Let My People Go

A history of how bathrooms have been at the forefront of civil rights and discrimination through the ages

By Jim Healey
Reader Contributor

On their 1963 “In the Wind” album the folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary recorded “Tell It on the Mountain” with its “Let my people go” refrain, referring to the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s. Now, fifty-three years later that refrain takes on an added meaning. Letting people “go”—that is, the use of public bathrooms by transgender people—has become a hot topic that is receiving a lot of attention across the nation.

Illustration by Allison Wier.

Illustration by Allison Wier.

President Obama, the National Basketball Association, NASCAR, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Bruce Springsteen, Blue Man Group, Pearl Jam, Ringo Starr, PayPal, and Deutsche Bank all have weighed in with a response to the passage of North Carolina’s House Bill 2 (HB2), a law which some have called “the most dangerous piece of anti-LGBT legislation in the country.”

Obama believes the law should be overturned while performers such as Springsteen have cancelled concerts in the state. PayPal and Deutsche Bank have put expansions on hold in North Carolina that would have created hundreds of jobs. Martin R. Castro, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, says that HB2 “perverts the meaning of religious liberty and perpetuates homophobia, transphobia, marginalizes the transgender and gay community and has no place in our society.”

Legal, political, and cultural issues provide the subtext to North Carolina’s HB2: local rule (Charlotte’s ordinance) vs. state rule (North Carolina’s HB2); minority rights (LGBT community) vs. conservative religious groups; Republicans vs. Democrats; rural values vs. urban values; and female gender vs. male gender. And the bathroom has become the focus for all of these groups to express their ideas, fears, and concerns.

While researching this topic, I came across such phrases as “urinary segregation,” “excreting opportunities,” and “potty parity.” I also learned much about the history of the toilet and the rise of gender-segregated public bathrooms in America (basically a late nineteenth-century concept). Over the years I have taken for granted which gender-segregated bathroom to enter. I looked for the stick figure with pants or for the words “Gents,” “Stallions,” “Hombres,” or “Pointers.” In “Why abolish the laws of urinary segrations?” Mary Anne Case writes that “public toilets are among the very few sex-segregated spaces remaining in our culture and the laws that govern them are among the very few in the United States still to be sex-respecting, meaning that they still distinguish on their face between males and females.”bathroomsign#12

But not all public bathrooms, even in Sandpoint, are gender-segregated. Starbucks on First Avenue, Monarch Mountain, and the portable potties at the Festival at Sandpoint are just a few venues where unisex bathroom facilities are offered. Of course, the largest unisex bathroom facility in the world is the great outdoors. Just ask any hiker or backpacker!

Back Story

In early March 2015 the Charlotte City Council held a public meeting during which it voted on an ordinance that had been under consideration for a long time. According to Ely Portillo and Mark Price, two reporters for the Charlotte Observer, the ordinance was “a nondiscrimination proposal that would have added sexual orientation and gender identity to protected categories” (“Charlotte LGBT ordinance fails,” 2 March 2015) After long hours of discussion and debate, the council voted the measure down 6-5.

The part of the ordinance that drew the most attention and heated discussion dealt with the use of some gender-segregated facilities in the community. The existing ordinance under Sec. 12-59 (Prohibited sex discrimination) stated that it is “unlawful to deny a person, because of sex, the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of a restaurant, hotel, or motel.” Then followed a list of facilities to which this ordinance did not apply: “Restrooms, shower rooms, bathhouses and similar facilities which are in their nature distinctly private.” Before the March 2015 vote took place, some council members removed this section from the ordinance, thus opening the door for transgender individuals to use the bathroom of his/her gender identification.bathroomsign#10

Flash forward to February 2016 when the ordinance came up once again for consideration. What had changed was the makeup of the Charlotte City Council. Two new at-large members were elected in November 2015, and both supported the previously voted-down ordinance. The new ordinance in appropriate places not only included the phrases “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” but also “gender expression.” And the entire Sec. 12-59 had been crossed out, thereby permitting transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding to the gender with which they identified. The council approved the changes in the ordinance by a 7-4 vote.

On 23 March 2016 the North Carolina General Assembly called its members back to Raleigh for a one-day specially convened session to vote on HB2 (or more commonly known as the “Charlotte bathroom bill”). HB2 would overrule Charlotte’s ordinance banning discrimination against lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) people in particular and would also deny local and county agencies from expanding existing “statewide definition of classes of people who are protected against discrimination: race, religion, color, national origin, handicap or biological sex as designated on a person’s birth certificate. Sexual orientation—people who are gay—was never explicitly protected under state law” (“Understanding HB2,” the Charlotte Observer, 26 March 2016).

