No cities or states that have passed legislation supporting transgender rights have witnessed increases in sexual assaults in public restrooms after the laws have gone into effect. Raising the specter of the sexual predator in debates around transgender rights should be unmasked for the multiple ways it can perpetuate gender inequality. Under the guise of “protecting” women, critics reproduce ideas about their weakness, depict males as assail-ants, and work to deny rights to transgender people. Moreover, they suggest that there should be a hierarchy of rights in which cisgender women and children are more deserving of protections than transgender people.

—Edited excerpt from a statement by the American Sociological Association


Fear is making quite a showing in a large swath of the U.S. It’s amassed a lot of votes, including a huge number of delegates to the Republican national convention in Cleveland. And fear seems to be outpacing safety and tolerance, even as those old reliables remain indefatigable. Citizens standing up for safety and tolerance need to be more outspoken. Will they be at the Democrats’ convention in Philadelphia?

Where are safety and tolerance bills currently before Congress—or state legislatures—to counteract those sponsoring fear and hate proliferating in more than a third of the states? North Carolina’s House Bill 2—the bathroom bill—and related bills (see page 30) seek to impose state rule over individual freedom. In passing legislation requiring citizens to use the bathroom that matches the gender recorded on their birth certificates rather than the one they live every day, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature and Republican governor Pat McCrory have conflated sexual predators with transgender people. Ignorant? Bigoted? Politically manipulative? All three?

Problems began not long after Charlotte, the state’s largest city, enacted a transgender-friendly ordinance. The state doubled down, determined to run roughshod over any municipality independent enough to want to promote fairness among its diverse citizenry. With two daughters, two sons-in-law, and three grandchildren living in Asheville and Durham, I spend a fair amount of time in North Carolina. When I was there in May and June, I was encouraged that every public bathroom I visited had signs explicitly inviting people to use the one with which they felt most comfortable.

Opposition to Gov. McCrory and the bill is growing. Chief among the opponents is the state’s attorney general, Roy Cooper, a

Democrat who is running to unseat McCrory in November. Even those who support the governor have taken note of the huge economic losses North Carolina has suffered since passage of the law, from a canceled Bruce Springsteen concert to PayPal deciding not to open an office that would have employed 400 North Carolinians.

Canadians Take a Different Approach

Meanwhile, as other state legislatures propose bills that discriminate against trans-gender people, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau recently proposed sweeping legislation to protect transgender people from discrimination in his country. The Canadian government is working on a nationwide ban on transgender discrimination, as well as adding transgender people as a protected class under the country’s hate crimes law. “Everyone deserves to live free of stigma, persecution and discrimination—no matter who they are or whom they love,” Mr. Trudeau said, adding that he wanted to ensure “all people—regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity—feel safe and secure and empowered to freely express them-selves.” Is that too much to ask for here in the United States?

(To its credit, the Obama administration’s justice and education departments issued a directive to the nation’s schools in May to ensure that “transgender students enjoy a supportive and nondiscriminatory school environment.” Texas and 10 other states responded by filing a lawsuit challenging the directive.

Meanwhile, relations between North Carolina and the federal government have gotten testy. Threatened with the loss of significant federal funds to the state if it didn’t repeal or amend HB2, North Carolina sued the feds, who promptly countersued. Attorney General Cooper refused to file the state’s suit, forcing Gov. McCrory to hire a private law firm to prepare the state’s case.)

In Canada, eight of its 13 provinces protect transgender people from discrimination and five cover both gender identity and expression, so their new laws would set a national precedent. Why are the two countries so far apart on such a fundamental issue of fairness? Why is Canada leaning toward tolerance and acceptance and many U.S. states promoting discrimination? It comes down to that four-letter word, fear.

Protection or Panic?

Transgender people, along with gay men and lesbian women, have a long history of being conflated with pedophiles and other sexual predators. Gender panics, a term coined by researchers with the American Sociological Association (ASA), gain legitimacy because many people believe that women and young children are inherently vulnerable and in need of protection from men. In dominant U.S. culture, the ASA researchers say, “men—or more specifically, people assumed to have penises—are both conceived of as the potential protectors of vulnerable people they have relational ties to, such as wives, sisters, daughters, and mothers, and a potential source of sexual threat to others….” Such thinking is part of a belief “that men constantly seek out sexual interactions and will resort to violence to achieve these desires. As transgender women are placed into the category of persons with penises—making them, for many opponents, “really men”—they become an imagined source of threat to cisgender women and children. And, as there are no protective men present in women’s restrooms, opponents of transgender rights imagine women (and often children, who are likely to accompany women to the restroom) as uniquely imperiled by these non-discrimination policies.”

The reality is it is the transgender commu-nity that needs protection. The empirical data on transgender people in the U.S. continues to be collected and it all underscores that trans-gender people are much more likely to face violence in a public bathroom than to perpe-trate it. The ASA researchers reported that in none of the media accounts they analyzed “have opponents been able to cite an actual case of bathroom sexual assault after the passage of transgender-supportive policies.”

Deep-rooted cultural fears about the vulnerability of women and children may be difficult to counter, but if we are to advance transgender rights we have to look beyond the fear. Looking to our northern neighbors will be a good place to start.