Four years ago, Vice President Joe Biden said transgender discrimination “is the civil rights issue of our time.” North Carolina’s blatantly transphobic bathroom law proves that’s truer than ever, but the deeper concern is the formidable opposition to dismantling traditional conceptions of gender.

Illustration by Celia Fong
Illustration by Celia Fong

The Private Facility Privacy and Security Act, or House Bill 2 (H.B.2), was signed by North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory on March 23. The law mandates that individuals use multiple occupancy bathrooms aligned with the sex assigned at one’s birth.
Earlier this month, the Department of Justice (DoJ) told McCrory to scrap the law or lose out on $4.8 billion of federal funding, prompting a federal lawsuit between the DoJ and McCrory. H.B.2 is a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion and sex.

But this law goes beyond bathrooms. It’s a reactionary jab justifying transgender discrimination.

Gender is a spectrum, not a binary. The prejudice of McCrory and the General Assembly members in North Carolina is inexcusable, and it deserves the public and federal opposition it has garnered.

In response to the DoJ’s intervention, McCrory filed a lawsuit this week against the federal government, saying the Obama administration’s claim is a “baseless and blatant overreach” of states’ rights.

But it’s not “overreaching” to ask for equal treatment for all Americans and to demand transgender rights without exception. If anybody is “baseless” it’s McCrory and the North Carolina state government that tried to rewrite the Civil Rights Act to fit their transphobic agenda.

North Carolina’s legislation defines sex as the physical condition of being male or female as defined by their genitalia, and thus it denies the fluidity of gender. People who identify with a gender that doesn’t align with the sex on their birth certificate have the federally-protected right to use their respective public facilities.

The passage of this law reflects how trans people are targeted not only culturally but legally. And the implications of such attitudes are fatal — 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide (compared to 4.6 percent of the general public).
The Obama administration issued guidance last Friday in response to H.B.2, directing public schools to allow trans students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity.

This sends a message to transgender individuals in America — President Obama’s administration sees you, accepts you and protects you. Such guidance could not come soon enough, and other levels of governments need to follow.

Public anger surrounding transgender rights exposes how afraid U.S. citizens are of lives they don’t understand. Proponents of the law who cite concern over assaults in bathrooms don’t understand that transgender individuals are not sexual predators. By making that unfounded argument, they are perpetuating transphobia. Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said that in “eight out of 10 sexual assault cases, the victim already knows the person who sexually assaulted them,” citing Justice Department statistics.

But McCrory’s assault on civil rights hasn’t gone unnoticed. There have been many boycotts, and North Carolina’s Chamber of Commerce has called for immediate repeal of the law. Google Ventures and PayPal pulled investments in the state because of the law. Big-name artists like Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam canceled shows in major North Carolina cities in protest, and the NBA also threatened to pull the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte if the law is not rescinded.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch compared this debate over transgender rights to other points in history when states resisted broader social change.

“It was not so very long ago that states, including North Carolina, had signs above restrooms, water fountains and on public accommodations keeping people out based upon a distinction without a difference … Let us write a different story this time,” Lynch said.

Everyone deserves equal treatment, regardless of their gender identity.

The fight for transgender acceptance is just gaining traction. As the U.S. moves forward on transgender rights and legislation, we must remember the mistakes of our past. When confronted with legal bigotry like that of H.B.2, it’s our ethical obligation to resist cultural attitudes based on fear and misunderstanding.