HB2 was passed by both the House and Senate in North Carolina’s General Assembly and was immediately signed into law the same evening by Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican. David Graham in an article for The Atlantic observed that the voting had gone nearly along party lines: “In the House every Republican and 11 Democrats backed the bill. In the Senate, Democrats walked out when a vote was called [saying they had not been allowed to participate in the process], resulting in a 32-0 passage by Republicans (“North Carolina Overturns LGBT-Discrimination Bans,” 24 March 2016). The eleven House Democrats who voted for HB2 came from rural areas in North Carolina.bathroomsign#4

Legislated Discrimination


The United States has a history of enacting laws that discriminate against minorities. For example, the notorious Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation in the Southern United States were enacted in the nineteenth century and remained in force until the mid-1960s. Besides job, marriage, education, transportation, and housing discrimination, these laws also covered the use of restaurants, drinking fountains and bathrooms.

Those opposed to transgender people using the bathroom of their sexual identity assert family values, religious freedom, and the pushing of a far-left agenda as the basis for their opposition. North Carolina House Speaker Tom Moore, who called for the assembly’s special session, described Charlotte’s ordinance as “the crown jewel of their far-left agenda.” In the article “Understanding HB2” reporters for the Charlotte Observer note that “conservative religious groups within North Carolina are taking some credit for getting HB2 passed into law, and pro-LGBT rights advocates note there is financial support from national groups with similar interests.”bathroomsign#3

Another line of reasoning for opposing Charlotte’s anti-discrimination ordinance was that sexual predators would get access to ladies bathrooms and prey on women and children. Sheila Cavanaugh in “Unisex Toilets and the Sex-Elimination Linkage” notes that “those opposing trans inclusive human rights legislation in Canada and US will often equate trans people with sexual predators and rapists desperate to get access to the ladies room.” Even though there is no data to support this claim—that a transgender person has attacked a cisgendered (non-trans) woman or child in a bathroom—the claim serves a purpose to fan the embers of fear and anxiety among some people. Facts go down the drain when fear becomes the basis for a belief. As Rev. Irene Monroe in “Bathroom Laws Policing Our Genitals” observes, this is nothing more than “amped-up fear-mongering.”

According to Benjamin Phillips in the article “Christian Activist Group Calls for Boycott of Target,” the American Family Association (AFA) recently called for a boycott of the retail chain Target after “the company announced it will support its customers and employees by allowing them to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity.” AFA President Tim Wildmon stated that “corporate America must stop bullying people who disagree with the radical left agenda … Target’s harmful policy poses a danger to women and children.” The phrase “danger to women and children” is just left hanging in the air with no explanation of the possible dangers that might be faced by patrons of ladies restrooms. And what about men and children in their restrooms? Wouldn’t they face similar dangers as well?bathroomsign#11

Where Do We “Go” From Here?

Since everyone usually “goes” every day, bathroom usage is a topic on which everyone is an expert and has an opinion. Couple a topic that is considered private and gender-segregated with such an emotionally charged phrase as “the rights of the LGBT community,” and one has a situation where lines are drawn. In “What the Bible says (and doesn’t say) about trans people” Ellel Cruz notes that “transgender identities can be threatening to many Christians because they are foreign. As with most things, we prefer binaries and traditions that don’t make us question our longstanding beliefs.” Many of us are threatened by what we don’t know or understand. Few of us know first-hand a transgender person, even though we might be standing behind one in the line at Walmart or sitting next to one at the bar in Eichardt’s. And now “they” want to use our bathrooms, a sacred, private space where one can be with one’s own. LGBT people confuse us. They have already made us redefine what marriage is and are now asking us to reconsider who uses which bathroom. Wasn’t life much simpler and better when there were women and men, and the institutions, jobs, socially defined roles and behaviors, and sex-segregated bathrooms that depended upon this duality functioned just fine?

Possibly there is a positive outcome to this discussion besides granting trans people the same rights and privileges that everyone else in the United States supposedly enjoys. With same-sex marriage becoming the law of the land in 2015, such traditionally defined concepts of family, child rearing, relationship roles, and commitment between two people have come under scrutiny. And now trans people are redefining the use of gender-segregated bathrooms. bathroomsign#7

According to Syrus Marcus Ware in a 2011 Fuse magazine review of Sheila Cavanagh’s Queering Bathrooms, gender-segregated facilities “essentially work to order some people into existence and render others incoherent.”

Ware then suggests that instead of focusing on the user of the bathroom “we need to change the way bathrooms are constructed and the way public toilets are understood. In short, bathrooms themselves need to be reconsidered and reimagined.”

Reconsidering and reimagining bathrooms do not address the real issue in this debate: trans people deserve the same rights we all enjoy, and passing bathroom bills only serves to alienate and marginalize them even more. We need to stop being mean to people who are different from us. My bottom line is that when I have to “go,” I don’t care who is standing at the next urinal. It could be Queen Elizabeth, Pope Francis, or Caitlyn Jenner. And I certainly don’t care who is in the stall!Bathroomsign#2

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