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Thanks, Cleveland: Trans Folks Can Now Pee Safely at the RNC

Cleveland City

If Caitlyn Jenner does decide to speak at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, she'll be able to check her makeup in the ladies' room before taking the stage. 

Less than a week before the convention takes over Quicken Loans Arena, the Cleveland City Council Wednesday unanimously approved an update to the city's antidiscrimination ordinance that will guarantee transgender people can access facilities that correspond with their gender identity. 

The revision — which has been hotly debated for three years — specifically bans discrimination based on gender identity or expression, along with numerous other characteristics, in employment and public accommodations (including restrooms). The change approved Wednesday replaces old language that only referred to "protected classes," without enumerating what those classes were.

The revised ordinance represents a major win for Cleveland's LGBT population, and trans people in particular. Councilman Joe Cimperman first introduced the revised language in 2013, shortly after black trans woman Cemia Dove was found murdered, and local news coverage consistently misgendered her. 

In the years since, local LGBT groups like Equality Ohio and Cleveland Is Ready have partnered with national advocacy organizations, including the National LGBTQ Task Force, to drum up support for the changes Cimperman proposed. That effort reached a crescendo last November, when activists led by local queer and trans people of color rallied on the steps of City Hall to demand protections for trans Clevelanders.

Objections to updating Cleveland's ordinance echoed the successful (and transphobic) campaign against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, focusing on unfounded fears that trans-inclusive policies would embolden sexual predators to "pretend" to be transgender in order to prey upon women and children in restrooms.

Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer stoked those fears in a December 2014 op-ed that grossly misconstrued the ordinance as "opening all restrooms and showers to both sexes," rather than providing specific protections to transgender people. The claim that equal access for trans people will lead to a rise in sexual assaults has been consistently and repeatedly debunked.

Cleveland's revised nondiscrimination ordinance comes just days before thousands descend on the city for the 2016 Republican convention where GOP delegates appear poised to adopt one of the most virulently anti-LGBT party platforms in a decade. That platform, denounced by the president of gay GOP group Log Cabin Republicans, includes formal opposition to trans-inclusive accommodations and an endorsement of so-called conversion therapy, the discredited practice that tries to turn LGBT people straight and cisgender (nontrans).

But the battle over where transgender people should be allowed to relieve themselves isn't limited to city-level politics. Ohio was one of 10 states that filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration earlier this month, challenging the Department of Education's guidelines suggesting schools allow students to use restrooms that align with their gender identity. That lawsuit comes on the heels of a separate suit filed by 11 other states challenging essentially the same interpretation of existing federal law. 

The same day that Cleveland's City Council approved the trans-inclusive policy, officials from the Gloucester County School Board in Virginia asked the U.S. Supreme Court to put on hold an order that required that district to allow a 16-year-old transgender boy to use the boy's bathroom when he returns to school.

The U.S. Department of Justice has asked a federal judge to block implementation of the anti-transgender portions of the anti-LGBT law known as House Bill 2 in North Carolina, citing the significant harms the measure will cause.

Politically, protections for transgender people continue to gain ground in many places nationwide. This month a petition drive in Washington State seeking to overturn that state's existing protections for trans residents failed to garner enough signatures to place the issue on the ballot. Last Friday, Republican Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker bucked his party's anti-transgender stance and signed into law a bill that protects transgender people across the state from discrimination in public accommodations.

CNN poll in May showed that the majority of people in the U.S. oppose laws that would force transgender people to use bathrooms that do not correspond with their gender identity, and confirmed that a majority favor legal protections for the transgender community.

But as the debate over trans people in bathrooms continues to dominate political discussions and media coverage, the lack of secure access to public restrooms is doing real harm to trans people. Newly released preliminary data from the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey shows that one in four trans people were harassed or assaulted in restrooms in the last year, and nearly 10 percent had experienced a medical problem stemming from their avoidance of public bathrooms, which itself came from all-too-legitimate fears of harassment, assault, and arrest while trying to perform a basic bodily function.

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