IU expert: Attempts to dictate restroom use by transgender people likely to become a non-issue

Post by IU Newsroom intern Amanda N. Marino

Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced that public schools must allow students to use the restrooms and locker rooms that coincide with their gender identity as opposed to the sex they were assigned at birth.

Failing to do so, the administration said, would amount to a form of sex discrimination that is barred by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Brian Powell

Brian Powell

“The policy is that schools can’t discriminate against people who identify as a particular gender,” said Brian Powell, James H. Rudy Professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at IU Bloomington.

Because of the administration’s guidance, it may now be possible for a school to lose federal funding for effectively discriminating against its transgender students, Powell said. If a school violates a federal law, it is at risk of losing federal funding.

This guidance has sparked much public controversy over an issue that Powell said is not new.

For years, transgender people have used the restrooms they felt safe and comfortable in with few if any ramifications, he said. Now, however, measures like North Carolina’s House Bill 2 – which requires people to use public restrooms and changing facilities that correspond to the sex on their birth certificates — have interrupted normal social actions and interactions and are prohibiting people from behaving as they have behaved for years.

As a result of this bill, North Carolina has been hurting financially as well as socially as people refuse to move, vacation or host events in the state, he said. It’s a backlash very similar to what Indiana experienced with its Religious Freedom Restoration Act last year.

Powell said most of the arguments in favor of legislation like North Carolina’s are founded on hypotheticals and not real situations that have occurred.

And despite all of the controversy sparked by this interpretation of Title IX, Powell said the public has yet to clearly indicate what it believes.

“I don’t think the public at large is paying attention,” he said.

Instead, there is a much bigger issue to be settled: how does the public at large feel about transgender people and the transgender community as a whole?

Powell, known for his research on public opinion regarding same-sex marriage and definitions of family, said the polls he’s seen show the public to be split on the question. He said a slight majority did favor transgender people using the restrooms that match their birth gender, but a notable number also said they didn’t have a specific opinion.

Powell said he does expect public opinion to shift to favor allowing people to use the restroom coinciding with the gender with which they identify, and he expects this change to come sooner rather than later.

While the discussion about acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage went on for a long time and the consideration of civil rights for the transgender community has just begun, he said this new social front is moving very quickly.

The issue of transgender civil rights was virtually unheard of a few years ago, Powell said. Now it is center stage in political and social debate.

Powell said this happened because bills started prohibiting what had been accepted behavior.

“It’s a very odd thing to imagine policing,” he said. “There are so many problems with enforcement.”

To enforce policies like North Carolina’s would do more harm than good, he said. It would be likely to create considerable discomfort and safety concerns both for transgender men and women and for men and women who are not transgender.

Powell said the debate, though seemingly appearing out of nowhere, may have been a kind of backlash against the legalization of same-sex marriage and other fast-moving changes in societal attitudes about sex and gender.

He said it took a long time for people to become comfortable with same-sex marriage, and this is no different.

Looking ahead, Powell predicted politicians in North Carolina and elsewhere who are supporting restrictions on restroom use will likely soften the language of such laws or lose in upcoming elections to politicians who will eliminate the bills completely. It is not likely that this kind of legislation will become popular.

“In a few years, it’s going to be a non-issue,” he said.

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