Over the past few years, we’ve all become painfully aware of the far right’s attacks on trans people, often centered around the right to use the restroom. So-called “bathroom bills” have popped up in a number of states, including right now in Arkansas. These bills are obvious attempts by the far right to attack an already marginalized group and score some culture war points with the most hateful members of their base. And the tactic isn’t even new.
The far right has used the fear of boogeymen in the bathroom — Black people, queer people, now trans people — to scare up support for decades. It’s never been about the bathrooms; it’s always been about riling up their base and trying to keep marginalized groups under control. When we look at the history of these attacks, we can see how the targets may change, but the hate remains the same.
The Long, Sad History of Bathroom Restrictions
Across the country, segregated bathrooms prevented Black people from accessing public accommodations well into and even after the 1960s. The far right made whatever racist arguments they could think of to justify their bigotry, including supposedly protecting women — the same specious argument they’ve doled out during other bathroom fights.
Through the 1970s and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, paranoia about queer people in bathrooms was rampant. Gay men were said to use bathroom stalls for illicit sex and to prey on youth. These types of baseless accusations fueled homophobia and helped established public restrooms as places of fear.
Today, the attacks largely focus on trans people, calling them “groomers” and implying they’re trying to do anything other than use the bathroom in peace and privacy. The attacks are completely disingenuous. So, if they’re not actually about protecting people in public restrooms, what are they about? Simple. Like most things in the far right’s culture war, they’re about control.
When You Can’t Use the Restroom, You Can’t Engage in Public Life
Whether you want to spend a leisurely day in the park, go out on the town, or stand in line to vote, you need access to public facilities when you’re out in public. The far right knows that, and that’s precisely why bathrooms have always been on their radar.
Keeping Black people from public restrooms made it harder to do things like vote, protest, or participate in society. Keeping queer people out of bathrooms ensured they remained marginalized and were met with fear and persecution. Keeping trans people out of bathrooms fuels the narrative that trans people are attempting to force their way into private spaces for nefarious purposes.
The worst part is, they know it’s a lie. It’s always been a lie. Trans people aren’t out to get you in the bathroom, nor were queer people or Black people. We are all just trying to exist in public spaces, and that’s what the far right can’t stand. They want the people with whom they disagree to disappear completely from public life, relegated to the shadows until they need to scare their base again. Bathrooms bills are a convenient way for them to restrict public access and create fear at the same time.
So, the next time someone tries to argue that trans people shouldn’t be allowed to use the bathroom, remind them these scare tactics were rolled out against gay people and against Black people in the past. Remind them that it’s always been about depriving people of power, not plumbing. And remind them that, just like in the past, these attacks will ultimately fail if good people stand up for what’s right.
Svante Myrick is president of People For the American Way.