Lewisburg is trying to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance, and all anyone can talk about is bathrooms

By Sarah Mansheim

It’s not about bathrooms. But, some area church leaders and a statewide lobbying agency have made sure that bathrooms are the only thing people are talking about.

Last month, Lewisburg City Council unanimously passed the first reading Ordinance 254, an amendment to the equal rights ordinance already on the city books, expanding equal rights protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals at work, at home and in public facilities.

In the week leading up to the council meeting, several Baptist church leaders, and the statewide lobbying group The Family Policy Council of West Virginia, began ramping up opposition to the ordinance, stating that passing the ordinance would clear the way for male sexual predators to pose as women in order to gain access to ladies’ restrooms and assault women and children.

In turn, members of the LGBT community, and their supporters, organized their efforts to attend the meeting to voice their support of the ordinance, which, according to them, was more about preventing LGBT members from being fired from their jobs and/or evicted from their housing due to their sexual orientation or gender identification.

The rallying on both sides worked: the Dec. 15 meeting was attended by 230 guests who were there to voice support and opposition to the ordinance. No public hearing was held, and council passed the first reading of the ordinance unanimously.

Outside of council chambers, ordinance opponents held signs reading “No Men in Womens [sic] restrooms.” Last weekend, similar yard signs began popping up around Lewisburg. They read, “Stop Ord. 254, Keep Men out of Womens [sic] restrooms.”

This bathroom tactic is nothing new. Across the country, anti-LGBT activists have used the slogan “No Men in Women’s Restrooms” as a tactic to put pressure on municipalities that seek to pass ordinances that expand their non-discrimination laws to include LGBT members.

In November, anti-LGBT activists used the bathroom issue to stop a nondiscrimination ordinance in Houston, Texas. In West Virginia, this fall, activists have used the bathroom issue to shut down nondiscrimination ordinances for LGBT people in Beckley and Charlestown.

Over the past year, voters in Springfield, Missouri, and Fayetteville, Arkansas have repealed nondiscrimination measures over the bathroom issue, and Cleveland, Ohio, and Charlotte, North Carolina, both failed to pass nondiscrimination ordinances after critics deployed the bathroom attack.

The issue rests on the “public accommodations” portion of the proposed ordinances, including Lewisburg’s, which will allow transgender people to legally use the restroom that aligns with their gender identity, i.e., a transgender woman may use the ladies’ restroom, and a transgender man may use the men’s room. Anti-LGBT groups have latched on to this minor portion of the ordinance in order to create fear that men will pose as transgender women to gain access to women’s restrooms and use that access to assault women and children.

However, there is no documented case of that ever happening in any municipality that has adopted a LGBT non-discrimination ordinance in the United States over the past 35 years. In fact, worldwide, there has been exactly one documented case of a man using such an ordinance to assault someone. The event happened in Ontario, Canada, in 2012, where a man disguised himself as a woman and gained access to a women’s shelter.

In contrast, the FBI reports that 84,000 rapes were reported in the United States in 2014, none of which happened in a restroom where a man had used a nondiscrimination ordinance to gain access to a ladies’ restroom.

Some local people have said that the bathroom issue could be nullified by simply removing the “public accommodations” portion of the ordinance. However, Lewisburg Mayor John Manchester said that including public accommodations is integral to nondiscrimination laws.

“My understanding is that the public accommodations component to this bill is directly tied to language in other statutes governing equal rights,” he said. Further, he said, “I suspect that removing the public accommodations section from the ordinance would gut the true intent of the ordinance, which is employment and housing.

“One thing I’d like to stress is the issue regarding being able to be fired from your job or thrown out of your housing unit, because of your LGBT status, is real. It has happened in West Virginia. Unfortunately, this fear (of men in women’s bathrooms) has shifted some of the attention away from the more real concern that we are trying to address in Lewisburg, which is discrimination,” said Manchester.

The second reading of the ordinance, which includes a public hearing, is slated for Tuesday Jan. 19, at 7:30 p.m. Due to heightened interest in the matter, it is likely the meeting will be held in a venue other than Lewisburg City Hall in order to accommodate a large crowd.