Battle of the Bathroom Bigots

Texas officials are attempting to score points by stoking anti-trans furor. But in Austin, LGBTQ advocates are fighting to enforce protections.

Battle of the Bathroom Bigots
by The Chronicle Art Staff

Paula Buls has experienced firsthand the impact of the current right-wing campaign against transgender rights. Buls, a psychotherapist – and the first openly trans graduate of UT's School of Social Work – has seen an uptick in trans and gender-nonconforming clients expressing stress, anxiety, and fear about using public restrooms, aware of the very real possibility of being harassed while attempting to use the bathroom. And for the first time in her professional life, Buls herself was targeted in an online review by an anti-trans bigot.

"The rhetoric [voiced by transphobic politicians] has the power to incite violence against trans people. It gives them permission to feel vindicated when they engage in that kind of verbal or physical violence – that's what really concerns me," says Buls.

In Texas, the anti-trans campaign began in earnest earlier this month, when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick vowed to promote legislation in Texas' upcoming 2017 session that would be similar to North Carolina's "bathroom bill," which prohibits trans North Carolinians from using the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity. Just a few weeks later, Patrick reaffirmed his stance against trans rights by calling on Ft. Worth Super­in­tendent Kent Scribner to resign from his post after the school district approved guidelines protecting trans students.

Then, when the Obama administration intervened with a letter instructing school districts nationwide to adopt trans-inclusive policies, the state's second-in-command went one step further by brazenly declaring he would forgo billions in federal education dollars for local schools if it meant standing by his anti-LGBTQ beliefs. "We will not be blackmailed by the president of the United States," said the former right-wing radio personality (see "Dan Patrick, Still on Bathroom Patrol," May 13). Adding to the furor, on Wednesday Attorney General Ken Paxton filed suit, along with 10 other states, against the Obama administration's trans-inclusive directive. "Defendants have conspired to turn workplaces and educational settings across the country into laboratories for a massive social experiment," the suit reads. Paxton has promised to take the challenge all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And his boss, Gov. Greg Abbott spoke out against Attorney General Loretta Lynch's efforts to block the North Carolina law, saying, "You're either male by birth or female by birth."

With the escalating state-backed hostility toward trans people – much of it creepily focused on bathrooms – local advocates and allies are working to ensure transgender Austinites feel safe and welcome in facilities around town by promoting the city's own bathroom-related ordinance, which protects rather than demonizes trans people. The real threat, advocates say, is the right-wing legislators perpetuating misinformation and fear among the public.

Hate, Not Safety

Psychotherapist Paula Buls has seen an increase in trans clients concerned about being harassed while using the restroom.
Psychotherapist Paula Buls has seen an increase in trans clients concerned about being harassed while using the restroom. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

In 2014, Austin City Council made this the first city in Texas and the third in the U.S. (after D.C. and Philadelphia) to adopt gender-neutral sign regulations for all single-stall restrooms (see "Unisex Bathrooms on Agenda," Aug. 29, 2014). Motivated by the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ rights organization, Council passed the ordinance (sponsored by then-Council Member Chris Riley) in August 2014; the law took effect at the beginning of 2015. As of then, all existing businesses were required to replace their gender-specific signs with gender-neutral signs and new businesses must have them from the outset. (Multi-stall restrooms are not affected.)

"I can't tell you how many trans people or people that don't identify as gender binary feel like it's just one less thing to worry about. I hear over and over again what a relief it is," says Buls. That's because gendered restroom facilities can often pose uncomfortable and dangerous situations for the gender-nonconforming community, who face anything from judgmental stares to the threat of violence when entering public facilities. Still fresh on the minds of the LGBTQ community is the fatal shooting of Monica Loera, a local trans woman killed in January (see "Remembering Monica Loera," Jan. 29). At least 21 trans women in the U.S. were victims of fatal violence in 2015 – more than in any previous year, according to a report by the Human Rights Campaign.

"There is a real fear among the trans community when going into public restrooms. Your legitimacy is questioned and you have to wonder if you'll be confronted with violence or abuse," says Buls, who also serves as a founding member of the Trans­gender Education Network of Texas and sits on the city's Human Rights Commission. "If you don't meet certain gender norms that are highly antiquated, then your ability to be able to take care of your most private business becomes fraught with anxiety. And with all of this [state, national] rhetoric going on, it's just amped up tenfold."

