Civil Rights in the Toilet

In his apotheosis of the American experience, historian Daniel Boorstin marveled at how our nation “democratized the bathroom.” On March 23rd of this year the state of North Carolina took a different tact. The General Assembly passed the so-called Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. Governor Pat McCrory subsequently signed it into law. Ironically, a measure designed to foster “security” has germinated much insecurity in the Tar Heel state due to the controversy it engendered.

It seems odd to compare this statute to the Emancipation Proclamation, but it does share an unusual similarity. It’s one of the most discussed, but little read documents in American history. To clarify its content: it codified that in all public buildings in North Carolina a person is required to use the bathroom of his/her “biological sex.” The statute defined this gender as the one “stated on a person’s birth certificate.” An individual who violates the law is not subject to arrest, however. It is a civil act, not a criminal one.

This makes the outcry against the law seem disproportionate. In civil rights terms, it’s certainly no Dred Scott decision. It doesn’t impact people on the scale of the Boston bussing desegregation ruling of 1974. When one explores the matter more fully it does lead to some troubling observations.

The law’s reference to “public buildings” applies to schools. It seems to me this is where the main impact of this ruling will fall. Transgender teens who’ve been living openly as one gender will now be forced to use the same locker rooms and rest rooms as the gender on his/her birth certificate. One has to irreverently salute the North Carolina General Assembly for this one. They found a way to make the most awkward years of a transgendered person’s life even more uncomfortable. That’s not something any legislative body could accomplish.

A number of entertainers have expressed their disdain for this law by cancelling gigs in the state. Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Star have refused to play there. Bryan Adams won’t appear in Mississippi because of a similar law passed in that state. Jimmy Buffett has agreed to perform in North Carolina, at least for now. He acknowledged future shows will be contingent on “whether that stupid law is repealed.”

What I find most interesting about this list of luminaries is that only two of them are American; and of them, one is currently going to perform there. This doesn’t surprise me. As a society Americans’ commitment to civil rights has been, well, an abomination.

Many no doubt remember from high school history class the so-called “Wormley Bargain” that ended Reconstruction. After a contested election, Democrats and Republicans struck a deal. The GOP ended up with the Presidency and the Democrats got the end of military rule in the South. The Federal Government would no longer enforce civil rights laws. This resulted in nearly a century of lynching, segregation and peonage.

It took the activist nature of the Warren Court to begin reversing this situation. Let us not forget that the decision in Brown v Board of Ed was not well received in 1954. Even the President said he wished they hadn’t ruled in that way. (Eisenhower thought the South would close their public school systems. He suspected they’d have churches set up their own private educational institutions.)

Three years later Senate Majority Lyndon Johnson utilized a great deal of political wizardry to get the first piece of civil rights legislation passed since Reconstruction. Even contemporaries knew that as a symbolic measure, the 1957 Voting Rights Act lacked substance. The 15th Amendment already guaranteed all men the right to vote in 1870.

Then there’s the apathetic attitude most Americans take towards the shambolic “War on Drugs”. It’s led to the abnegation our Constitutional rights, especially the Fourth Amendment. These days almost any person who wants a job is subject to drug testing. It ensures that any individual suffering from addiction will be unable to secure legitimate employment. This limits their options to either working in the shadow economy or living on the street. Thinking of this minority, I recall Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do the least of my brothers, you do unto me.”

I recently spoke with an acquaintance regarding civil rights. This person doesn’t have any particular interest in the subject. I said, “It’s interesting that today people look back at the civil rights movement, shake their heads and say, ‘I can’t imagine living in a world where people discriminated against others because of someone’s race, creed, color or gender. That’s just stupid.’” I went on to say, “Today the new civil rights frontier involves lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender issues. That makes the same people feel uncomfortable about the LGBT community having the same rights as the rest of us.” My interlocutor looked at me and smiled. “They’re still human,” he said.

I’ve made many negative observations regarding America’s civil rights history. I’m going to conclude with a positive one. Many people don’t realize that the most lucrative industry this nation ever produced was slaveholding. This country chose to abolish slavery not for cynical selfish reasons. We ended this abhorrent practice because it was right. Let’s draw on that example and show our support for our friends in the transgender community. We must facilitate their securing democracy in the bathroom. It’s the right thing to do.


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