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Carter: Laws change, but safeguards needed against abuse

Discussions about transgender bathroom and locker room rights seemed to hit a boiling point on Friday, when a joint letter from the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education was sent to public schools, essentially directing them to allow transgender students to use facilities matching their gender identity or risk losing federal funding.

As the father of two young girls, one of whom will begin going to public school next year, this has raised some questions for me. I believe in equal rights, and I want people who identify as transgender to be able to be comfortable; at the same time, I don't want some creep pretending to be transgender sneaking a peek.

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For most of us alive now, the idea of not having separate men's and women's restrooms at a restaurant, retail store, workplace or public schools is outlandish because we've never known anything different. To allow someone to choose their restroom based on which gender they identify with rather than the sex they were born challenges our sensibilities, and I think that is the genesis for much of the concern.

Of course, it wasn't too long ago that it was unheard of for women to use public restrooms.

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Sheila Cavanagh, a sociologist at York University in Canada, wrote a paper noting that the first gender-segregated public restrooms can be traced back to a ball in Paris in 1739. They were simply a pair of chamber pots — essentially bowls you would use to do your business — in a box with a seat, with one pot in a room for men and another in a room for women.

Gender-segregated restrooms are a relatively new phenomenon in Western Civilization. For centuries, public restrooms were to be used by men only. Women essentially had no choice but to hold it or find a shady spot outdoors. Cavanagh notes in her paper that Victorian-era women often had to find a gutter, with their gowns providing privacy.

Massachusetts passed a law requiring workplaces that employed women have separate bathrooms in 1887, according to an article in the Rutgers Law Review about workplace restroom policies, and it wasn't until the 1920s — less than a century ago — that this became the norm.

I find the argument of an increase in sexual assaults to be overblown. Bathrooms generally aren't monitored — the few that I have seen monitored are usually at bars or clubs where alcohol is being served, a factor that is far more likely to account for a sexual assault occurring. If a man — or woman, for that matter — chose to enter the bathroom of the opposite sex to attack someone, there is little stopping them, other than the law that makes the assault illegal.

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Yet sexual assaults haven't spiked as a result of nondiscriminatory bathroom law changes in more than 200 cities, according to multiple sources. If anything, transgender individuals are more likely to be the victims of harassment when using a public restroom.

But all of this doesn't mean the fears of people abusing the change in the law are unwarranted. Personally, the issue of locker rooms troubles me, especially for youth, as I'm not sure how you can police this. Bathroom stalls, at least, offer some sense of privacy.

An article published Friday in Time by Belinda Luscombe describes a recreational club in New York's Upper West Side where, since March, a sign noting anyone has the right to use either locker room or restroom consistent with their "gender identity or gender expression." Shortly after, a group of girls between the ages of 7 and 18 saw a "bearded individual," whom an employee of the center said "appears to present as a man," coming out of a shower in the women's locker room.

It's entirely possible this person identifies as a woman. It's also possible he's a peeping Tom. Staff say their hands are tied because they've been warned that asking people to prove their gender identify can be considered discriminatory and against the law.

Locker rooms, especially for young people, can be uncomfortable places to begin with. Even for body-conscious adults, undressing in front of others can be awkward.

Change is coming, if not already here. As is usually the case with change, there are more questions than answers. What we should be asking is not how do we stop the change from coming; rather, it's how do we keep people from abusing the changes in the law?

Wayne Carter is the editor of the Carroll County Times. Reach him at wayne.carter@carrollcountytimes.com.

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