Bathroom battlegrounds: Incrementalism and the fracturing LGBTQ+ coalition

Opinion by Lily Zheng
Nov. 3, 2016, 1:15 a.m.

I wanted to have a strong opinion on this issue.

Over the last year, advocates for LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination legislation campaigned tirelessly in the wake of gay marriage victories in 2015. A broad coalition of organizations and advocacy groups fought to ensure protections for queer and trans people on a state level, working with state legislatures around the country to create statutory protections in employment, housing and public accommodations. As 2016 nears its end, however, that coalition shows signs of falling apart.

Trans people (as always) are the point of contention. Heightened visibility for transgender, gender-variant and intersex people has reignited the trans bathroom debate, which has become a hotly-contested battleground of trans rights today – so much so that opposition to trans people over bathrooms almost single-handedly threatens to sink attempts at passing nondiscrimination legislature. Organized opposition camps composing of right-wing evangelists, trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) and a hodgepodge of others prove a powerful lobbying force against the campaigns working towards statewide nondiscrimination laws.

It is in this environment that internal struggles within the LGBTQ+ movement run rampant. In one camp, the Gill Foundation, the National Center for Transgender Equality, Equality Pennsylvania and other groups argue that the most effective tactic today is partial protection legislation – campaigning for protections for LGBTQ+ people in employment and housing, but not public accommodations. This strategy, they claim, dodges the trans bathroom debate and the powerful opposition behind it – allowing for legislation that would otherwise be completely shut down to instead pass in a partial form.

In the other camp, the ACLU, the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal and many queer and trans activists argue that such incremental legislation is a death sentence for trans rights in the future. This strategy, they argue, abandons trans people in public spaces at the time when they perhaps need support most and may be read as a victory by opposition groups – potentially inviting an even stronger backlash when the issue of public accommodations protections resurfaces in the future. Perhaps most troubling, this compromise may have long-term effects on movement momentum: Will those LGBTQ+ leaders who champion this compromise now still care enough to fight for trans people’s usage of public facilities later?

This issue is complicated further by recent events: The Gill Foundation is a funder that writes grants totaling over $6.5 million each year and a powerhouse behind incremental compromise legislature. This summer, Pennsylvania’s version of this compromise bill advanced in the Senate, only for the ACLU to campaign against it. As a result of this fallout, the Gill Foundation refused to renew the ACLU’s funding.

This is more context than I usually provide for an opinions piece, but the context is especially important to understand in this case. I am resisting the temptation to frame this as an issue of vicious LGB leaders turning on their trans community members or as an issue of trans activists simply unwilling to compromise – this conflict is, at its core, a struggle with tactical differences, policy- vs. community-centered advocacy and symbolism in the face of outside attack. It is a conflict that splits communities and coalitions in messy ways, and not one that I can simply wander into and naively critique. There are difficult questions brought up by these events that I will pose here:

Should we give up – even temporarily – the issue of public accommodation protection for queer and trans people if we can successfully pass legislation protecting queer and trans people in housing accommodations and against workplace discrimination?

If we dedicate ourselves to advocating for complete LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination bills in all states and nothing less, what are the obstacles in our way? How long are we willing to campaign and what critical factors in the policy arena will affect our success?

How will the trans bathroom debate look in one year? Two? Five? How powerful is the opposition movement likely to be, and how might that opposition respond or react to our efforts to create legislative change using the tactics we’ve chosen?

After much thought, I’m finding myself reluctantly on the side of incrementalism – I don’t believe that as a community we have the leisure to withhold necessary protections for trans people in housing and employment for an all-or-nothing ideology’s sake. The resurgence of opposition to the trans bathroom debate is a strange one (it was virtually nonexistent two years ago), but there is no denying the real influence it has over current policymaking efforts. If we wait – and yes, I am aware that marginalized communities are infuriatingly and always told to wait – we may find ourselves in a political climate where public accommodations for queer and trans people will pass more easily. That being said, withdrawing the ACLU’s funding is a disappointing escalation from the Gill Foundation that only further fractures our movement. There are better ways to resolve contentious community issues than haughtily stripping a key organization of the resources it needs to advocate.

On the other hand, perhaps this is all irrelevant. If all goes well with Gavin Grimm’s Supreme Court case in 2017, then the issue of public facilities for trans people will be solved then and there. Our fracturing coalition can stay on its feet, and we can keep figuring out how to move forward in these troubling times.


Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' – she loves messages!

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