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ALLY IN THE ACADEMY

The great bathroom debate

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By Trum Simmons

We are used to hearing politicians and others complaining about being quoted out of context. LGBT folks know about certain passages in the Bible being taken out of context to prove that “homosexuality” is a terrible sin. The late Peter Gomes, gay chaplain at Harvard and a fine writer, called this practice “textual harassment.”


Context in literature means the discourse that surrounds a language unit that helps determine its interpretation. Context also means the circumstances and facts that surround a situation or event, as in the phrase historical context.


Thus everything we are learning about the LGBT spectrum and all the controversy surrounding the issues it raises must be taken in context, or contexts. After all there are many contexts beyond the historical, including the cultural and social, for example.


The T in LGBT seems to be causing the most discomfort for many people today. And of all the issues surrounding transgender people, who gets to go to which bathroom has to be right at the top of the list.


Why is the bathroom matter such a big deal? Why are so many folks truly in distress about the idea of a person using a bathroom consistent with his or her gender identity or expression? What’s going on? What is the context in which this is happening?


In North Carolina 17-year-old high school student Gavin Grimm is told he cannot use the boys’ bathroom because the Gloucester School Board says students must use restrooms that correspond with their “biological sex.” It says their policy, which conforms to the North Carolina law recently passed, is just “common sense.”


Grimm files a lawsuit and is successful at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. The U.S. Supreme Court decides not to decide on the issue at this point and sends it back to the appeals court for further review.


What are the contexts at play here? Well, several, perhaps beginning with the broad cultural and social changes in how we see sexual orientation and gender over the past 50 years. Millions of Americans see them in traditional terms, but many millions also now understand and appreciate that gender and sexual orientation are fluid as opposed to fixed.


American history tells us that bathrooms in the South were segregated by race back during the Jim Crow era, for many whites feared black men were predators and black women might expose white women to sexual diseases.


We also learn that segregation of restrooms in the late 1800s came about because more women were entering the workforce, and men began to label their bathrooms as men’s rooms. Women had to fight to get their own, and they finally did.


And by the 20th century the revival of feminism brought attention to “unisex restrooms.” The Equal Rights Amendment was defeated in part because opponents scared people with the specter of men and women being made to go into bathrooms together.


Today, we have more extensive scholarship and scientific evidence to challenge cultural, social and religious norms and beliefs. Does the Bible condemn “homosexuals”? No.


The great bathroom debate is occurring within a political context. Politicians all want to be on the right side of history, and they love to argue about what that right side is. And politicians too often take their positions on tough issues based on their chances of reelection, not principle.


This column is being written in the early months of the Trump presidency, yet another context to consider. A truly unprecedented presidency has brought about a resurgence in the so-called culture wars, and many, perhaps most Americans are feeling rather unstable. “What is happening to our country?” is a question being asked by people of every point of view you can name.


Those who say our American values are being subverted by things like embracing the entire LGBT spectrum will not be pleased with this column. They will question this analysis of contexts, and that’s fine. We need a good discussion about social and cultural change to understand just what is happening to our country.