Last month, North Carolina enacted HB2, one of the most viciously anti-civil rights laws in the country. In addition to repealing local minimum wage laws and local protections for LGBT people, HB2 stripped women, people of color, and other protected groups of the ability to bring discrimination cases in state courts. HB2 also openly attacked transgender people. HB2’s supporters demonized transgender people as deviants who must be excluded from shared bathrooms and locker rooms to “protect” others — especially women and girls. By requiring public schools and government employers and agencies to discriminate against transgender people, the law’s true intent — to eliminate any social or legal space in which transgender people can exist — is plain.
But while HB2’s attack on transgender people has attracted the lion’s share of attention, its negative impact on others is just as real. Among the many groups harmed by HB2, gender-nonconforming women, including many who are lesbian or bisexual, are especially at risk. In the words of one butch blogger, “Bathrooms are spaces of extreme vulnerability for gender nonconforming folk.”
In fact, research shows that gender-nonconforming women experience more discrimination and harassment in shared bathrooms than virtually any other group — they are more likely to be stopped from entering a women’s bathroom, more likely to have their gender questioned, and more likely to be verbally or even physically abused. For gender nonconforming women of color, these harrowing experiences are even more common. Just as women of color are more likely to be sexually harassed in the workplace, they are also more likely to be accosted and policed in public spaces.
HB2 fans these toxic flames. The new law foments suspicion and fear of anyone who departs from gender stereotypes and deliberately encourages aggressive policing of gender norms by others. For masculine-appearing women, HB2 will mean more stigma, more public questioning of their gender, and more attacks on their dignity and right to exist. And make no mistake — the societal and individual impacts of that increased discrimination are real. Over time, the constant experience of having one’s gender questioned and living in fear of entering a public space wears away at a person’s sense of dignity and worth as a human being, leading to isolation, loss of educational and economic opportunities, and serious health and mental health problems.
Like many other transgender men of my generation, I lived for many years as a masculine-appearing woman before transitioning. To this day, I can still feel the anxiety that accompanied every trip to a public women’s restroom, the relief when my presence was accepted, and the terrible shame — and sometimes fear — when it was not. In addition to terrorizing transgender people, HB2 will amplify the harassment and stigma that gender-nonconforming women already face.
Under the guise of “identifying” transgender people, any woman who looks different in any way can now be scrutinized, challenged, and forced to “prove” her female gender. The pressure on all women to conform to gender stereotypes will increase. The social space for girls and women to participate as full members of society will diminish. And, ultimately, violence against girls and women will increase as it always does when social gender norms become more rigid and legally enforced.
As we assess the new law’s impact, we must take into account the full scope of its harms. By reinforcing gender stereotypes, HB2 makes life much more difficult, unsafe, and disempowering for many women and girls, both transgender and non-transgender.