Bathroom Words

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.[1] 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.”[2] 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[3] 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.[4]

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[5]. 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”[6]—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.”[7]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.


[1] Mary Zahran, “It’s Not a Bathroom; It’s a Battleground.” Fayetteville Observer 25 Apr. 2016.

[2] “Repeal North Carolina’s Anti-LGBT Law.” ACLU Action. American Civil Liberties Union, 24 Apr. 2016.

[3] Steve Harrison, “Charlotte City Council Approves LGBT Protections in 7-4 Vote.” Charlotte Observer 22 Feb. 2016.

[4] “Charlotte’s Non-Discrimination Ordinance and N.C. House Bill 2.” City of Charlotte, 4 May 2016.

[5] 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.

[6] “Rachel Dolezal: ‘I Was Biologically Born white.’” CNN. Turner Broadcasting Sytem, 3 Nov. 2015.

[7] 34 C.F.R. § 106.33.

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2 Responses to Bathroom Words

  1. Jim Chambers says:


    Let’s face it – H2B does battle against itself due to the wording, and also makes itself totally unenforceable. The law says people have to use the bathroom that matches the sex denoted on their birth certificate… so, what do we do with post-operative transsexuals? They have an original birth certificate that says male, but their current genitalia says female – or vice versa, female on certificate and current plumbing male (not to mention accompanying chest and facial hair). Since anyone who knows such an individual will be gossiping with regard to them, probably within earshot of the prepubescent – as these Bible belt Christians have a penchant to do, it won’t matter which restroom they end up using – in the men’s room boys and young men will be uncomfortable – us older men know there are more important issues to be concerned with, and in the women’s room all will be infuriated at the very idea that a creature that was at one time male would have the audacity to invade their sanctuary – and the transsexual individual being made to feel as a pariah everywhere. The funny thing is that probably for years there have been expert cross-dressers using the bathroom of the opposite sex without much ado as attention was not called to it.

    I remember back in the early 1980’s, my girlfriend who lived in Scottsdale, gave me a set of tickets to the Willie Nelson concert at Veteran’s Coliseum, so when the time rolled around we went and enjoyed the show – or at least I did (she was the daughter of a retired diamond merchant and the entire family migrated from Chicago, so I suspect country was not her first choice). During intermission I needed use of the men’s room and was amazed I was the only one who seemed to have a bladder that over-runneth with beer. But my solitude was not to last… I had noticed the ladies room had a very long queue, and while I was in mid-stream 3 young ladies came running in, smiled and said hi as they walked passed me standing at the floor-length urinal and went to the stalls. They took turns with 2 standing guard as the third used the facilities. They were amused with their ingenuity and I wasn’t shocked or upset by their presence – I understood their sense of urgency due to the line outside their accustomed domain. As I finished and was leaving, I tipped my cowboy hat at them, said a friendly adios and smiled. Nobody was hurt, none needed a safe place for their psyche to recover.

    Life was much easier when political correctness didn’t mean being on constant alert for any little infraction towards your set of beliefs, and having to walk on eggshells so your words or actions weren’t offensive or threatening to anyone else – just being polite and considerate to others without having to go to extremes.

    Back in the 60’s and 70’s who would have though that a bunch of Globites would end up in the South? You in NC, Marilyn Faris in VA, Terry Palmer and myself here in the N/E ‘burbs of Atlanta.

    • Boz says:

      Jim, thank you for the wonderful comment, with which I agree about 99%. I will respond more thoroughly later, but I wanted to add to your list of Globe natives transplanted in the South’ both Emily Rayes and Janie Lopez also live in North Carolina.

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