Bathrooms become battlegrounds in anti-discrimination debate

In this photo taken on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, members of the audience hold up signs before the start of a City Council meeting's vote on the nondiscrimination ordinance, in Charlotte, N.C.

In this photo taken on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, members of the audience hold up signs before the start of a City Council meeting's vote on the nondiscrimination ordinance, in Charlotte, N.C. Robert Lahser, The Charlotte Observer (via AP)

As sweeping changes take hold across America in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing gay marriage last year, LGBT rights advocates have sought to build on that momentum by securing broad protections against discrimination in cities and states nationwide.

Most of the 20 largest U.S. cities now enforce state laws or local ordinances that include allowances for people to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with, according to Cathryn Oakley, an attorney with the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign.

Just this week, the city council in Charlotte, N.C. was cheered by rights advocates when it voted to protect the restroom choices of transgender people. But that decision may not stand for very long.

Gov. Pat McCrory told The Associated Press that the bathroom provision denies privacy rights for people who expect to share restrooms or locker rooms only with people born with the same anatomy.

“It’s an extreme regulation that changes the basic norms of society,” the Republican governor said, adding that he would like the state legislature to pre-empt any local governments from enforcing such ordinances. “I don’t want to have 100 different rules” across the state, he said.

And as conservatives push back, they are increasingly finding that concerns about bathroom encounters resonate more with voters than other aspects of such laws.

In Jacksonville, Florida, a council member withdrew a measure similar to Charlotte’s last week after encountering just such pressure.

“We’re currently tracking 192 bills, the vast majority of which are anti-LGBT with major themes being trans bathrooms and rfras (religious freedom restoration acts) focused on marriage,” Mark Daniel Snyder, spokesman for the Equality Federation, a gay rights group, said in an email.

Charlotte’s ordinance is broader than just bathrooms, prohibiting hotels for example from refusing to rent a room to a lesbian couple, City Attorney Robert Hagemann stressed.

“The restroom issue has gotten an awful lot of attention,” Hagemann said. “The primary aspect of what the council did is to prohibit discrimination in public accommodation. That’s not just restrooms.”

A turning point was Houston, whose city council approved an ordinance similar to Charlotte’s. After a campaign that invoked concerns about bathroom safety last year, voters overwhelmingly overturned the ordinance in a referendum.

“The opposition has really run with this inflammatory, discriminatory messaging, and unfortunately they have found some traction,” Oakley said.

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