'Bathroom Bill' sparks debate on transgender rights

Dental student Nate Hoang, 25 - a transgender man who uses the men's public toilet - was afraid the Bill will make his actions illegal.
Dental student Nate Hoang, 25 - a transgender man who uses the men's public toilet - was afraid the Bill will make his actions illegal.

When the "Bathroom Bill" restricting transgender individuals to public toilets that correspond with the gender on their birth certificate was passed in North Carolina, Nate Hoang, 25, felt trapped.

As a transgender man - he identifies himself as male but was born a woman - he used men's public toilets, but because his birth certificate still said he was female, the Bill explicitly made his actions illegal.

"It made me fear breaking the law, that I would somehow get caught up in the legal system if someone felt uncomfortable with me in the men's bathroom," said the dental student at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Within a week, he started the process of changing his birth certificate to indicate that he was male.

Over the last few months, the issue involving the Bathroom Bill, more formally known as House Bill 2 (HB2), has escalated from a state matter to one with national implications, and from a conversation about which toilets transgender individuals should use, to a battle between liberal and conservative factions in America.

Passed in March, the Bill has become the latest trigger point for the debate on transgender issues, which some say is one of the most pressing civil rights issues of this generation.

Two weeks ago, the Obama administration issued a directive telling public schools and colleges that students should be allowed to use toilets or other facilities consistent with their gender identity, even if their identification documents indicate a different sex.

This prompted a backlash from conservatives, who saw the guidelines from the Departments of Justice and Education as a form of federal overreach. Presidential candidates, too, entered the fray.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the front runner for the Democratic nomination, supported President Barack Obama's stance, but her likely opponent in November, Republican candidate and businessman Donald Trump, said he would rescind the new directives.

He argued it should be the state's right to make such decisions.

Meanwhile, the legal battles have begun. North Carolina officials have filed suits against the federal government's demands to stop implementation of HB2, while Washington has sued the state on the grounds that the law is discriminatory.

Dr Suzanne Eckes, a professor of education at Indiana University and an expert on school law, said this battle will be watched closely since legal guidance from the courts on this matter remains limited.

"The US Supreme Court, which is the law of the land, has never heard a case involving access to bathrooms," she said, even though regional and state jurisdictions have generally ruled in favour of equal rights for transgender individuals.

HB2 supporters said they were standing up for the privacy and safety of North Carolina residents, arguing that the law could prevent sexual predators from entering a women's restroom. The law "simply protects the safety and privacy of businesses, women, and children throughout the state of North Carolina," said a statement from advocacy group North Carolina Value Coalition.

But Mr Joel Baum, senior director of professional development and family services at Gender Spectrum - a non-profit group that works to create gender-neutral spaces for children and teens - said there is "zero data" showing that in counties with trans-inclusive policies, there are instances of people dressing up and pretending to be transgender to get into a girls' toilet.

For the transgender community - estimated to make up between 0.1 and 0.5 per cent of the population - especially the young, Mr Baum said many are "just trying to be themselves with no agenda", and it is difficult for them to hear adults "talk about them as predators and individuals who are out to harm others".

The issue has had economic ramifications for North Carolina. Companies like PayPal and Deutsche Bank have cancelled expansion plans into the state, and celebrities like Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam have cancelled their shows in the state.

More than 130 business leaders from across the country also signed an open letter to the state's governor saying HB2 would "diminish the state's draw as a destination for tourism, new businesses, and economic activity".

While discrimination based on gender identity is a hot-button issue, experts said the controversial Bill is receiving national attention due to underlying tensions.

"I think this is a backlash to what was a successful movement for marriage equality... which more conservative parts of the country are still uncomfortable with," said Dr Angela Mazaris, director of the LGBTQ Centre at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

Also, in an election year, the stakes are higher. Conservative lawmakers are trying to show their constituents, especially those in more conservative communities, that they will uphold conservative values.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2016, with the headline ''Bathroom Bill' sparks debate on transgender rights'. Print Edition | Subscribe