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The public debate over private parts in bathrooms [Commentary]

If each of us has a soul —and I've got no empirical evidence one way or the other on that -- then it stands to reason that what we are goes beyond the configurations of our physical bodies.

We are more than the sum of our parts.

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People get hung up on their parts, though, and that propensity lies at the heart of a push by social conservatives to make sure that the plumbing of the potty matches the plumbing of the people using it.

A recently enacted North Carolina law prohibits transgender people from using a public restroom assigned to the gender with which they identify. In passing it, the state legislature there nullified an ordinance that the city of Charlotte had implemented to protect trans people from discrimination.

Advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union have filed suit in federal court. North Carolina's attorney general -- who is running for governor against the incumbent -- has said he will not defend the new law.

This isn't the first instance of governments trying to legislate gender identity. South Dakota nearly enacted a similar law before the governor there had a change of heart and vetoed the legislation. Nor is it likely to be the last. The bathroom and the locker room, it seems, are the newest fronts in the culture wars.

Another opinion piece about the North Carolina law and other issues concerning transgender people in our society appeared recently in the Washington Blade -- which calls itself the oldest LGBT newspaper in the United States -- under the byline of Suzi Chase. It's the nom de plume of a Columbia resident who has asked me to use it here to protect her privacy.

Born male, she has lived full-time as a woman for the past few years, following a transition she undertook in earnest in 2012.

She attributes the seemingly sudden appearance of bathroom-restriction initiatives across the country to the efforts of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian lobbying organization.

"Their agenda is to make it next to impossible" for transgender people to use restrooms assigned to the gender with which they identify, Chase said. "They're stirring up fear of things that don't happen."

Specifically, proponents of these restrictions argue that some men will claim to be transgender in order to peek at women using public facilities. A conservative Facebook friend of mine last week posted, in support of this argument, a news story from 2013 in which authorities in Southern California charged a man alleged to have dressed himself in a wig and women's clothing in order to surreptitiously record video of women in the stalls of a mall restroom.

To which I replied, "So prosecute the people who try to get away with this sort of thing. Why punish law-abiding trans people who just want to take a leak? Allowing them to do so doesn't make it any more or less likely that peeping toms will try to pull stuff like this."

To which my friend replied that any man could claim to be a transgender woman just for the sake of getting his jollies in a women's bathroom, or worse yet, a girls' locker room.

But as Chase pointed out, boys and men have been undressing and showering together in locker rooms since they were invented, as have women and girls, but the institutions that house these facilities have not worried about privacy to this point. Yet plenty of people face panic and dread in these situations.

"People with moles or unusual physical characteristics, or people who are painfully shy. Lots of straight boys would be uncomfortable getting undressed around a boy who is gay," she said. "Privacy hasn't been a concern. Maybe it should have been, but it hasn't."

Instead of forcing trans people into facilities that match their biological sex but not their identities as people, she said, we ought to consider making privacy a priority for everyone in locker room situations.

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Chase herself has never had anyone challenge her use of the ladies' room, she says, although she did get a dirty look from a woman who apparently had figured out that Chase was biologically male.

How she did so is anybody's guess. The toilets in public bathrooms are separated by partitions, so patrons don't routinely catch sight of others' private parts.

So how can the North Carolina government enforce its new edict? Perhaps it won't at all. But the message is no less clear: The state will decide where you can pee.

Doug Miller is a freelance writer and voiceover voiceover artist.

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