Hunter Schafer on why she’s fighting for much more than bathrooms

On March 30 2017, North Carolina nominally repealed HB2, the state’s so-called ‘bathroom bill.’ But the compromising conditions of the deal still leave the transgender community vulnerable to discrimination.

As a transgender teenager who grew up in North Carolina, navigating bathrooms on my own was an extremely difficult journey, particularly at public school. In early high school (during a more primary stage in my transition), I felt safer using the women’s restroom and locker room. But I was often met with compromises, like being told to use a staff bathroom or the men’s room, which was basically a sentence to eternally hold it in. I felt like an outlaw every time I had to pee, as if I this natural bodily function were some unforgivable act.

Later, when I began to pass as a cis-woman, I was able to start using the women’s restroom without question — because I didn’t “look like a man.” This change signified to me that my peers and society cared more about how I appeared than how I openly identified. That same mentality is embodied in HB2, the so-called “bathroom bill” that North Carolina lawmakers supposedly repealed yesterday — a bill that continues to prove the state’s legislature has no regard for the identities of North Carolina’s trans community.

What exactly is House Bill 2? Passed in March, 2016, HB2 states that users of public restrooms must visit the restroom that corresponds to their assigned sex at birth, rather than the room that corresponds to their gender identity. The law was created as a speedy and fearful response to an ordinance protecting trans/LGBTQ individuals passed in Charlotte, North Carolina’s largest city. The legislature argued that protecting the trans community would legitimize a hypothetical sexual predator dressing up as the “opposite gender” in order to peep or commit other crimes. (This was never a problem in the state to begin with.)

Making this dangerous and discriminatory portrayal of the trans community even worse, the only way to enforce HB2 is to profile trans individuals who don’t pass as men or women. Meaning that while some trans people might be able to avoid the consequences of breaking the law — because they pass as a cisgender man or woman — much of the community risks being profiled, facing harassment, and potentially violence. The bill doesn’t just present external dangers either; the internal detriment that trans individuals endure, by being forced into facilities and boxes in which they don’t belong, is excruciatingly painful. The trans community is no stranger to this kind of treatment. Transphobic bills like HB2 have been bubbling up in state legislatures all over the nation. Transgender students in public school systems like Gavin Grimm are being denied access to necessary gendered facilities. And just this year, eight transgender women of color have been murdered.

Much of the media’s reporting on HB2 implies that bathroom access is all that’s at stake — as if the restroom is the only space where transgender people face discrimination. While the fight for the trans community’s just use of restrooms is urgent and essential, the core issue is the deep-rooted transphobia that lies beneath this “bathroom bill” controversy. Transphobia resides at the heart of HB2, a bill which appeals to a public still clinging to the gender binary and fearful depictions of those who reside outside of it.

In the court and in the media, the conversation about HB2 continually comes back to gender expression — a sort of mirror to how surface-level “bathroom bills” have become. The most vulnerable victims of the law aren’t even all trans men, women, or non-binary individuals, they’re the people who don’t directly fit into our idea of what a man or a woman looks like, whatever their identity may be. Our society assigns an overwhelmingly high value to other people’s perceptions of us, rather than emphasizing the importance of our own sense of self. The discussion around bills like HB2 spotlights how uncomfortable so many people are without the social crutch that the idea of a gender binary provides.

Yesterday, the North Carolina legislature made the decision to repeal House Bill 2 in order to make a “compromise.” While it might have seemed like lawmakers were providing instant relief for the transgender community of NC, this compromise produced the exact opposite effect. The new House Bill 142 perpetuates the damage that North Carolina has endured, leaving the LGBTQ community without protections and local governments unable to pass nondiscrimination ordinances until 2020.

Why did the NC GOP go to all that effort just to make an arbitrary change? Considering the monetary impact of the bill is a good place to start. As the NCAA tournaments approached earlier this month, the state was under pressure to repeal HB2 in order to keep the privilege of taking part in the events and enjoying their enormous financial returns. This “fake repeal,” as Simone Bell, Southern regional Director at Lambda Legal, named it, proves that North Carolina’s legislature doesn’t care about transgender people, it cares about profit.

To combat laws like this, organizations like Lambda Legal, the ACLU, and Planned Parenthood have been taking action by filing lawsuits against North Carolina and providing services that help the trans community. Services such as providing hormone replacement therapy or lawyers to change gender documentation. Trans youth have also taken to the internet, using their own platforms to share their stories and spread awareness about the discrimination that they face on a daily basis.

I hope that my community can advance discussion and provoke thought when we confront transphobia like we are experiencing in North Carolina. In my own experience, creating artwork that reacts to HB2 has not only alleviated my pain but also become a form of protest. I have found, too, that it’s useful to simply be a presence and give testament to my community’s existence, whether through showing up to anti-HB2 rallies or acting as a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against North Carolina. Ideally, we can use the state’s oppression as a vehicle to initiate a global conversation in which we are redefining many people’s understanding of gender and making our society a more tolerant space for all.

This “bathroom bill” goes far, far beyond North Carolina’s public restrooms. It touches the founding tenets of our country’s social structure, and the ideas of gender within which our society functions. Trans youth and activists are slowly but surely breaking down the social binary through our own empowerment, thanks in part to the conversations created by our oppression. We are on the forefront of a revolution in which identity and expression will take priority over the labels assigned to us at birth. In which self-identification will take priority over perception. In which gender will fall away entirely.