Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What's Going On In Charlotte?

"The fear was so thick you could cut it with a knife." 

Bree Catlin was attending the Charlotte City Council meeting (Monday March 2nd) for the big debate over the city's proposed LGBT Non-Discrimination Ordinance.  Bree, like many of the attendees and several of the speakers at the meeting, is transgender.  As a transgender woman, a key provision of the ordinance relates directly to her ability to live her life normally, at work and in other public places in the city.

Bree could feel the hate that entire night.  In the crowded chamber, she was hit several times by cardboard signs held by the people behind her.  The signs read "Don't Do It Charlotte," and were held by some of the estimated 60% of attendees who opposed the ordinance.  After striking her with the signs, some rudely proclaimed "Oops, sorry sir."  Bree said that she didn't get hurt so she ignored it.

*****

Janice Covington Allison was running 45 minutes late when she arrived at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center for the controversial city council meeting.  Once inside, it didn't take long for controversy to find Janice.  It caught up with her in (of all places) the restroom.

Janice was scheduled to be one of the speakers that night and was in the women's restroom fixing her hair before the meeting, when a Charlotte policewoman walked in and asked her to leave.  As she was being escorted out of the restroom Janice was told a woman had complained to the police about Janice being in the restroom with her and her two kids.

As a member of the coalition backing Charlotte's proposed non discrimination ordinance, Janice is a proud transgender woman and activist.  She's on the front line of the struggle for transgender rights.  The night of the meeting her involvement in that struggle put her in a situation that impeded her rights to a basic function of society, using the restroom.  Thank goodness she didn't face legal charges.

*****

The council meeting that night in Charlotte was for public comments, then a vote on an expansion of the city's nondiscrimination ordinance to include sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity to a list of protected groups. It also would prohibit discrimination based on someone’s marital and familial status. 

In listening to the almost 5 hours hours of public testimony it became clear that the greatest complaint about the ordinance, in the minds of its detractors, was the "bathroom provision."  This was the provision that would allow trans people to use the bathroom in which they feel more comfortable. 

Speaker after speaker came to the microphone to proclaim how this ordinance could endanger women and young girls when using public restrooms.  Most of this fear mongering centered around the fact that a man could claim to be transgender just to use the women's room, presumably for sinister reasons.  While no one on either side of the debate wants that scenario to occur (and in fact that is just as rare in places where trans people are allowed to use gender appropriate public facilities as it is when they are legally required to use the facility of their birth gender), this mass of testimony seemed an effective smokescreen.

Janice told me she proposed to the committee that the bathroom ordinance be specific to transgender people who are medically transitioning from one gender to another.  These people would likely have identification matching their gender presentation or a letter from their psychologist or physician stating they were in transition and should be allowed to use public facilities in which they felt more comfortable, or appropriate for them. 

The committee chose a broader approach, to allow any trans person to use the restroom of their choice regardless of their documentation or presentation.  Considering that all transgender people may not look like typical males or females (and there is a broad range of identities under the transgender umbrella), the committee took the high road of maximum inclusiveness.  

Janice warned the planning committee that the ordinance would not pass with such a provision, and she was right.  Janice also wanted the inclusiveness but just didn't think it would pass.  Perhaps she knows the political atmosphere in the bible belt all too well.
The Charlotte City Council voted 6-5 that evening to reject the ordinance.  Two Democrats switched sides and voted with the Republicans in opposition after the council approved a compromise that would have excluded restrooms, locker rooms, showers, and changing rooms from the proposed non-discrimination protections.  Apparently they were going to wait until the whole enchilada was back on the table.


*****

Watching the hours of testimony and seeing the newspaper pictures the next day told the rest of the story.  Bree Caitlin was in one of those pictures in which someone behind her appears to be staring at her, in her words, "with daggers."  Bree also mentioned that "The Benhams and their tribe sent in the kids with instructions to run out screaming about a man in the restroom.  They staged it so that a speaker could use in as anti trans stuff." 

The Benhams are a "Christian" activist family whose members were vocally protesting the ordinance that night.  Apparently when Janice Covington Allison was confronted in the bathroom it was because of a complaint by the Benhams.  Knowing who Janice was, when she entered the women's restroom they sent a lady in with two kids and a video camera while another alerted the police.  They were looking for a confrontation.  Luckily they didn't get one that night besides the organized speakers expressing their sentiments, and the vote itself.

While there were more people speaking out against the ordinance than for it, signs saying "Don't Discriminate Charlotte" seemed almost as prevalent as those that read "Don't Do It Charlotte."  Many spoke in favor of the ordinance, and non discrimination in general.  One of the speakers referred to Bree Caitlin as "Auntie Bree" and proclaimed that her family member was not a predator.  "She's a brave soul seeking justice in a world that tries to destroy her." 

Bree herself stated after the vote that she had been backing off her role in activism but now she is standing up and speaking up.  Janice has
since been elected Chair of Precinct #29 of the North Carolina Democratic Party and promises to continue the fight in the political arena for LGBT (which includes Transgender) rights.



*****

So, that's what's going on in Charlotte.  What's going on in the rest of the country?  In many places it's even worse.  States including Texas and Florida are proposing ordinances specifically targeting transgender bathroom rights.  They aren't just voting against expanding stated rights but actively seeking to take these rights away.

Some people may ask why all this matters.  Well, it matters because in order to function normally in society All people need access to public restrooms. 

Some trans people ask how this applies to them, if they have "their papers" or are among the fortunate of us who can "pass" as their true gender.  Well, that matters because some of these proposed laws, including the one in Texas which states that "people should use the restrooms matching their gender assigned at birth."  I suppose if you are lucky enough to have your birth certificate changed you would probably be ok, but technically not ok according to how some of the laws are being written.

We should also stand up for the rights of everyone.  One thing that is not often stated is that there are existing laws, strong laws, against people using Any restroom for the purpose of attack or sexual predation.  This is simply not the case when it comes to transgender people using the restroom they identify with. 

As some have stated, "Let them pee!!"