While Patrick and co. have framed anti-trans restroom policies as safeguards against predatory men entering women's restrooms to expose themselves (which offensively conflates LGBTQ people with sexual predators, a dangerous myth), the Texas Penal Code already stringently prohibits such action (i.e., under indecent exposure in Section 21.08, it's a Class B misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 180 days in county jail). And in Austin, where the trans-inclusive ordinance has been in effect for well over a year, there is no evidence suggesting it has spurred crime. A report requested by the HRC from the Austin Police Department on the number of assaults in restrooms since the ordinance passed showed no increase in total assaults (the report compared Jan.-June 2014 to the same time period in 2015).

"The transgender restroom debate has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with fear and paranoia to score political points," says Chuck Smith, CEO of Equality Texas, an LGBTQ advocacy group.

But, while the city ordinance has been in effect for 17 months now, not all businesses have followed the rules. Some chalk that up to the enforcement process, conducted on a citizen complaint basis, meaning residents are tasked with being the watchdogs. To file a noncompliance report for a business, a resident must call the city's 311 hotline; a business found in violation of the rule is subject to a class C misdemeanor, punishable by an up to $500 fine. According to the city's Code Department, since Feb. 23, 2015, there have been 75 gender-neutral signage complaints, regarding 63 different businesses. Others say the noncompliance is due to the fact some businesses just aren't aware of the ordinance's existence.

Peeing in Peace

Epoch Coffee had gender-neutral restrooms before the ordinance took effect in 2014.
Epoch Coffee had gender-neutral restrooms before the ordinance took effect in 2014. (Photo by John Anderson)

Local LGBTQ activist Melita Noël Cantu has taken it upon herself to remind businesses that the gender-neutral restroom rule exists and is in effect. Joining forces with PFLAG and the Human Empathy Project, Cantu started up the grassroots "Pee in Peace" campaign with a goal of ensuring full compliance with the trans-inclusive ordinance by Nov. 2016. "The city seems to have hidden the ordinance details because there was so much controversy around it, so it's challenging for everyone to get in compliance when so few even know about it," says Cantu, who identifies as queer and is the mother of a transgender child.

Her simple strategy: When she enters a noncompliant business, Cantu strikes up a conversation with the manager or owner and strives to persuade them of the rule's importance. Toting along free posters explaining the code, she informs them that the ordinance isn't just trans-friendly but also assists the elderly and disabled with opposite-sex caretakers and parents with small children of a different gender. Cantu says her activism is effective; often businesses just need the education and they're happy to comply. However, others – including ostensibly progressive independent coffee shops boasting free-trade, organic coffee – still put up a fight, some claiming it would be unsanitary for women to share men's restrooms. In those cases, Cantu reminds businesses they could end up saddled with a fine and that putting up a plastic sign is significantly cheaper.

Her latest campaign success story involves Curra's Grill – after four conversations with the management, the popular local Mexican restaurant is now in compliance thanks to Cantu's persistence. Owner Jorge Garcia tells the Chronicle, "We didn't know about the ordinance at first. We put [the sign] up after [Melita] came in with the poster, because we believe in equal rights for everyone."

"I think what people are really missing in this debate is an understanding of gender identity," explains Cantu. "There is a conflation of biological sex and gender identity, but they are not the same thing. Your head and heart can say something different than what the doctor said when you were born, and that should carry more weight. That's how my daughter and I talk about it, and that's how she explains it to me."

Some local businesses are hoping to take gender inclusivity one step further. In a recent Facebook post, Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League called on the public to comment on a proposed design schematic for inclusive commercial gender-neutral restrooms for the Drafthouse's upcoming Mueller spot. "I don't want to have any 'men' or 'women' signs in the building," wrote League.

While local activists work on getting all businesses in compliance, they'll have to deal with pushback from Patrick and right-wing legislators next session, who have promised to get behind an anti-transgender "bathroom bill," despite the backlash North Carolina is facing from the public and the U.S. Depart­ment of Justice. It's worth noting that Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Spring, filed two bills last session criminalizing trans use of public restrooms and locker rooms if a person is not using the gendered facility that matches their sex assigned at birth – both bills languished in the State Affairs Committee. But a renewed and ugly battle at the state level, stoked by anti-Obama zeal, is already shaping up, leading allies and advocates to prepare for a fight outside the bathroom doors.

"It's an amazing shift to see that we now have marriage equality as the law of the land, but on the other hand, see all this hateful backlash from social conservatives," says Buls. "They lost their fight against marriage and so now they're looking to target an area most vulnerable, the trans community. While this is going on we have [U.S. Attorney General] Loretta Lynch giving the trans community an 'I Have a Dream' speech – it's kind of the worst of times and the best of times."

All businesses with single-stall restrooms must designate them as gender-neutral. Call 311 to report noncompliant restrooms.

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LGBTQ rights, transgender, Paula Buls, Dan Patrick, Ken Paxton, North Carolina, Melita Noël Cantu

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