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Transgender Restroom Access Debate Is Coming to Berea

05.28.16 10:12 AM – Andy McDonald

This month the U.S. Justice Department sued North Carolina to counter the state’s so called transgender bathroom law, a measure stipulating that when a person uses a public restroom, it must be consistent with his or her gender of birth.

For now, the controversy may seem like a distant political skirmish of vague consequence to Kentuckians, but if recent events concerning the Spoonbread Festival and the Confederate flag are any indication, the debate over transgender access to public restrooms will likely come to Berea soon, perhaps in time to influence the Berea City Council election.

In the council election, the issue of whether the city administration should leverage public funds to affect social change will likely come up, just as it has in North Carolina.

On the national level, the Justice Department is making access to federal funds conditional on the state’s compliance with federal policy. In other words, if the state of North Carolina doesn’t fall into line on the transgender bathroom issue, they’ll lose federal money. Some are appalled by that, but it’s really nothing new.
In order to gain access to federal funds, states and municipalities must sign an agreement that they will comply with other federal policies, such as equal employment regulations or non-discrimination for housing. Berea does it all the time to secure federal funds.

What is different lately is that same kind of leverage is being employed here in Berea. Mayor Steve Connelly more or less used the same stick-and-carrot approach when it came to the Berea Spoonbread Festival. It was made clear that if the chamber wished to use city property and have access to public funds, the chamber had to agree to conform to rules drafted by the Berea Human Rights Commission, which offered a use agreement that effectively banned the sale and display of the Confederate flag at the Spoonbread Festival.

So how could the transgender bathroom issue come to Berea, Kentucky? After all, it’s not like we have a large population of transgendered folks who are going to storm city hall demanding change. As was in the case of the Fairness Ordinance, however, political pressure may well be applied from activist groups from outside of Berea. I’m guessing it would go something like this: Jane Doe will arrive in Berea for the purpose of using a public restroom, but she’ll use it in a very public way. Jane will bring along a cadre of interested political activists and supporters who will faithfully document her entering the restroom for social media. TV news outlets will fall all over themselves to cover the story, and outrage will ensue.

Citizens will write letters to the local newspaper stating their opinion that Jane Doe, still anatomically male, should use the men’s restroom instead of the women’s room. That letter and similar missives will be held up as evidence that Berea suffers from an unfortunate epidemic of bigotry and intolerance that only intervention from the Berea Human Rights Commission can remedy. Just as the BHRC took up the case of Confederate flag merchandise, they’ll naturally be compelled to recommend legislative action on restroom access for transgendered citizens.

This is not to say the BHRC or political activists should be blamed. They do what they are supposed to do – try to affect social change that conforms with their vision of a more just society. The only trouble is they can neglect the unintended consequences of that kind of change.
Frankly, it’s not their job to care about what comes after change once they have achieved it, but therein lies the problem. Human rights activists in town called the cancelation of the Berea Spoonbread Festival at “victory,” but it came with the unintended consequence that a community event which had reached across economic and social lines, and which unified the city in a common purpose, was canceled. It also deprived local commerce of an estimated half a million dollars.

So on one hand, the city successfully employed federal tactics to affect change at the local level, but the way in which it was done proved costly, at least from the standpoint of community unity and commerce.

When the issue of restroom access for transgendered citizens comes to Berea, and I predict it will, it will be interesting to see how various city council candidates choose to tackle the issue. Some will simply take a dive, hoping to dodge the issue completely. But I wonder if there will be some who fervently agree with the goal of achieving inclusion and non-discrimination in our community, but who also happen to disagree with the city’s leverage approach, which they would argue is heavy-handed and draconian? Stay tuned.

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