The hysteria over transgender bathrooms is reaching such a fever pitch that even Americans who aren’t transgender are getting hurt by it.
A Connecticut woman alleged earlier this month that she was harassed by Wal-Mart shoppers because, with her boyish appearance, she was mistaken for a transgender person headed for the women’s bathroom. “You are not supposed to be here!” she was told. “You need to leave!”
The incident is haunting for a few reasons. One is that the woman was not even part of the transgender community, the group usually thought to be the victims of the so-called bathroom bills that force trans people, in states like North Carolina, to use a restroom that doesn’t correspondent to the gender with which they identify. Another is that this happened in a state where such a law doesn’t exist. That brings us to the biggest problem: Regular citizens deputized themselves to enforce an invented standard of what a woman is supposed to look like in public.
This incident, coupled with the troubling trends of anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic and sexist outbursts from the supporters of the possible next American president, Donald Trump, is a window into the political mood our country is headed toward. That mood should be deeply worrisome not only to transgender Americans or to transgender American Jews, but to the American Jewish community writ large.
Martin Niemöller’s famous “First they came…” statement remains a powerful testament to the ability of people to let tyranny happen. But while it gives a nod to the persecution of socialists, labor activists and Jews, it omits the fact that sexual minorities — LGBT people and those who don’t conform to the gender binary — were among the first groups to be rounded up by the Nazis.
Let’s remember that Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Studies was shut down in 1933, two years before the Nuremburg Laws came into being. Headed by the German Jewish doctor Magnus Hirschfeld, the pioneering sexology research institute saw its books burned in the streets while Joseph Goebbels delivered a political speech to 40,000 people. The nightmare of fascism often starts with sexual minorities and then works its way toward other minorities. This history of the intersection of anti-Semitism, homophobia and transphobia in Nazi Germany is now being explored to wonderful effect in the Amazon studios series “Transparent.”
Sexual and gender minorities are particularly vulnerable, because unlike members of racial and religious communities, they are often estranged from family networks. If you were a Jew in Germany, everyone in your family was Jewish, too, but even today, throughout the world, LGBT people flee their families to make new lives for themselves.
In Nazi Germany, acceptance of what the fascists were doing to LGBT people is what gave way to the eventual acceptance of the “cleansing” of everyone else. And, like in the case of the Connecticut woman getting harassed at Wal-Mart, tyranny is at its most dangerous when it’s not only state agents who are enforcing codes, but also average citizens who are volunteering to turn on their non-compliant neighbors.
The optimistic view of these “bathroom bills” is that they are the last gasp of a dying conservatism that can’t accept the growing tide of LGBT rights. Marriage equality, once thought to be a pipe dream, is now constitutionally cemented, and resisters like Kentucky country clerk Kim Davis are considered comical extremists.
But the bathroom debate is serious. The North Carolina state government takes the need to regulate the lives of LGBT people so seriously that it’s willing to risk boycotts and the flight of businesses. Over in Texas, the state “is prepared to forfeit billions of federal dollars in public school funding in defiance of an Obama administration directive requiring schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their chosen gender identity,” The Associated Press reported.
And as North Carolina NAACP president Rev. Williams Barber II told The Washington Post, “This is not about bathrooms. It’s about whether or not you can codify hate and discrimination into the laws of the state.”
Put this in the context of an election season in which the presumptive Republican presidential candidate is winning off unabashed white nationalism. People call for blood at his rallies, the same way supporters of the bathroom bill brag about how they’ll beat up or shoot LGBT people in the next toilet stall.
These people are playing for real, and we need to understand that. Their persecution of LGBT people won’t stop at just bathrooms. And it won’t stop with LGBT people, either.
Ari Paul is a journalist in New York City who has covered politics for The Nation, The Guardian and many other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @AriPaul.