Since March 23, North Carolina has been embroiled in a war of words about the so-called “bathroom bill,” House Bill 2, whose most controversial—and, notably, most innocuous—provision states, “Local boards of education [and public agencies] shall require every multiple occupancy bathroom or changing facility . . . to be designated for and used only by persons based on their biological sex.”
Reactions have run the gamut from the hilarious to the alarmist to the inflammatory. An editorial in the Fayetteville Observer posits long lines at both bathrooms as armed guards check birth certificates and genitals. The website ACLU Action charges, “North Carolina’s law makes it public policy to harass, bully, humiliate, target, and punish LGBT people – especially transgender people just trying to use a bathroom.” Ringo Starr, Pearl Jam, Maroon 5, Cirque de Soleil—and Itzhak Perlman—have cancelled scheduled performances to protest the law. Business and governmental organizations have followed suit; Deutsche Bank and PayPal have decided against expansion in North Carolina; Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington have prohibited official travel to the state.
The issue first arose in February, when the Charlotte City Council approved 7-4 a local ordinance extending to “marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity, [and] gender expression” the protections of its “mandatory nondiscrimination . . . clause” and removing “rest rooms [and] shower rooms” as exceptions to the law.
I will admit that my first reaction was shock—and not a little bemusement—as I thought, “If you stand up to pee, then you should use the men’s bathroom.” Then I began to realize the benefits of the law—to me! If one’s choice of bathroom depends on an arbitrary and willy-nilly “identity” of choice, then I will be sure to identify as male the next time I am in line at the theater or the symphony and the lights dim to signal the end of intermission. More seriously, I had two simultaneous thoughts: On the one hand, I would be willing to see the end of single-sex bathrooms; as long as closed stalls are available, I have no idea why we can’t all share. On the other, if bathrooms are to be segregated, then biological sex is the only conceivable criterion on which to base the distinction. As a prepubescent girl, I giggled nervously when I read the bathroom signs at the Mining Camp Restaurant in the Superstition Mountains, but they were right: Pointers and Setters.
Listening to NPR more than two hours a day and reading a smattering of Internet discussions, I have increasingly come to understand the HB2 controversy as primarily one of language. It is the perfect contemporary illustration of Newspeak as a form of thought control.
The first and perhaps most troublesome word is identity. I have neither the inclination nor the wherewithal to delve into the psychology, the sociology, and the philosophy of identity. However, if the concept means anything at all, it certainly can’t be arbitrary and purely self determined. The media handle with kid gloves stories of three- and four-year-old boys who decide they are really girls. However, all gloves came off when Rachel Dolezal said, “I identify as black.” For using precisely the same language as the transgender movement—“I was biologically born white”—she was widely lambasted by left and right alike. The question in both cases is one of language. Is black a color? Is sex biological? Do words mean anything at all?
I am increasingly inclined to answer my final question in the negative. Another misappropriated word in the bathroom debate is discrimination. Forgotten entirely is the idea that discrimination was originally a good thing, a marker of discernment and refined taste. However, despite the universal change that the law discriminates against transgender people, HB2 actually does the opposite of discriminating. Everybody faces the same requirement, and that requirement is based on sexual characteristics, the most fundamental identifiers of sexually dimorphic life forms.
Many other words have been squeezed and misshapen in this debate, but the final one I will discuss is bullying. The ACLU page referred to above includes a petition to Gov. Pat McCrory, calling the law “state-sponsored bullying.” How can continuing the same common-sense policy that has governed bathroom use for generations suddenly be called bullying?
A 1972 federal regulation relating to Title IX implementation specifically states, “A recipient [of federal financial assistance] may provide separate toilet, locker room, and shower facilities on the basis of sex, but such facilities provided for students of one sex shall be comparable to such facilities provided for students of the other sex.”However, the “Dear Colleague Letter” of May 13, sent to schools across the country by the Departments of Justice and Education, contravenes or at least muddies that provision with its (unfootnoted) insistence that “A school may not require transgender students to use facilities inconsistent with their gender identity or to use individual-user facilities when other students are not required to do so.” As much as I hate to agree with Pat McCrory, this letter represents the only state-sponsored bullying in the current kerfuffle. The other bullies, of course, are the musicians and businesses—and even state and local governments—who seek to use the power of the dollar in support of the current cause célèbre.
After this diatribe, I feel the need to certify my pedigree as a yellow-dog Democrat. I have voted only for Democratic Presidential candidates for forty years—partially as penance for my 1972 choice, when I was in the first batch of voters between 18 and 20. I oppose North Carolina’s restrictive voter ID law, and I voted against Amendment 1 to the state constitution, which passed in 2012 and briefly banned same-sex marriage. However, I cannot go so far as to support policies that twist language and obscure plain reality. With Tevye, I finally have to say, “There is no other hand.”
I care little about bathrooms, but I care passionately about words.
 Mary Zahran, “It’s Not a Bathroom; It’s a Battleground.” Fayetteville Observer 25 Apr. 2016.
 “Repeal North Carolina’s Anti-LGBT Law.” ACLU Action. American Civil Liberties Union, 24 Apr. 2016.
 Steve Harrison, “Charlotte City Council Approves LGBT Protections in 7-4 Vote.” Charlotte Observer 22 Feb. 2016.
 “Charlotte’s Non-Discrimination Ordinance and N.C. House Bill 2.” CharlotteNC.gov. City of Charlotte, 4 May 2016.
 Eric Westervelt, “Transition from Jack to Jackie.” Weekend Edition Saturday. NPR, 4 July 2015. Mary Louise Kelly. “Obama Guidelines to Protect Transgender Children Are ‘Life Changing.’” Morning Edition. NPR, 17 May 2016.
 “Rachel Dolezal: ‘I Was Biologically Born white.’” CNN. Turner Broadcasting Sytem, 3 Nov. 2015.
 34 C.F.R. § 106.33.