Historical photo by Esther Bubley.
When I was growing up in Huntsville, Alabama (home of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center museum), we used to take car trips to my birth home of Kansas. Most of the time, we couldn’t use the restrooms in the gas stations along the way. The signs were clear: “Whites only” or “No Colored.” At that time, we were Negroes or colored.
So we carried toilet paper and went on the side of the road.
North Carolina's “bathroom bill”—a.k.a. HB2 or “The Public Facilities Act”—is both a portal back to my time as a young black girl in the ‘60s and a reminder of my current status as a lesbian of African descent who wears ties and is sometimes mistaken for a man.
By the way, I don't carry my birth certificate with me when I use a public restroom. Do you?
Some folks think that if race isn’t involved, discrimination is not about civil rights. But civil rights go way beyond race.
Brown v. Board of Education clearly established that “separate but equal is inherently unequal.” It took decades for segregation to be dismantled in educational institutions, and it's an ongoing issue. I went to segregated schools for twelve years after Brown.
We’ve seen similar protracted struggles for gender equality, interracial marriage, and marriage equality for gay and lesbian people. And now comes the movement for transgender equality. It, too, is fundamentally about civil rights.
The federal judiciary, via Attorney General Loretta Lynch, sued North Carolina over its so-called “bathroom bill,” which requires people to use bathrooms based on their biological sex as identified on their birth certificate. Lynch said the legislation would constitute a “pattern or practice” of discriminating against transgender individuals.
She went on to say that the lawsuit is about a great deal more than just bathrooms:
“This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them—indeed, to protect all of us. And it’s about the founding ideals that have led this country—haltingly but inexorably—in the direction of fairness, inclusion and equality for all Americans.”
It’s about recognizing our humanness and not otherness.
The best response I’ve heard yet is:
“I don’t care which bathroom you use, just wash your hands.”
Here’s hoping that laws permitting discrimination in bathrooms and beyond be repealed, both as a matter of law and in people’s hearts and minds.
Elizabeth Ann Thompson is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.