It’s Not Really About Bathrooms: Why The Trans Fight Is About Human Rights

What can counter the hate-filled narratives that are surrounding equal rights ordinance campaigns? The LGBT movement and its allies must amplify and center the voices of transgender people who are being vilified.

Houston in 2015 was the right place and time: a vibrant, diverse Southern city with a beloved lesbian mayor in her final term and an LGBT community excited to capitalize on the momentum of the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling. In May 2014, the City Council had passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), a city policy supported by Mayor Annise Parker that would expand protections from discrimination, including for gender identity. But due to legal challenges, it went to a ballot vote in November of last year. Opponents rebranded the ordinance as “the bathroom bill,” whipping up fear that it would allow predators to enter any bathroom they wanted. And they were successful: The ordinance was defeated at the polls with more than 60 percent opposing.

Ordinances like Houston’s HERO seek to ensure that people have local recourse when they face discrimination, whether on the basis of race, age, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or other identities that might leave them vulnerable to discrimination. Battles over them have been popping up all around the country. In March, the North Carolina legislature promptly rolled back hard-won protections secured by activists in Charlotte and blocked all cities from creating similar measures. A recent Human Rights Campaign (HRC) report found 44 anti-transgender bills being considered in 16 states this year—more than double the 2015 figure—including 29 involving bathrooms and 23 targeting children in schools. HRC President Chad Griffin, quoted in The Advocate, called this a “deeply disturbing trend [that] is a stark reminder of just how vicious and deplorable opponents of equality are in their relentless attacks against our community.”

Though these ordinances protect the rights of many vulnerable groups, the trans-specific fearmongering perpetrated by opponents can be described only as transphobia. They have created a narrative in which trans people commit abominable crimes, while in reality transgender women are at greater risk of experiencing violence than of perpetrating it.

Even before the Supreme Court held in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples have a right to marry, LGBT activists had been calling on movement leaders to focus on improving legal protections as the next big challenge. “It is well past time for every LGBT person in America to have equal treatment under the law, no matter where they happen to live or work,” Courtney Cuff, president of the philanthropic Gill Foundation, wrote in The Advocate. She noted her organization would now focus on passing nondiscrimination ordinances, particularly in red states. Supported in part by the Gill Foundation, HERO was one of the first such post-Obergefell campaigns.

The loss in Houston left the LGBT community reeling—partly because of the divisions it exposed within the movement. Monica Roberts, a longtime leader in the LGBT community and founder of the blog TransGriot, said strategic errors included not only a failure to effectively address the bathroom propaganda but also a “too little, too late” messaging strategy in the African-American community. Roberts said many activists felt that the Houston Unites campaign, a coalition of LGBT organizations running the pro-HERO effort, was foiled by a lack of diversity in terms of race and gender. “When we formed African Americans for HERO, it was out of frustration that Houston Unites wasn’t doing the job in our community,” she said.

Paulina Helm-Hernandez, co-director of Southerners on New Ground, an organization focused on the needs of LGBT and gender-nonconforming people of color in the South, emphasized that these communities experience discrimination not just on the basis of gender and sexual orientation but also on race and class. “What plagues many gay/lesbian/bi/queer, and trans folks of color cannot be separated as single issues only to do with our gender, sexuality, creed, or class,” she said.

This has proven a hard lesson for the movement. In the wake of the 2008 passage of California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, prominent gay activist and columnist Dan Savage argued that racist gay white men were a smaller problem “than the huge numbers of homophobic African Americans are for gay Americans, whatever their color.” This sentiment became a rallying cry for white activists, despite the fact that activists of color pushed the campaign to better connect with people of color. In the days afterward, one such organizer, Lawrence Ellis, told his story to Colorlines. Ellis had tried to mobilize small gay and lesbian organizations already active in Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American communities. “Not building a true coalition, where you get to leverage existing networks—that is a fatal flaw,” Ellis said.

Equal rights ordinance campaigns are prime opportunities for intersectional coalition-building, and, as our conversations on race and immigration overlap, LGBT organizers should better ally with pro-LGBT movements like Black Lives Matter or the DREAMers. These movements, largely led by young, queer people of color, are putting multiple identities at the fore.

To strengthen coalitions, the mainstream LGBT movement must amplify and center the voices of transgender people who are being vilified. “I would rather invest my energy in the kinds of efforts that focus on trans and gender-nonconforming leaders and support them in fighting these battles on their terms, with their vision and strategy,” said Gabriel Foster, co-founder and executive director of the Trans Justice Funding Project, which partnered with the Transgender Law Center to pilot a national training institute for leaders.

This strategy has worked in Tennessee and South Dakota, where bills prohibiting transgender students from using facilities matching their gender were defeated. South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who initially supported his state’s bill, met with trans students after public pressure mounted. Daugaard said the meeting “helped me see things through their eyes a little better and see more of their perspective.” Ultimately, he vetoed the bill. In Tennessee, a similar bill died in a committee hearing after trans students testified. Republican legislator Rick Womick said he withdrew support for the legislation after hearing more about the issue. In these states, transphobic misinformation was countered by transgender voices.

On May 12, the Obama administration released a directive to every public school district to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity. The directive referenced schools that have already set up such policies with great success. The Justice Department is hedging its bets on the side of protecting the rights of transgender students. That’s some progress, and it’s the voices of transgender students that paved the way for these directives.

The lessons learned from the losses in Houston and elsewhere are not new. These fights show us that understanding multiple, overlapping issues affecting LGBT people is critical, as is the need to understand trans identity. So far, we have seen that trans folk are the best spokespeople for themselves. As we enter an election cycle where racism and xenophobia are front and center, these points will be crucial for the broader national movement for LGBT rights.

Eesha Pandit wrote this article for Gender Justice, the Summer 2016 issue of YES! Magazine. Eesha is a Houston-based writer and activist. You can learn more about her work at on follow her on Twitter @EeshaP.