I flew into Jacksonville a couple of months ago and used the cleverly-marked airport bathroom facilities. I get the idea, that no one silhouette can describe all men or all women. I get it, as a short and not skinny person. I get the choice to have the women be skirted for the sake of showing a difference people can identify readily. It’s all about trying to make things easier and more welcoming for all people, no matter how their bodies are shaped, no matter how their bodies are made.
I washed my hands and checked my hair in the mirror and ran my hand over the clasp of my pearls. When I came out a few years ago, a colleague who had lived carefully in the closet all through their adult life expressed surprise, not because I had been married to a man, but because when they saw me at denominational events, I always wore those pearls. I’ll confess, I do look at other people and wonder whether they are gay, and probably get it wrong myself, but I never considered whether any of the other women using the facilities that day could produce proof of biological gender.
It’s been heartening to hear from the Episcopal Diocese in North Carolina, and from Montreat Conference Center, and from local churches like Pilgrim UCC in Durham that they deplore the bill signed into law in their state requiring transgender people to use bathrooms according to the gender on their birth certificates and not according to the gender they know themselves to be.
Yet this bill in North Carolina came about with the support of other religious groups. This is no well-meaning disagreement on the interpretation of scripture; Christians are sharply divided on this subject. The bill, which has been reported largely for its public bathrooms measure, also prevents local governments across the state from passing laws protecting LGBTQ people from housing and employment discrimination.
The horror stories about what might happen in bathrooms are just that: tales invented about possibilities, intended to scare people who don’t know any better. Legislators distract from their broader purpose of allowing discrimination against the whole LGBTQ community by playing to a fear of the “other.” They offer up infantilizing pleas for the protection of women and girls as an excuse for demonizing transgender people and transgender women in particular. It’s not acceptable to say, as one politician did, that people who are transgender and don’t have matching birth certificates should just not “go” when they’re out in the world. We’re seeing a phobic backlash against growth in understanding and acceptance, a reactionary effort to turn the clock back to the days when people who were different from the straight/cisgender norms in any way had to do their best to keep it a secret.
I’m safe as a middle-aged lady with grey hair, wearing pearls. No one wonders who I am when I walk into the Ladies Room. And that feels like all the more reason I need to help make it a safer place for all women. This matters to me not just as a woman but as a Christian. We are talking about a human need as basic as the other ones Jesus named in Matthew 25. People need food to eat, water to drink, clothes to wear, somewhere to live, and, yes, places to go to the bathroom.
What can we do? We need to be the people who know better. It may be uncomfortable for many of us to talk in church about matters pertaining to gender identity or sexual orientation, but it’s crucial for churches supportive of the LGBTQ community to show their love and care not only by making statements or participating in marches and protests, but also by looking at ourselves to see how welcoming we really are. We need to evaluate our facilities, yes, but perhaps the most important thing we can do is talk with each other about what’s going on in the world outside our walls. We must invite each other to share stories and listen while others speak. We must welcome correction where we require it, and offer guidance from a place of humility. We must ask and answer questions about basic human rights and needs. We must equip ourselves with a scriptural foundation that supports our position. We must act not in spite of our faith but because we believe God calls us to care for God’s beloved children: to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, to give a drink of water to the thirsty and offer housing to the homeless, and to make sure bathrooms are a safe space for everyone, especially those who are truly at risk.