It’s become common parlance in campaigns against transgender rights for conservatives to emphasize concerns about the safety and privacy of women. The argument goes that if transgender women are allowed to use women’s facilities, then cisgender women (and children) will be more vulnerable to a predator in those facilities. These arguments, however, rely on the same logic trap as arguments used to justify discrimination against gay men and lesbians decades ago.
On its face, the bathroom myth is false, because as experts on sexual violence have explained, the overwhelming number of sexual assaults that take place are carried out by people the victims already know and trust. By encouraging women to fear strangers more than people they know, the campaigns actually make it harder to reduce the amount of sexual assault that takes place. And likewise, transgender people themselves are one of the most vulnerable populations to sexual assault, so further ostracizing them doesn’t actually address the purported core concern. But for people who don’t know much about sexual assault or transgender people, the scare tactic is nevertheless compelling.
Following Houston’s nondiscrimination ordinance fight in 2015 and the passage of North Carolina’s HB2 in 2016, conservatives’ bathroom myths are entering the third year of really being in the mainstream national discourse (though they certainly date back farther). As the myths have been scrutinized, conservatives have tried to polish them more or provide more data that they think supports their claims. For example, during the recent marathon hearing in a Texas Senate committee to consider SB6, the proposed anti-trans bill in that state, lawmakers repeatedly claimed that they were not trying to demonize transgender people; they were just concerned about cisgender men posing as transgender women to violate bathroom spaces. The only way to prevent that, they essentially argued, was to keep all transgender people out.
That’s subtly, but notably, different from this 2012 campaign against Anchorage’s nondiscrimination protections, which didn’t recognize the existence of transgender people at all:
There’s good reason to be suspicious when opponents of transgender equality claim to be distinguishing between real transgender people and fake transgender people. Policies that prohibit transgender people from being recognized for their gender identity requires some willingness to reject the legitimacy of their identities.
The other tactic being used to shore up the bathroom myth is data. Even though harassment in public spaces is still uncommon, opponents of transgender equality have been attempting to bombard their audiences with as many examples of bathroom harassment as they can find to substantiate their supposed fears. For example, last year a video circulated around various anti-trans sites listing various stories — a mixture of cisgender men actually violating women’s bathrooms and transgender women simply using them without incident.
But the Heritage Foundation’s newest report from Ryan T. Anderson takes this tactic to new heights. In the report, which argues against transgender equality in schools and public places, Anderson boasts the inclusion of some 130 examples of incidents he believes supports his case.Many of these examples are easily debunked. For example, after the Washington cisgender man claimed that the law permitted him to be in the women’s locker room, the state’s Human Rights Commission made very clear that the man’s claims were false. The example from the Toronto shelter leaves out the facts that the individual had a long history of mental illness and sexual assault convictions, that Canadian shelters don’t run the same kind of background checks that most U.S. shelters conduct, and that his crime took place before the city even passed its gender identity protections.
Like the video from last year, Anderson’s list also conflates stories of women being violated with stories of transgender people merely existing and not bothering anybody (except people prone to be bothered by their existence). The transgender girl in Minnesota who Anderson misgenders, for example, has not done a single thing wrong; the only reason anybody knows anything about her is because the Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-LGBT hate group, has filed a suit on behalf of some distressed and bigoted parents who don’t think the school should respect her gender identity.
The biggest problem with Anderson’s list is that, for all his examples, none of the illegal behavior was somehow justified because transgender people were protected from discrimination. It’s true that some cisgender men have tried to take advantage of those protections by pretending to be women, but illegal behavior is still illegal behavior regardless of how one’s dressed or how one claims to identify. And there is no more evidence that such stunts are either more frequent or more effective in places where transgender protections exist compared to places where they don’t.
Likewise, Anderson’s epic list (which depends on examples from Canada to fill it out) only contains one example of a person who both actually identifies as transgender and actually committed a crime. Thus, according to his comprehensive review, the rate at which transgender people commit crimes appears to be disproportionately lower than how many transgender people there even actually are in the world.
And this is where it becomes most obvious the way the anti-transgender activists of 2017 are relying on the exact same scare tactic that anti-gay activists used in 1978. Conservatives in California tried that year to pass Proposition 6, which would have banned gays, lesbians, and any of their allies from teaching in California’s public schools. It was called the Briggs Initiative, named for state Sen. John Briggs, who championed it.
Briggs’ primary argument against gay teachers was his belief that gay people were more likely to be child molesters. Often, Briggs insisted that gay people could only perpetuate their existence by “recruiting” young people, the implication being that molestation was how that recruitment functioned. “Safety” was the primary argument then as it is in anti-trans campaigns now.
San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the country (though not the first), was on the front lines fighting against Prop 6. He sparred against Briggs in numerous debates, challenging the senator’s bigotry with his trademark wit. In one televised debate, Milk confronted Briggs’ claims about child molestation.
Milk hammered Briggs with the statistics that showed that sexual orientation was in no way an indicator for child molestation, which prompted Briggs to make this telling admission: “We cannot prevent child molestation, so let’s cut our odds down and take out the homosexual group and keep in the heterosexual group.” Either Briggs wasn’t good at math or he just didn’t care, because the end result wouldn’t be any change in the safety of children — it was just an excuse to discriminate against gay people.
When Professor Sally Gearhart then confronted Briggs with the statistics that heterosexual men — like him — were most likely to be pedophiles, he called that information a “myth.”
Prop 6 was ultimately defeated, and forty years later, the notion that gay people are more likely to molest children or somehow recruit them is considered a laughable relic from the past. But opponents of transgender equality are using Briggs’ exact form of logic to prey on the public’s lack of knowledge about transgender people and to demonize them as threats to safety.
Anderson’s list and efforts like it are nothing more than collections of anomalies. Many states, cities, and schools have protected transgender people for years, if not decades, and none of those nondiscrimination provisions have made people less safe.
To paraphrase Briggs, “we cannot prevent bathroom assault” — indeed, there is no magical barrier at the bathroom door that detects whether someone has ill intent or even whether they belong in that space. But opponents of transgender equality want to follow Briggs’ logic to convince the world that keeping transgender people out of bathrooms will somehow make people safer. Hopefully, such myths fade away as quickly as Briggs’ concerns about gay teachers.