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Transgender bathroom rights, access a hot U.S. political topic

Debate over a transgender individual’s rights and access to public bathrooms has recently vaulted into the U.S. national spotlight, where 12 state legislatures have so-called "bathroom bills."

12 states have so-called 'bathroom bills' in legislatures, says rights group

Supporters rally outside the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh on Monday in support of a law that blocks rules allowing transgender people to use the bathroom aligned with their gender identity. (Gerry Broome/Associated Press)

The latest battleground in American politics is one surrounded by soap dispensers and hand dryers.

Debate over a transgender individual's rights and access to public bathrooms vaulted into the U.S. national spotlight recently after musician Bruce Springsteen and tech company PayPal boycotted the state of North Carolina, which passed a law that required people to use restrooms that conform to the sex on their birth certificates.

The issue presents a legislative quandary that varies from state to state, with some backing transgender individuals and their access to public bathrooms and accommodations.

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard — a Republican — vetoed a bill in March that would have made his state the first in the U.S. to require transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their birth sex.

Massachusetts is trying to pass two bills, House Bill 1577 and Senate Bill 735, which would add transgender people to the list of protected classes and allow for public accommodation, such as washrooms, "consistent with the person's gender identity." The state's efforts drew support from prominent transgender personality Caitlyn Jenner.

However, according to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network — a U.S. organization that aims to ensure safe school environments for students across all sexual and gender orientations — the U.S. currently has 12 states with so-called "bathroom bills" in their respective legislatures that would limit a transgender person's access to restrooms.

For instance, Minnesota was scheduled to hold a house hearing Tuesday on HF 3396, a bill that proposes to amend Section 363A.03, subdivision 44 of the state's Human Rights Statute — which covers individuals "having a self-image or identity not traditionally associated with one's biological maleness or femaleness" — so that its protection does not extend to "restrooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms or other similar places" in public schools, universities and workplaces.

The Tennessee general assembly is trying to push through Bill 2414, which "requires students in public schools and public institutions of higher education to use restrooms and locker rooms that are assigned to persons of the same sex as that shown on the students' birth certificates." As of Monday, the bill is stalled in the finance, ways and means subcommittee amid financial concerns.

Protesters hold up signs against passage of a 'bathroom bill' in North Carolina during a rally that drew around 100 people in Charlotte, N.C. (Skip Foreman/Associated Press)

Bill 4474 is currently bouncing around through the rules committee in the Illinois general assembly.

The bill would amend the School Code in the state and require school boards to designate bathrooms used by multiple people as being exclusive to only one sex, which it defines as "the physical condition of being male or female, as determined by the individual's chromosomes and identified at birth by that individual's anatomy." The bill does, however, include an exception for single-occupancy washrooms.

Bathroom bills vary from state to state

Some states have unsuccessfully tried to pass bathroom bills.

Kentucky's Senate Bill 76 passed the state's Republican-led senate after a 27-9 vote in January, but was quashed in March by the Democratic-controlled house, which refused to hear it.

Florida tried to pass Bill 583 in February 2015, which described bathrooms as places "of increased vulnerability" for crimes "including, but not limited to, assault, battery, molestation, rape, voyeurism and exhibitionism."

Anyone who enters a single-sex bathroom designated for people of the other gender could be hit with a "misdemeanour of the second degree," which carries with it a maximum 60-day imprisonment. The bill died in the judiciary committee in April that same year.

The potential dangers as described by HB 583 have similarly been raised by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who, while campaigning as a Republican presidential hopeful, said he would have found his feminine side while he was in high school gym class in order to take a shower with girls.

Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and U.S. presidential candidate, says he would have pretended to be transgender to shower with girls in high school (video via WNDNews) 1:10

In March 2015, Texas introduced Bill 2801, which not only required school districts to separate bathrooms based on biological sex, but also imposed a fine of $2,000 US in "exemplary damages" for students who failed to comply with the policy.

Though it was withdrawn in April 2015, Texas is still considering HB 2802, which proposed similar policies that would apply to a non-school setting, and HB 1748, which would slap a criminal penalty on establishment owners that allow individuals over the age of seven to "repeatedly enter" facilities designated to "persons of a gender that is not the same gender as the individual's gender."

U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act in 2009, which expanded the federal government's ability to prosecute hate crimes and was the first time the words "lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender" appeared in a U.S. code. 

In Canada, NDP MP Randall Garrison's C-279 private member's bill passed in 2013, which sought to fight hate crimes against transgender individuals by adding gender identity provisions to both the Criminal Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act.

However, it was amended by Conservative Senator Don Plett in 2015 to exclude access to public washrooms and change rooms before it was defeated in the Senate. The NDP reintroduced it as Bill C-204 in December.

About the Author

Justin Li

Senior News Writer

Justin Li is a senior news writer. Prior to joining CBC News, he worked for the Toronto Star and wrote for various magazines in Toronto, where he's always lived.

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