bathroom sign

How anti-trans bathroom arguments exploit fear of sexual violence to push bigotry

Ed. note: This post was originally posted on the Community site.

Last week, Houston voters rejected the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), a measure that would have provided for comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, community along with a number of other marginalized groups. Although this bill’s aim — protection from discrimination — was straightforward, as Jos covered last week, it came under fire from conservative groups who subjected Houston voters to an intense misinformation campaign.

Acting through a front group known as the Campaign for Houston, conservatives focused in on the ordinance’s protections for transgender Houstonians, and in particular, the law’s coverage of public spaces like restaurants, stores, or hotels. While HERO would have simply ensured that a transgender person could use facilities in accordance with their gender identity without fear of harassment or discrimination, opponents claimed the ordinance would allow for male predators to infiltrate women’s restrooms in order to sexually assault young girls, even nicknaming it the “Sexual Predator Protection Act.”

I was raped as a college student just after my 19th birthday. I know firsthand the threat that gender-based violence poses to people living in Houston and beyond. What is clear to me is that not only is the anti-trans rhetoric employed by the opponents of HERO harmful to my transgender friends and neighbors, it also undermines the broader anti-violence movement.

As an advocate for survivors of gender-based violence, I know that there are no known cases of bathroom harassment resulting from non-discrimination policies like the one Houston was considering. Many jurisdictions — 17 states and over 200 cities in fact — have passed nondiscrimination laws. As the Center for American Progress notes in a 2014 report, “law enforcement officers in […] jurisdictions with protections found no increase in rape or sexual assaults stemming from gender identity and expression nondiscrimination laws.” Furthermore, nothing about nondiscrimination protections nullifies existing laws against harassing and harming individuals in bathrooms.

The Campaign for Houston was grossly opportunistic when it tapped into fears about rape to deny basic rights to LGBT people. Our trauma is not up for political grabs — particularly by the same organizations whose victim-blaming rhetoric fuels rape culture and makes it extremely difficult for victims to come forward in the first place.

These bathroom scare-tactics have a long, sorry history among the right, originating with anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly. She has held that married women cannot be raped; that feminists routinely manufacture false rape claims; and that young women like me should accept rape as an occupational hazard of attending university.

Not to be outdone, the Alliance Defending Freedom, which served as a leading supporter of the Campaign for Houston, “seeks to recover the robust Christendomic theology of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries.” Their vision would take us back into an era where women were treated as property and could be beaten and raped (in bathrooms nonetheless!) with impunity by their spouses.

And the Family Research Council, another group that opposed equality that has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, supports forcing rape victims to carry fetuses conceived through violence to full-term.

For groups that are prejudiced against survivors to call for discrimination in our names is despicable and offensive. Instead of promoting public safety, this stigmatizing rhetoric has the opposite effect: one study found that 70 percent of transgender respondents had experienced harassment, discrimination, or violence in a public restroom.

As a student survivor, I was protected by Title IX, which establishes that rape is an act of discrimination and requires schools to take action to support survivors. Similarly, we cannot allow discrimination against LGBT people to go unchecked. The real lesson from Houston is not that intolerance prevailed; it is that we need Congress to pass the Equality Act, which would provide the comprehensive non-discrimination protections that LGBT people and their families deserve.

Header image: The Guardian

Alyssa Peterson serves as a Campaign Coordinator for Know Your IX, a national survivor-run, student-driven campaign to end campus sexual violence.  

Alyssa Peterson serves as a volunteer Campaign Coordinator for Know Your IX.

Read more about Alyssa

Join the Conversation