My father was a public school teacher in the South in the early days of desegregation. Arguments against desegregating the schools included the need to protect “women and children.” Racists perpetuated unsubstantiated fears that racially mixed classrooms and playgrounds would result in “women and children” being harmed. There were no data used to support the notion that diversity increased danger, but facts never deter the fear mongers.
In my coming out days, gay teachers could be fired, gay people in the military could be expelled, gay people in schools, parks, or bar parking lots could be assaulted (often with very little help from law enforcement). Gays were preached against in pulpits, denied jobs and housing, cut off from their families, and forbidden access to youth organizations, and all because they somehow were seen as threatening. I once read in my hometown paper an editorial that said gay people “infested” public restrooms like roaches. To protect the children, we were told, we had to dehumanize, demonize, and ostracize gay and lesbian people. “Sodomy laws” criminalized our very expression of affection in multiple states, and marriage equality was a fantasy that almost no one actually entertained. Gays were a danger, the anti-gay narrative insisted, and for the safety of our families we had to treat same-gender loving people badly.
Now that gay characters are featured on television dramas and comedies, marriage equality is a reality, gay athletes and journalists often “come out”, and many faith communities embrace (and even celebrate) same-gender loving people, the idea of tormenting gay people in the name of public safety seems archaic, foolish, and even cruel. But homophobia is still with us, rest assured.
Now, the infamous “bathroom bills” are in the news. Once again, a community is targeted, vilified, demonized, and excoriated. Again, women and children in particular are being “protected” by dehumanizing an entire group of people, namely, transgender people. The targets change over time, but the tactics of hate and division remain sadly the same.
And again, there are no data to suggest that accommodating transgender people gives cover to dangerous predators. However, by demonizing and targeting transgender people, these “bathroom bills” are making transgender people less safe in their own communities. If we can see “the Other” as something less than human, then cruelty toward “the Other” will certainly follow. It always does.
The unfounded arguments that minorities are more dangerous or more prone to anti-social behavior aren’t new; they are time tested weapons of bigotry used to dehumanize people in order to create hysteria that protects the privilege and power of the majority for a while longer. It’s time we see through the mendacity of such arguments (and legislation), and demand fair and equal treatment for all people, regardless of their gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nationality, or physical ability. Letting people use the bathroom won’t pose any extra danger to our communities, but teaching generation after generation to hate, will.
Durrell Watkins is the senior minister of Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale.