order to "keep the children safe." Though the bill's sponsors and other lawmakers often wrap their hateful legislation in packaging that appeals to the protection of "normal" (non-transgender) children, these laws compromise the liberty of all people, not just those who experience this type of discrimination. "The idea that you can regulate access to single-sex spaces by 'knowing' someone's true gender is of course untrue, " Strangio said. "We don't know what someone's genitals look like or what chromosomes they have just by looking at them, and laws that purport to regulate spaces based on genitals or DNA are opening the door to a host of unknown intrusions into our private medical information, our identification documents, and our bodies."

"Sadly," he continued, "as these messages are shared on large platforms and by powerful lawmakers, they are internalized and validated and contribute to the culture where transgender women of color have to fear deadly attacks and discrimination for just waking up and going out in the world each day."