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Views: The Bathroom: America's New Civil Rights Battleground
by Kim L. Hunt
2016-06-03

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Using bathroom access as a tool to play on people's ignorance feels familiar. I have vivid memories of my grandfather pulling the car over to the highway shoulder during our trips to the south so my grandmother could use the bathroom. Even though it was the 1970s, for her the humiliating memories of "For Coloreds" signs were so strong that she chose a squat on the side of the road over the possibility of someone else telling her where to pee.

Who would have thought the lowly bathroom would become a civil rights battleground again?

Since the historic Supreme Court ruling last June legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, strides toward LGBTQ equality have come under attack by legislatures in 28 states and counting. These so-called "bathroom bills" attempt to bar transgender individuals from entering bathrooms that do not match the sex on their birth certificates.

These bills are generating national controversy. But here in Illinois the debate about the rights of transgender people has been playing out for years.

The latest development involves the Chicago City Council, which is considering an amendment to the city's Human Rights Ordinance to allow people to use the bathroom that reflects their gender identity. Few may know this, but Chicago's ordinance — among the first in the nation to include gender identity as a protected class ( amended in 2002 ) — includes a bathroom carve-out that requires people to use "a public accommodation or any of its products, facilities or services" that matches the sex on their government-issued identification. It's time to bring this ordinance into the 21st century.

The proposed amendment, introduced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel at the May 18 City Council meeting and sponsored by the LGBT Caucus, is backed by the Chicago Restroom Access Project ( CRAP ), a working group of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago's Pride Action Tank. CRAP is working to increase the number of gender-neutral public bathrooms throughout the city and views this amendment as an opportunity for Chicago to stand on the right side of history.

In May, President Barack Obama signaled what that next chapter of history should look like. His administration issued a bold directive instructing every public school district in the country to grant transgender and gender nonconforming students access to public accommodations that correspond with their gender identity. This was a deeply powerful and encouraging moment for equality for a marginalized population that faces obstacles to live as their authentic selves.

Ironically, proponents tout bathroom bills as a way to protect the vulnerable ( read: women and children ) from predators, a notion based on fear and not evidence. In a recent Huffington Post article, more than 250 organizations that work with sexual assault and domestic violence survivors implored conservative politicians to "stop using rape as a scare tactic to discriminate against transgender people."

Even bathroom bill proponent Gov. Pat McCrory, R-NC conceded that there is no documented incident of a transgender individual sexually attacking someone. In fact, according to FORGE, a national transgender anti-violence organization, by forcing transgender individuals into public bathrooms that correspond with the sex they were assigned at birth, the exact opposite is more likely to occur: those who identify as transgender or are gender nonconforming will face harassment, bullying or physical and sexual victimization.

Although it's only human to fear what we do not fully understand, as a society we can face that uncertainty together and find rational solutions — without persecuting a marginalized group. As Angelica Ross, a transgender woman, artist, activist and entrepreneur told The Guardian, "Regardless of what gender marker is on my ID, my humanity takes precedence, and the right thing to do is to prioritize the protection and safety of everyone."

I'm sure the era of overt racial segregation like my grandmother experienced was not far from U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch's thoughts as she stated in response to North Carolina's discriminatory ordinance, "This is a time to summon our national virtues of inclusivity, diversity, compassion and open mindedness."

Chicagoans, let's call upon those national virtues and make our city home to fairness, dignity and acceptance. Contact your aldermen and members of the Committee on Human Relations today to support the Equal Access Consistent with a Person's Gender Identity amendment to the Chicago Human Rights Ordinance.

At the end of the day, this is bigger than bathrooms. This is about human dignity and treating people with respect and equality. It's undeniably clear that separate is most certainly not equal, and we should have learned that lesson decades ago.

Kim L. Hunt is executive director of Pride Action Tank. Learn more at: prideactiontank.org .


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