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      Death Threats and 'Crazy Fucking People': Being Trans in the Age of Bathroom Bills

      Death Threats and 'Crazy Fucking People': Being Trans in the Age of Bathroom Bills Death Threats and 'Crazy Fucking People': Being Trans in the Age of Bathroom Bills Death Threats and 'Crazy Fucking People': Being Trans in the Age of Bathroom Bills
      A sign protesting a recent North Carolina law restricting transgender bathroom access adorns the bathroom stalls at the 21C Museum Hotel in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

      Lgbt

      Death Threats and 'Crazy Fucking People': Being Trans in the Age of Bathroom Bills

      By Erika Eichelberger

      In 1996, Erica Lachowitz was assaulted while walking in downtown Manhattan. A group of drunk men tore off her dress, her underwear, and her wig, stepped on her face, and kicked her in the ribs, fracturing them. She recalled that when the police arrived, one of the officers told her: "You wouldn't have had this happen to you if you weren't wearing a dress and trying to fool men."

      Lachowitz, a transgender woman, now lives in North Carolina. She has not been physically assaulted since the attack in New York, but she says she has heard it all — insults, death threats, and "a lot of bad words in all languages." She told VICE News that she has PTSD, and that she always leaves her car running until the garage door is completely shut. She keeps her "head on a swivel, knowing where the exits are."

      On March 23, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed into law House Bill 2, which mandates that people only use public bathrooms that correspond to the gender they were assigned at birth. Conservative lawmakers sold the measure to the public with horror stories about male sexual predators in women's bathrooms. Since the law took effect, Lachowitz said she's had to be even more vigilant about keeping herself and her 8-year-old daughter safe.

      "I'm not going into a restroom where I'll get my ass kicked... we live in an area where I don't discount that there's crazy fucking people," she said.

      North Carolina isn't the only state where LGBT rights are under attack. Around the country, lawmakers have pushed legislation similar to HB2 by stoking fears about transgender Americans.

      Related: Transgender People in Canada Are Getting New Human Rights Protections Next Week

      The US Supreme Court ruling last June that said the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage triggered a conservative backlash that has included hundreds of bills aimed at attacking marriage equality from new angles, curtailing protections around employment and public facilities, and further eroding LGBT rights. Altogether, 44 bills this year have specifically targeted trans people, more than double the number introduced by state lawmakers in 2015.

      LGBT advocates say right-wing lawmakers have honed in on transgender provisions — particularly the right to access public restrooms — as a way to scare Americans into approving the rollback of rights for the broader queer community.

      "Most Americans at this point will tell you that they know a gay person, but most Americans don't know a trans person," said Kasey Suffredini, manager of the Transgender Freedom Project at the LGBT rights group Freedom for All Americans. "We have seen a renewed and ginned up attempt to leverage really dangerous and harmful stereotypes and myths about who transgender people are in order to prevent further LGBT progress."

      * * *

      North Carolina's so-called "bathroom bill" was a response to a local ordinance in Charlotte, the state's largest city, which allowed transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. The measure also banned discrimination against LGBT people, a move that was deemed necessary because federal law does not yet explicitly protect against all forms of discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.

      The fallout from HB2 has been swift and far-reaching. Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, and other artists protested by cancelling performances in North Carolina, several major corporations threatened to stop doing business in the state, and, most significantly, the Department of Justice (DOJ) threatened to take legal action and withhold federal funding unless McCrory, a Republican, used his powers as governor to block the law from being implemented.

      On May 9, North Carolina preemptively sued the federal government for attempting to intervene, with McCrory accusing the Obama administration of "baseless and blatant overreach." Hours later, the DOJ announced its own lawsuit, claiming that HB2 violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibits discrimination based on a person's sex, as well as other federal laws. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups have also sued, and asked a federal judge to block the measure until a court decides whether it is constitutional.

      North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

      Attorney General Loretta Lynch made it clear that the feds view the fight against North Carolina's law as emblematic of a larger struggle for LGBT equality. "This action is about a great deal more than bathrooms," Lynch said. "This is about dignity and respect we afford our citizens."

      McCrory did not respond to a request for comment from VICE News about HB2.

      On May 13, the Obama administration went a step further and issued a directive ordering public schools around the country to let students use restrooms according to their gender identity. While the order is not legally binding, schools could risk losing federal funding if they don't comply. "There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex," Lynch said in a statement that accompanied the directive.

