Urinals as a political flashpoint? The last time urinals created so much controversy in the United States was in 1917 when the Surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp submitted a porcelain urinal to a New York art show. And in truth, there is something surrealistic about the debate surrounding North Carolina’s new law on who can enter public bathrooms.

For anyone who has missed a story which has been on the front page of the New York Times for a week, the North Carolina legislature met in a special session on March 23 to pass House Bill 2 (HB2). This specifies that people may only use public restrooms, locker rooms, and change rooms intended for their biological sex. Republican governor Pat McCrory signed the bill that very night.

This was a hurried response to an ordinance passed in the state’s biggest city, Charlotte, which would have allowed transgender people to use the bathrooms of their gender identity. In other words, a transwoman (a male-to-female transsexual) could use women’s facilities

All hell broke loose.

The Obama administration is considering whether to cut off funding for billions of dollars of funding for schools, highways and housing. The White House press secretary called the legislation “mean-spirited”.

The state Attorney-General Roy Cooper, a Democrat who will challenge McCrory for the governorship in November, called the bill a “national embarrassment” and declared that he would not defend it.

New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, directed state employees not to travel to North Carolina on non-essential business.

The state’s economy benefits from the fact that many large corporations have taken advantage of generous subsidies and its research triangle. More than 100 CEOs have signed a letter asking the state to repeal  its discriminatory law. “HB 2 will make it far more challenging for businesses across the state to recruit and retain the nation’s best and brightest workers and attract the most talented students from across the nation. It will also diminish the state’s draw as a destination for tourism, new businesses, and economic activity,” they wrote. The signatories included Tim Cook, of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook, and Brian Moynihan, of the Bank of America.

The New York Times summed up this epic shamestorm by thundering in an editorial that North Carolina had become “a pioneer in bigotry”.

Prepare for a lot more huffing and puffing over transgender rights. A noisy campaign for transgender rights began almost immediately after the US Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriage in Obergefell v Hodges, beginning with Bruce/Caitlin Jenner’s widely publicised transition from male to female.

Now’s a good time to ask what is at stake. Here are a few of the questions raised by the bathroom imbroglio.

Is there a consensus on the facts about transgender issues?

Millions of Americans who had no idea what the T meant in LGBT are now being told that T-rights are now the most urgent social justice issue of the 21st century.

The fact is that very little is known about transgender issues. How many are there? No one knows. The Williams Institute, an LGBT think tank, has estimated that 0.3 percent of Americans are transgender, or about 700,000. There is no official census data because the US Census Bureau does not ask about gender identity.

Even the terminology is not settled. Transvestites became transsexuals who became transgenders. Facebook notoriously offers 50+ options for its users plus a custom gender identity. Which of these will become the next most urgent civil rights issue of the 21st century? Gender Fluid? Woman Two-Spirit?

Until a few years ago, discomfort with one’s biological sex was called gender identity disorder. It was regarded by psychiatrists as a kind of mental illness. Only in 2013 did DSM-5, the psychiatrists’ bible, call it gender dysphoria and stop classifying it as a disorder. It can hardly be called bigotry if legislators go slow until there is a well-established consensus on the facts.

Who decides?

Most objections centre on the possibility of women being molested or raped by a predatory male impersonating a woman. Opponents of the bathroom law call this a fantasy and assert that it has never happened. But obviously it could happen. The real point is whether women in North Carolina fear it or whether they welcome the opportunity to shower in change rooms in the presence of a trans woman. Significantly, no newspapers have polled women to ask what they think. 

North Carolina’s bathroom law is escalating into a contest of anxieties: trans fear of bullying and women’s fear of rape. In a democratic society, shouldn’t the fears of the majority be respected? A win for the big corporations and the shamestormers on Twitter means that the cuckoos in the nest will be fed while others starve.

What is the philosophy behind transgender identity?

Allowing trans women to use women’s bathroom is a far bigger issue than relieving full bladders. It’s a metaphysical statement about the right of individuals to reshape reality and demand that society respect their solipsistic vision. America has been there before. Remember Operation Enduring Freedom, its attempt to reconfigure the reality of Iraq? To use the words of an aide to former President George W. Bush to the New York Times in 2004, policy was not being shaped by facts, but by good intentions.

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

It didn’t work out too well for W., and it may not work out too well for the transgender empire, either.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet