Why Transgender Advocates Are Concerned About the Focus on the 'Bathroom Issue'

Advocates say all the debate about bathrooms is exactly what opponents want.

May 13, 2016, 5:17 PM

— -- The "bathroom issue" has recently taken center stage in the contentious debate over transgender rights.

While advocates agree it's an important matter, they're now concerned that the attention on bathrooms is detracting from the other equally important problems trans people face but are being overshadowed by the narrow scope of the current discussions, according to advocates.

"This focus on the bathroom as a battleground is really just a distraction from the bigger issue: that transgender people face rampant discrimination daily across all walks of life," said Alison Gill, a trans woman who's vice chair on the board of advocacy group Trans United Fund.

"The opposition has really picked up on bathrooms as a way to oppose trans people's rights without having to explicitly say so," Gill told ABC News today. "We need to stop fixating on bathrooms and start talking about larger issues, which have been made invisible by the opposition."

Trans people don't just face discrimination in bathrooms but also in employment, health care, housing and other public accommodations, Gill said. She added that trans people also face high rates of poverty, violence and suicide -- which are even higher for trans people of color.

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey conducted in 2011 found that over 6,000 trans and gender non-conforming respondents were four times more likely to make less than $10,000 a year compared to the general population. The survey's key findings added that about 41 percent of respondents reported attempted suicide, a staggering number compared to 1.6 percent of the general population.

Gill said that she believed transphobic people and lawmakers are using bathrooms as a way to "undermine and bury" such statistics and issues.

"Bathrooms are icky, and most people already don't like being in there, so linking that negative feeling with a disadvantaged group is really a good fear tactic," she said.

Gill added that "bathrooms and the idea of a bathroom predator have come up in almost every major civil rights movement in the recent past."

"They came up in 1964 when opponents of the Civil Rights Act tried to create fears about people of color being in bathrooms with white people," she said. "They came up in 1970 when opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment said the act could would force people to use co-ed bathrooms. And they came up in 1990 when businesses opposing the Americans With Disabilities Act said it was too expensive and difficult to create bathrooms accommodating to people with disabilities."

Catherine Oakley, senior legal counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, told ABC News today she believed that opponents of LGBTQ people have now "honed in on bathroom messaging" again after major losses, such as same-sex marriage, which was ruled legal nationwide by the Supreme Court last year.

"After the marriage equality fight, these opponents didn't disappear," Oakley said. "They just needed a new direction, and decided to target the next most vulnerable group: transgender people."

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