      Related: Obama Administration Orders Schools to Let Transgender Students Use Bathrooms of Their Choice

      North Carolina state legislators looking to whip up support for HB2 focused almost solely on the trans provisions in the legislation. McCrory and fellow Republicans fear-mongered about men threatening women and children in female bathrooms, even though trans people have been using the bathroom that matches their identity for decades.

      'I'm not going into a restroom where I'll get my ass kicked... we live in an area where I don't discount that there's crazy fucking people.'

      "[The Charlotte ordinance] would have allowed a man to go into a bathroom, locker or any changing facility, where women are... Obviously there is the security risk of a sexual predator," Republican State House Speaker Tim Moore said in March.

      Conservative lawmakers in Texas used similar rhetoric last year to defeat a wide-ranging anti-discrimination measure in Houston. The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), passed by the city council in 2014, prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and a wide range of other characteristics. Last fall, religious conservatives in the state mounted a fierce campaign to repeal the measure, using the slogan "Keep men out of women's bathrooms." TV ads warned that the civil rights measure would allow male sexual predators into women's restrooms. HERO ended up failing by a wide margin, with more than 60 percent of voters opposing it.

      "They took it all away, all on the theory of protecting people from trans people," Suffredini said. "It's clear their agenda is much larger."

      Speaking last week at the state's Republican party convention, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said he has been talking with McCrory about how to fight the DOJ over the HB2 lawsuit, and announced that he'd like to see similar legislation passed in Texas.

      Related: The Feds and North Carolina Are Suing Each Other Over the State's Anti-LGBT Law

      "Obama is turning bathrooms into courtroom issues. I want you to know, I am working with the governor of North Carolina, and we are going to fight back," Abbott said, adding, "Our country is in crisis, and Texas must lead the way forward."

      In Pennsylvania and Indiana, where activists are pressing for progressive non-discrimination reforms that would protect the entire LGBT community, the only pushback has been against provisions allowing trans people access to bathrooms, according to Freedom for All Americans, which is working with groups in those states. In Washington state, opponents of a longstanding comprehensive non-discrimination law are trying to repeal it by focusing their messaging solely on transgender provisions.

      "Unfortunately, our opponents took the momentum they had around trying to prevent marriage equality and are now focusing on the trans community," said Cathryn Oakley, senior legal counsel at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest LGBT civil rights advocacy group in the country. "Many of them see this as the next front in the culture wars."

      * * *

      So far in 2016, state lawmakers have introduced roughly 200 anti-LGBT bills, up from more than 115 a year ago, according to the ACLU and HRC. The hate written into those bills is spilling out of state capitols and into the general public. Over the past six months, at least eight public figures around the country — including legislators, a sheriff, and a board of education member — have publicly threatened violence against transgender Americans who use the bathroom that is correct for them.

      In North Carolina, some trans people now fear for their lives whenever they step outside. Austin Fonville, a 48-year-old transgender man living in Beaufort County, North Carolina, has been assaulted multiple times in the past few years. But the recent climate of hate is like nothing he has experienced before. When he spoke to VICE News, he was still nursing a missing tooth and a bleeding abscess in his mouth from an attack.

      Fonville — who is the student government president at his community college — recalled how at a recent dinner with college board members, one person, who had been friendly to him before HB2 passed, leaned over and pointed her finger in his face. "We are disgusted [with] all the lies you people have been telling," Fonville remembers the board member saying, "We know that this is opening the door to pedophiles and sex offenders to come into the bathroom."

      As Mother Jones reported in April, the pace at which anti-trans bathroom bills have proliferated across the US — and the fact that they often use similar or identical language — suggests that the legislation stems from a coordinated campaign. A network of conservative lawyers called the Alliance for Defending Freedom (ADF) has proposed model legislation to state assemblies outlining restrictions on transgender access to bathrooms, and it appears that many state lawmakers have copied the group's boilerplate language in drafting their proposals.

      'We know that this is opening the door to pedophiles and sex offenders to come into the bathroom.'

      ADF said in a statement that it has "worked with officials in many states to enact reasonable policies that...do not violate anyone's right to privacy," and admits that its bathroom bill operation is "effective and seemingly ubiquitous." But the group also painted its efforts as insignificant.

