North Carolina became the first state to mandate discrimination against transgender people, including banning them from using bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity. The law guts other protections for LGBT persons. However, the bathroom segregation law in particular is rooted in troublesome fears about bathroom violence that manifest whenever America is on the cusp of social change.
Gender segregation in restroom facilities was originally a response to the lack of any public restrooms for women. During the 19th century, as more American women were in the workforce, men began marking bathrooms as “Male Only,” which left women with no facilities to use. In 1887 Massachusetts became the first state to pass a law requiring female restrooms in any place where women were employed. Thus began a long struggle for women in the workplace to demand equality in labor laws.
By the early 1900s, the term “Jim Crow” had come to describe the institutionalized system of segregation in many areas of American life, including schools, restaurants, theaters, bathrooms, pools, buses, bars, markets, libraries and all other public facilities in the South. The Civil Rights Movement generated significant opposition by whites in the North and the South.
Opposition to integrated bathrooms usually tracked the arguments many are making against transexual bathroom rights today: that the laws were necessary to protect women and children from sexual predators. Today Americans flinch at the idea that black men were sexual predators who were out to hurt white people in bathrooms, but at the time this idea was preached with an almost religious fervor.
For example, whites were willing to defend their bathroom laws with violence. Samuel “Sammy” Leamon Younge Jr. became the first person killed during the civil rights movement for trying to integrate a white’s only bathroom at a Standard Oil in Alabama. On January 3, 1966, Attendant Marvin Segrest shot and killed Younge. When Segrest stood trial for murder, he was acquitted by an all-white jury.
White women also thought black women would expose them to sexually transmitted diseases. In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which prohibited “discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government.” He established the Fair Employment Practices Committee to enforce this order (FEPC). White women protested the FEPC, claiming having contact with black women in bathrooms would cause them to catch venereal disease and syphilis. For example, at Packard, white women went on strike to protest the addition to black women on the assembly lines. While they were off the job, black women pressured the union to desegregate the bathrooms at the factory. The effort, while successful, was also met with violence. (Source: We Too, are Americans: African American Women in Detroit and Richmond by Megan Taylor Shockley).
The same arguments played out when black students were integrating Central High School in Little Rock in 1954. White students claimed they would not be able to use the bathroom when black students started attending the school.
As the struggle against Jim Crow laws receded, conservatives turned their attentions to stopping the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which was a symbol of gender equality during the 1970s. The opponents of the ERA claimed that women would ask for co-ed bathrooms, which would lead to sexual and racial violence against women. Phyllis Schlafly’s anti-ERA organization, the Eagle Forum, distributed a booklet to incite opposition to the ERA, which posed the following question: “Do you want the sexes fully integrated like the races?”
In 1973 a woman member of the North Carolina legislature overheard a male colleague state: “I ain’t going to have my wife be in the bathroom with some big, black, buck!” (Source: Sex, Gender, and the Politics of the ERA: A State and the Nation, by Matthews, de Hart).
The United States is in the midst of a debate about whether transgender people should be allowed to use the restroom of their choice. Those who feel gender is essential and immutable are arguing that transgender or gender non-conforming people should only use bathrooms which correspond to the gender on their birth certificate. Transgender and gender non-conforming people argue that they do not feel safe using bathrooms that expose them to the gender they do not identify with.
A more pressing matter may well be whether gender-segregated public restrooms are even necessary. Caregivers, for example, have argued that there is an additional burden when they discover that the men’s bathroom is without a baby changing station. Disabled people with caregivers of the opposite sex also report difficulty in using the proper facilities. In light of consider the history of bathroom laws in America, citizens should carefully examine their biases.