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Just last fall, the LGBT movement was stunned when Houston voters repealed a civil rights ordinance because critics falsely (but apparently compellingly) claimed it would have allowed "men in women's bathrooms."
Last week, a CNN poll showed that six in 10 Americans oppose laws like House Bill 2 in North Carolina, which require transgender people to use the restroom consistent with the gender on their birth certificates, regardless of their gender identity. And Attorney General Loretta Lynch branded HB 2 as unlawful discrimination and gave an emotional defense of the transgender people that the law targeted.
And then, just days later, the U.S. Department of Education and the US Department of Justice issued guidance to all public schools in the country making clear that transgender students must be allowed to use the restroom and other single-sex facilities consistent with their gender identity.
The shift from November to May is remarkable. How did we move so far so fast?
First, transgender people courageously told their stories. In South Dakota, where the legislature passed an HB 2-style law that would have required trans people to use restrooms based on their chromosomes, Gov. Dennis Daugaard vetoed the bill after meeting with a group of transgender students and adults from across the state. In Tennessee, a House committee that first voted to advance a similar bill turned around and voted it down after hearing from a family with an intersex child as well as transgender students. When decision-makers meet transgender people, they can recognize their common humanity and reject fearmongering and discrimination.
Second, LGBT civil rights groups stopped trying to talk about other things and realized that we have to talk about the restroom issue. We have long known that the "bathroom predator" myth is just that -- a myth. And we have long known that trans people are the ones subject to harassment and violence in restrooms. And of course it's true that trans people have been using the appropriate restrooms for years without issue. But we finally started talking about all of that more openly and consistently, allowing people to follow their own individual journeys to a place of understanding rather than fear.
Third, we started responding directly to the other side's assertion that we want to allow "men in women's bathrooms" by explaining that transgender women are women, transgender men are men. This basic misunderstanding is at the core of the problem, and we have much more work to do to ensure that the country gets this basic truth.
Fourth, we are challenging the malicious suggestion that transgender people are predators. We know that these attacks on trans people have been a solution in search of a problem; the transgender civil rights laws that already exist in more than 200 jurisdictions have caused no increase in assaults in restrooms.
Fifth, our opponents decided to double down on the restroom issue, making it a centerpiece of their efforts to stop us from securing LGBT nondiscrimination protections. And their increased focus on the issue, driven by North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, and even presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, has prompted a grand national discussion of restrooms. And it turned out that was precisely what we needed -- more attention, more information, more enlightenment, and more leadership.
The result has been that an issue that seemed to be our Achilles' heel has turned out to be a driver of support for transgender people -- from business, from artists, from faith leaders, from government, including the president of the United States.
Of course, this issue is far from resolved. There's a lot more education that remains to be done. But the national conversation around restrooms and transgender people has shown us that talking about this issue candidly can and will lead us to a better place.
JAMES ESSEKS is the LGBT Project Director at the American Civil Liberties Union.