      "Only through the painstaking fabrication of an alternate reality can a group like ADF be seen as the 'big dog' in this battle," the statement said. "Not only are outfits like HRC and the ACLU flush with cash and very active wherever ADF operates, the opposition to girls' and women's locker room privacy includes the full force of the $4 trillion federal government, nearly the entire roll call of Fortune 500 companies, Big Media, Big Entertainment, and Charles Barkley J, among others."

      Related: America's Largest LGBT Advocacy Group Endorses Clinton, Divides Community

      The bathroom has long been a locus of the fight for civil rights — a place used to limit participation in the public sphere for people of color, women, and those with disabilities. Today, the myth that transgender women — or men posing as transgender women — present a danger to women and girls in bathrooms has become a very effective tool for the right in socially conservative states like North Carolina. A recent poll found that 49 percent of voters in the state support laws to restrict transgender bathroom access, but 57 percent of Americans nationwide are opposed to them.

      The ACLU, HRC, and the National Center for Transgender Equality have affirmed that there is no statistical evidence of violence to justify anti-trans bathroom bills. More than 250 of the leading sexual assault and domestic violence organizations in the US have condemned North Carolina's HB2. (Ironically, one of the co-sponsors of Tennessee's recent bathroom bill was found by the state attorney general to have allegedly sexually harassed multiple women. His bill has since been withdrawn.)

      US Attorney General Loretta Lynch speaks to the media about the Justice Department's countersuit against North Carolina over that state's new anti-LGBT laws. (Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

      What anti-trans bills actually do is increase the threat of harassment and assault for trans people — both inside and outside of public bathrooms, according to Kris Hayashi, a transgender man and executive director of the Transgender Law Center. "Regardless of whether these laws are passed or not," he said, "the impact on trans people who are already facing such disproportionate rates of violence is very detrimental."

      Last year, more than 20 transgender women — mostly women of color — were murdered across the US, the most on record. (Data on murders of trans people is unreliable since police often misidentify victims' genders, and some states do not even collect data on hate crimes against trans people.) HB2 appears to be affecting suicide rates as well. Since passage of the law, the call volume for the Trans Lifeline, a national suicide hotline, has doubled.

      Lachowitz, the transgender woman who was assaulted in Manhattan and later moved to North Carolina, has attempted suicide twice. She said that last year, eight of her friends in the trans community took their own lives. "Giving trans people legitimacy to live," she said, and allowing them to go about their lives like other Americans, would put "a pretty big dent in the suicide numbers."

      Related: Why a Trans Woman Burned a Rainbow Pride Flag

      She and other advocates believe that in the end, bathroom laws that attempt to isolate trans folks and weaponize them against the rest of the LGBT community will end up working in their favor. That's what seems to be happening already in North Carolina.

      Not only has the fight against HB2 brought the LGBT community closer together, it has strengthened ties between civil rights groups across the state, according to Allison Scott, a trans woman and advocate living in Asheville. "I was in a meeting today with the NAACP, a women's violence group, faith-based organizations, lesbian and gay organizations, and the trans community, all sitting in room talking about what we're doing to fight these laws," she said. "It's incredible the intersectionality of laws like this and I love it."

      'At the end of the day, we're all human and we all need to use the bathroom because that's what people do.'

      "History proves that anytime you take a group of people and pass laws to 'other' them, to put them in restricted spaces," she added, "you will lose."

      In February, after South Dakota became the first state to pass a bathroom bill, Republican Governor Dennis Daugaard agreed to meet with a group of young trans people before signing it into law, as he was expected to do.

      "I tried to bring home that, at the end of the day, we're all human and we all need to use the bathroom because that's what people do," 18-year old Thomas Lewis said of the meeting.

      Daugaard ended up vetoing the legislation.

      It's unclear whether McCrory will eventually be swayed in the same way. Lachowitz said the governor met with several trans activists for the first time over the weekend, but that he would not allow participants to record the discussion. And unlike Daugaard's meeting, McCrory's received very little coverage in the press.

      Lachowitz, who is helping lead the anti-HB2 movement, said she has asked McCrory multiple times for a meeting, but his office has declined. She's scheduled to meet with state lawmakers this week, and said the governor ought to take the chance to speak with her then.

      "It'd be good press for him to get on national TV with me; I'm going to look nice," she said. "I'd ask him really hard questions that he wouldn't be able to avoid. The sooner he can figure it out, the better we all are — he's going to lose anyway."

      Follow Erika Eichelberger on Twitter: @eichelberger_e

      Topics: lgbt, trans, transgender, bathroom bill, north carolina, hb2, house bill 2, pat mccrory

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