How Trans Bathroom Access is the Latest Front of the Culture Wars

transgender rights protest
Demonstrators hold signs during the "Stand Up for Transgender Rights" event to show their support for transgender equality in Chicago , Illinois, Feb. 25, 2017. Kamil Krzacznski/Reuters

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Answer from Elliott Mason, trans man and gestational parent:

To an outsider, I imagine that this [transgender bathroom law issue] all looks like it blew up out of nowhere and caused a firestorm of a reaction.

There is a thread of cultural reality in the U.S. that I think most Europeans don't see: the rural/urban split is not just about farmland and sidewalk, or even about the simple economic issues involved in the same split in, say, England.

When it comes to social issues, different parts of America are living at different points in history. You can almost literally engage in time travel by moving around the country.

Los Angeles clearly centers our most bleeding-edge area: things that are commonplace there right now still seem odd to the next-most areas, and are downright bizarre or science-fiction in some further-flung and less urbanized places. The big cities in general have accepted and internalized more of the 20th century's social and economic changes.

I'm not trying to say that small communities and rural areas haven't moved on at all from their late-19th-century mores and customs. That would be nonsense, obviously. But in the 1970s there were definitely areas that accepted racial-equality laws more enthusiastically than other places did, and all social changes have a similar time-lag between legislation and acceptance, here. The lag varies based upon urbanization, in the main.

In some cases this has to do with how you were raised, but some of it happens just from going to college and living in urbanized areas. (See also: 6 Big Differences That Turn City Dwellers Into Liberals) When you are exposed to a diverse population of individuals and make social connections outside of your own background, you tend to move "forward in time" by the standards of the author of the first article I linked. Similarly, living in dense situations makes clear that certain customs that are perfectly functional in far-flung, car-dependent, low-living-cost rural places are utterly unhelpful for city living. A certain level of tolerance and acceptance of difference is vital in city settings.

There are also very strong foundational beliefs about the nature of humanity and how reality works, that differ between more urban and more rural Americans (Why Rural America Voted for Trump).

So how does this relate to transgender bathroom access?

There is a strand of American politics that aims to reach out to, and support the priorities of, that rural population that I'm describing. These people often feel that they are not represented in the media (TV shows, big Hollywood movies), and that their own values and deep-held customs are made fun of, dismissed, or outright attacked. They have often experienced less economic disjunction in recessions than the cities have, but the 2008 crash hit them very hard, and sparked an even stronger sense of precarious economic realities, and a real fear of complete ruin.

Frightened people sent letters to their representatives. If I may be completely cynical, frightened voters are also attractive to some politicians. If you can set yourself and your policies up as stable, respectable, and safe—and, above all, promise to "return" their lives to "normal" so they can "be great again" — then you will secure their firm support.

The Republican party, in the early 1980s, decided to make common cause with the hardest-line Evangelical Protestant "born again" movement. (How The Christian Right Ended Up Transforming American Politics). Their platform's social policies fell into lockstep with what that constituency wanted, and it certainly got them votes. Right through to the present day, strongly Christian-law-inflected policy positions form the bedrock of the Republican platforms.

To American Protestants of the most evangelical denominations, wider-spread societal acceptance of LGBTQ Americans seems like pandering to perversion. They prefer the world where anybody not just like them would smile and agree and keep their heads down, letting them believe that their own private preferences in life and policy were universally treasured by all Americans.

The Republicans, and the hardline evangelicals, therefore fought tooth and nail against marriage equality, and any other policies aimed at full equality for gay Americans.

That fight was lost, effectively, with the recent Supreme Court ruling on marriage.

Instantly, however, the same people shifted their anger toward transgender Americans. They dinned over and over that trans folks are freaks, sexual deviants, and probably all men in dresses who are trying to get into ladies' rooms to commit rape and mayhem.

None of these things are true. But if you shout something loud enough—and if your voters have never knowingly met a trans person, to provide a counterpoint view—it starts to feel true.

If you are already predisposed to feel under attack, with everything you held dear crumbling around you as liberal urban elites grind their heel into your face, well, then, it's understandable to lash out at anyone you come to view as perverted, dangerous, or otherwise utterly unacceptable (but being coddled by those in power).

All the arguments raised as reasons to keep trans people in the bathrooms that match their assigned gender at birth fall apart if you seek data or a factual basis. They have, however, nothing to do with facts.

It should also be mentioned that imagined, hyperbolic threats to the "safety" or sexual innocence of white women have been used to justify attacks on anyone outside the norm for literal centuries here in the U.S. That's why they always talk about trans women in the ladies's rooms, and not the safety of trans women in men's rooms (or, for that matter, any discomfort caused to cis men in their bathrooms, or safety issues for trans men forced into the ladies' facilities).

There are political influencers playing upon and building fear, and social upheaval, and deliberately building of walls of distrust between Americans to build political division.

It's not about any actual trans people, or their safety. It's about fighting over whose vision of America should win: a remembered prosperity we must strain to reach anew, or a step forward from existing problems into an ever-more-just and ever-stronger future.

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How Trans Bathroom Access is the Latest Front of the Culture Wars | Opinion