I was excited. I thought they were taking a meaningful stand at a very important time for trans folks and queer folks,” says Ashley Williams, 23.
Williams, a gender-nonconforming student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, is talking about the Obama administration’s directive that transgender students at public schools be allowed to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.
Williams, who has completed a master’s program in ethics and is now working on a thesis for the philosophy department involving the Black Lives Matter movement, immediately thought about the queer kids at the Time Out Youth Center in Charlotte, N.C., which serves LGBTQ youth ages 11-20.
“They tell me that they don’t go to the bathroom because they don’t feel safe, and they don’t eat or drink anything so they don’t have to go to the bathroom,” Williams says. “Lots of schools have gender-neutral bathrooms, but they say the way they have to go is very outing—it’s not confidential at all.”
Inside the philosophy department at UNC Charlotte, Williams has been ripping down bathroom signs identifying which gender can use them, incensed over university leaders’ response to North Carolina’s House Bill 2, also known as the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, which requires that multiple-occupancy bathrooms and changing facilities be designed for and used only by people based on their biological sex. University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings sent a memorandum to chancellors telling them to abide by the law.
“I brought my own screwdriver and hammer from home,” Williams says. “I unscrewed the woman sign and did the same thing with the male signs and left the disability signs on. … I don’t think trans folks should have to wait to use the bathroom.”
North Carolina and the federal government have sued each other over what many call the Bathroom Bill, and 11 states filed suit this week challenging the Obama administration’s directive. The suit claims that the administration has “conspired to turn workplaces and education settings across the country into laboratories for massive social experiment, flouting the democratic process and running roughshod over commonsense policies protecting children and basic privacy rights.”
Williams is outraged.
“I think it’s [bulls—t]. There’s a lot of fearmongering going on,” says Williams, who is also a Black Lives Matter activist.
Earlier this year, the city of Charlotte approved a nondiscrimination ordinance with new protections for lesbian, gay and transgender people, and many African-American Christians showed up at forums to speak against it.
“I was really surprised that they were in favor of the government being allowed to discriminate against people,” Williams says.
But the issue is a thorny one for many in the black community. In Maryland, the Rev. Barbara Reynolds is vehemently against the Obama administration’s directive. The former civil rights activist and journalist says that no one should face discrimination, but people need to stand up for children.
“I think it is opening a door, really, for people who are pedophiles, who are abusers of young children and women,” Reynolds says. “It’s nothing against the transgender people, and I sympathize, because I don’t know what it means or how it feels to be in the body of the wrong sex. But what about our children? Our girls—should they have to look up and see a man standing behind them in the bathroom?”
At JaHa Hair Studio in Silver Spring, Md., a beauty and barbershop specializing in natural hair, stylists and clients alike have squared off over the subject so vehemently that owner Susan Peterkin-Bishop says she has had to shut down the conversation.
“Customers look like they’re getting really upset,” Peterkin-Bishop says. “Some are totally with the mandate, some are totally against it and others are like me, who understand but are still kind of scared about the issues that can arise from it.”
Peterkin-Bishop is the mother of a 17-year-old and 15-year-old and says that her children are very progressive, but as a parent, she is very protective of them.
“I was scared, but not as scared as I would be if my children were younger,” Peterkin-Bishop says, talking about how she felt when she heard about the Obama administration’s directive. “I remember going to the mall with my son and he was young and decided he was grown, and standing outside of the bathroom, so all kinds of things come into your mind as a mom. But I do understand the other side. People have a right to be who they want to be and express themselves.”
But Smoke Lewis, the barber at JaHa, is completely against the idea. He says when he first heard about the president’s directive, he thought, “Where is the love and concern for his wife and daughters?”
Lewis was raised in the South and is very church-oriented. He wonders whether President Obama thought about the kind of danger he was putting people’s wives and daughters in by allowing anyone to go into any bathroom he or she chooses. He says his own wife and daughter are now afraid to use public restrooms for fear of who might be inside.
“One of the things that worries me is pedophilia,” Lewis says. “Throughout our society, I don’t think it’s a far reach for them to put on a skirt or some lipstick and just have these type of field days.”
Nicole Williams, a 29-year-old customer having her locks twisted, says that people of her generation aren’t uncomfortable with the mandate.
“It’s a new world,” Nicole Williams says. “They should be able to use whatever bathroom they want. It reminds me—I’m young—but it reminds me historically of when black folks had their own restrooms designated for themselves and weren’t allowed to use any other restroom, so it shouldn’t be an issue.”
The president of North Carolina’s branch of the NAACP, the Rev. William Barber II, says that those fighting against these bills are playing an old game on a new day.
“It’s the politics of Jesse Helms and the past,” Barber says. “In 1984, Helms was losing and filed an anti-gay bill in Congress … using racial and sexual fears as a way to try and manipulate the electorate in the fall.”
Barber says that the same trick has been used in the South since post-Reconstruction in the 1800s, when newspapers would use pictures of black men who looked like vampires with white women in their claws.
“When they printed those cartoons, the goal was to stir sexual and racial fears because of their fear over a new power base,” Barber explains. “So we have to understand what’s happening. The bathroom bill isn’t a bathroom bill.”
He notes that the other sections of North Carolina’s law include a prohibition against municipalities demanding that contractors pay a living wage, sick leave and vacation time and have minority set-asides. Barber says that it also prohibits citizens from being able to file employment-discrimination cases in state court.
“It hurts heterosexuals and homosexuals, the elderly, it even hurts vets,” says Barber. “So the bill is an anti-civil-rights bill.”
Barber says that pastors, rabbis and civil rights activists have come out against the legislation. And both he and Ashley Williams believe it is legislation that African Americans should absolutely be concerned about.
“[As] black people who have experienced the legacy of legalized discrimination, and have faced the brunt of America’s original sin, which is racial discrimination, we have an obligation to stand against all discrimination,” says Barber. “Because we know once it is codified into the law, we know how deadly it will be to stay alive.”
Allison Keyes is an award-winning correspondent, host and author. She can be heard on CBS Radio News, among other outlets. Keyes, a former national desk reporter for NPR, has written extensively on race, culture, politics and the arts. Follow her on Twitter.