How Public Bathrooms Became the New Battleground of the Religious Right

The battle over trans people in bathrooms will show us whether the religious right has any power left. Above, a gender-neutral bathroom at a coffee shop in Washington, D.C. (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)
The battle over trans people in bathrooms will show us whether the religious right has any power left. Above, a gender-neutral bathroom at a coffee shop in Washington, D.C. (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)

In 1964, the first national advocacy group devoted to sex education was founded: the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States. At the time, it seemed—at least from elite vantage points—that America was reaching a consensus about the need for sex education in schools. “The organization was as much a part of the zeitgeist as hula hoops,” Janice M. Irvine writes in Talk About Sex: The Battles Over Sex Education in the United States. In 1966, an article on sex education in Look magazine reported, “Backwardness is succumbing as surely as snow to spring.”

The frost ended up sticking around a lot longer than liberals expected. By the end of the 1960s, bitter controversies over sex education had erupted nationwide. They provided a crucial organizing tool for the nascent religious right, as organizations like the Christian Crusade and the John Birch Society swooped in to help outraged parents fight any mention of sex at school. “Sexual politics helped launch the American right wing out of dormancy into a prominence from which they reconfigured American politics,” Irvine writes. Sex ed remains patchy to this day; a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found that less than half of high schools teach all of the 16 sex education topics recommended by the agency.

The long war over sex ed could provide a template for the current fight over trans people and public bathrooms, which is playing out both on the state level—most notably in North Carolina—and in local school districts. Both are volatile because they involve kids, schools, and sex. In both, recalcitrant conservatives feel that a strange new consensus is being foisted upon them by distant elites. Each features an alliance between national right-wing organizations and local parents. If the battle over sex heralded the beginning of the religious right, the battle over trans people in bathrooms will show us whether the religious right has any power left.

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Absurd as the war over bathroom access might sound to outsiders, it’s hard to overstate how serious it is to many religious conservatives. The specter of penises in the ladies’ room has haunted the religious right since its inception, usually invoked as a sign of imminent dystopia. As Neil J. Young reported in Slate last year, opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1970s terrified housewives with warnings of men in women’s restrooms, even branding the ERA the “Common Toilet Law.” For social conservatives, a world in which sexual distinctions lose their social significance is the nightmare endpoint of all the modernizing trends they decry.

“Down the road, this basically blows the doors off of any boundaries in society—we’ll have a completely sexless society,” Jesse Kremer tells me. Kremer is a Wisconsin Republican lawmaker who recently tried to pass a bathroom bill in his state.

At the state and national level, Kremer’s side is losing. North Carolina is being culturally and financially ostracized for HB2, a law that, among other things, seeks to limit trans people to public bathrooms and changing rooms that match the sex on their birth certificates. Similar bills are failing in other states, with Republicans spooked by the possibility of boycotts and lawsuits. In March, South Dakota’s Republican governor vetoed a bathroom bill aimed at public school students. In April, a similar bill that Kremer introduced in Wisconsin didn’t make it out of the state assembly. A bathroom bill in Tennessee was withdrawn by its sponsor. In South Carolina, a bill modeled after HB2 was defeated in the state Senate.

Meanwhile, on April 19, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a trans boy could sue his school under Title IX for barring him from the boy’s bathroom. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, wants nothing to do with the issue and has called North Carolina’s bathroom bill a mistake. “People go, they use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate, there has been so little trouble,” Trump said of the pre-HB2 status quo. Ted Cruz thought he could use Trump’s uncharacteristic tolerance against him—starting April 22, he ran an ad asking, “Should a grown man pretending to be a woman be allowed to use the women’s restroom? The same restroom used by your daughter? Your wife? Donald Trump thinks so.” Cruz’s decisive defeat in Indiana on Tuesday showed how well that worked.

Yet despite repeated failures, this issue is roiling grassroots religious conservatives, some of whom had been in a slump since their rout on gay marriage. “There’s a sense that that battle is lost, but that energy remains,” says Cathryn Oakley, senior legislative counsel at the Human Rights Campaign. “I think that energy has unfortunately been diverted in the direction of attacking trans people, specifically trans kids, but also trans adults.”

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