Bathroom Panic: How Faith-Based Myths Discriminate Against Transgender People

Christians afraid of sexual predators need to get their facts straight.

In a recent post at OnFaith, Jason and David Benham proclaim they stand with reality TV stars like the Duggars (of 19 Kids and Counting), the Robertsons (of Duck Dynasty) and others to resist perceived attacks on their religious liberties: “All around this nation, states are passing laws propped up by propaganda that baffle most Americans — like the idea that young girls should be subject to men in their restrooms.”

Once again, the Fox Faithful are claiming their personal beliefs are under attack by promoting inaccurate information. In this case, the Benhams are disregarding a growing body of knowledge about gender identity. Just as the American Psychological Association declassified “homosexuality” as a mental disorder in 1973, so the APA no longer classifies transgender and gender non-conforming people as having a mental disorder.

The Benhams, along with faith-based organizations such as Save California and the Southern Baptist Convention, subscribe to a literalist interpretation of the Bible as the basis for forming their views on trans* people — but they might be surprised to learn that the Bible contains characters who transgress gender. In his one-man play “Transfigurations — Transgressing Gender in the Bible,” Peterson Toscano brings to life stories like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40. The early church welcomed this person of indeterminate gender with open arms, so why shouldn’t contemporary Christians?

Reporting by Media Matters chronicles how “experts in 12 states — including law enforcement officials, government employees, and advocates for victims of sexual assault — have debunked the right-wing myth that sexual predators will exploit transgender non-discrimination laws to sneak into women’s restrooms, calling the myth baseless and “beyond specious.” As the DC Trans Coalition aptly observes, “Our opponents stereotype trans* people as sexual predators and try to use ‘bathroom panic’ to defeat legislation that would protect our ability to gain employment and live safe lives.”

Research conducted by Jody Herman of the Williams Institute at UCLA on gendered restrooms points to the severe difficulties faced by those who do conform to the gender binary when trying to access public spaces. Herman reports that such people have “experienced denied [restroom] access, verbal harassment, and/or physical assault . . . in public places, at work, and at school.” For example, Fr. Shay Kearns recounts in a blog posting the stress he still faces as a trans* man finding safe places to shower and use the bathroom.

In July 2013, I reported for OnFaith how the “U.S. Episcopal Church made history at its 77th triennial General Convention by passing two gender nondiscrimination resolutions. . . . Such protections remain unavailable in the vast majority of religious and secular institutions, as well as in most states and municipalities.” (At present, only 18 states and the District of Columbia have transgender nondiscrimination laws on their books.) As part of the education process, the presence of a gender-neutral bathroom at General Convention afforded those present the opportunity to engage in a discussion of gender identity and expression.

Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge is a trans* man who is the Episcopal chaplain for Boston University and a lecturer at Harvard Divinity School. He notes how those with bodies perceived as “different” can make us feel uncomfortable about our own bodies. But it’s crucial that transgender clergy bring embodiment into our ongoing conversation about what it means to be human. Even well intentioned members of the media tend to conflate sexual orientation and gender identity, when in fact these are two separate issues that need to be addressed on their own accord.

In my August 15, 2013 coverage for OnFaith on California’s historic legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity in their public school system, I suggest shifting this conversation away from the line of thinking promoted in this space by the Benhams:

Just as encountering actual gay and lesbian people transformed the hearts and minds of many who once believed that homosexuality was a sin, what could happen if the media lens shifted away from those who use the Bible as a tool to demonize transgender people? What if we started hearing the stories from trans people and get to know these individuals as family members, friends, co-workers and neighbors? Just as comedian, actor, executive transvestite, marathoner and aspiring Mayor of London Eddie Izzard proclaims, “I believe in us,” I believe there exists a desire among many Americans to explore what it means to live as citizens in an increasingly pluralistic global society that truly embraces all in our shared global humanity.

Perhaps then we can see a shifting from damning trans* people to hell toward fully embodying what it means to take to heart Jesus’ teaching of the Greatest Commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself (Mark 12:31).

The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.

Becky Garrison
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  • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

    “Reporting” by Media Matters?

  • bakabomb

    I’d hesitate to label these myths as “faith-based”. They’re certainly no part of my Christian faith! “Delusion-based” is probably more accurate. But plain old “myths” works fine too.