Defending our women

05 Mar 2015 07:40

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I'd like to make an obscure, maybe even pedantic, point about the convergence of forces in the political battle over nondiscrimination ordinances in the city where I live. A recent civil rights proposal quickly became a clash of civilizations. At stake in the proposal was the grounds for civil rights lawsuits. At stake in the debate was a contest between the vulnerability of "wives and daughters" and the vulnerability of transgender women, in order to advance fundamental claims about the nature of gender and government.

The story of the battle over the proposal is narratively simple but discursively complex. I will tell the story first, then graze the surface of the story of warring discourses as I understand it.

Birth and death of an ordinance

The story of the proposal began in November of last year.1 A Human Rights Campaign member proposed adding marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender identity to the characteristics protected by city nondiscrimination ordinances. Charlotte is one of only three out of the 20 biggest cities in the US to not protect these categories. The proposed change would give lesbians grounds to sue if they were denied a room at a hotel, or gay men grounds to sue if a taxi wouldn't pick them up.

City council asked the city manager and the city attorney to look into the proposed changes. In February, the city attorney explained federal, state, and local legally protected characteristics to the council, explained the extant ordinance, and drafted the proposed changes. On Monday, the proposal was put to a vote and "the most controversial ordinance [city council] has considered in years" failed.


Prior to the city council meeting, people (many from outside Charlotte) sent almost 40,000 emails supporting or opposing the proposal. Almost 120 people delivered nearly four hours of passionate public comment. Hundreds more rallied in protests. A Charlotte Observer reporter tweeted, "Never seen a crowd like this at #cltcc [Charlotte city council] before." The battle became this week's top local news story.

The proposal was drafted as a shield for people who can litigate. Middle-class married couples with children would probably be its primary beneficiaries. Crystal Richardson, a Charlotte lesbian, told the council, "I stand before you as someone who can be thrown out of a Charlotte hotel for who I am." Edward Garrett said, "This is not a hypothetical debate. I have experienced discrimination because of my sexuality." The proposed changes would have given those two recourse. As you can imagine, their straightforward and reasonable testimony didn't capture any headlines.

They also weren't the subject of the vitriol of the organized opposition, who absurdly framed the debate as solely about whether the proposal would give transsexual women legal cover to sexually assault women and young girls in public restrooms.


"Protecting our daughters is at stake," said Bryan Boyles. Chris Glenn said his 14 year old daughter will not use public restrooms out of fear of being molested. Hal Jordan said the city hasn't taken into account teens sneaking into women's restrooms pretending to be trans. A speaker showed a map of sexual offender homes and said restrooms will become fertile ground for molesters. Kim Moore said she was raped and can't believe she has to ask the city to protect her and all the women in Charlotte. Roberta Dunn of Mooresville told the council, "I'm a transgender woman, not a sexual predator."

By centering trans womens' bathroom use, the opposition baited supporters into publicly explaining gender theory instead of defending the bill on its own merits. Some supporters took the bait, and the culture war between two identarian conservatisms was publicly enacted. In the one camp, the head-of-household virtuously defended his women against predators; in the other, the educated expert virtuously defended oppressed trans women against bigots. Neither discourse defends anyone: they both serve to highlight the virtue and nobility of the defender, and his sovereignty over a territory constructed of identities. Your allegiance is determined by who you hate more: autocratic fathers or bureaucratic pedants.

Defending our women

The "defense of the feminine vulnerable" discourse has deep roots in this country, but reached a pinnacle in the Jim Crow era. In his hugely influential 1944 study An American Dilemma, Gunnar Myrdal wrote that sex was "the principle around which the whole structure of segregation of the Negroes — down to disenfranchisement and denial of equal opportunities in the labor market — is organized…. The Southern man on the street responds to any plea for social equality, 'Would you like to have your daughter marry a Negro?'" (p. 587). Myrdal argued that the popular argument against social equality of the races was based in white men's paternalism of white women's sex lives.2

By directing the powerful fear of rape onto their opponents, the "family values" patriots used the strategy that once justified de jure apartheid to great effect. Their use of the strategy was straightforward and unambiguous. A man's home is his kingdom (and cuius regio, eius religio); a man's wife, children, and employees are his property for him to dispose of as he likes; a man's right to defend himself and the property in his realm is absolute; and the federal government is a competing state. His hostility to LGBT claims to rights are as unrelated to rape as was white planters' hostility to the enfranchisement of slaves and women.3 His hostility is to federally-protected rights that diminish his authority.

How does the "defense of the feminine vulnerable" rhetoric drive current "social justice" discourse?

"A vast nonprofit industrial complex, and a class of professional 'community spokespeople,' has arisen over the last several decades to define the parameters of acceptable political action and debate. This politics of safety must continually project an image of powerlessness and keep communities of color, women, and queers 'protected.'" —Croatoan, Apr 20124

Unlike Richardson and Garrett, whose straightforward comments were about about desiring legal recourse for discrimination,5 Sam Spencer of Davidson lectured the council on concepts with no more relevance to the proposal than the family values patriots' rape fantasies:

"The idea of gender as a spectrum and non-binary is actually quite ancient at this point [but] it's new to many people — including many Charlotte City Council members. However, the scientific and social consensus is that biological sex may be between your legs, but gender is between your ears…. Trans folks suffer every day because of our society's legal and political framework."

Remembering martyrs6 and making your opponents feel stupid doesn't protect the people you claim to speak for. Those are strategies for bolstering the power and position of experts.7 I don't mean to pick on him personally, but Spencer's rhetoric says: it's all very complicated to you, but not to me, so hire me.

It's not about that

I appreciate the people who worked on the proposal to expand protected categories in Charlotte's city nondiscrimination ordinances, and I'm sorry their work got undercut by this vicious culture war. The changes should have been enacted 30 years ago. I'm sure this isn't the last we'll see of it.

My point is that the people crowing about bathroom molestations aren't talking about molestation. They're talking about an erosion of their sovereignty. Similarly, the people talking about gender as a spectrum aren't talking about transsexual women. They're talking about an extension of their own sovereignty. The former discourse is no more a solidarity with wives and daughters than the latter is a solidarity with trans women. In each case the object of false solidarity is used to advance the interests of their false defenders.

Yeah, so what?

If you've read this far, thanks. I made my obscure point. Why should you care? My guess is, because you care about yourself, your wife or daughter, or your trans woman friend, and I mischaracterized you because you actually want to help. Thanks, you're awesome. Don't look to me for all your answers, but here are some thoughts:

  • Emphasizing the vulnerability of women you love might make them feel more vulnerable, or might make other people see them as more vulnerable. That doesn't help.8
  • Highlighting your own virtue or what an expert you are doesn't help either.
  • Lecturing the general public about queer theory and making trans women more visible causes them to get harrassed more often.
  • Telling your daughter that there are molesters lurking in every restroom probably scares her.

Preventing molestation and rape of all women, and making life easier for trans women, starts from understanding the actual situations in which problems happen.

  • About 6% of men in their early 20s have already raped at least one woman. In the U.S., women are mostly raped by friends and family, mostly while under the influence of alcohol.9
  • Life is hard for trans women mostly because of issues with criminalization, housing, education, and employment, not pronouns or restrooms.

Most solutions happen in the context of relationships. People who help their friends navigate the difficulties of life aren't experts. They usually don't even know what they're doing, but they stick around long enough to learn.

It's not a bad time to be a friend. The circus this week has temporarily made entering a public restroom more stressful for most everyone who uses the ladies' room in Charlotte. Without real, dependable, friendships there is no foundation for freedom.

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