Preview of “Going to the Bathroom” Book Chapter 7

So yesterday I spent the day coding interviews but I decided to put together a quick graphic for my students to see since they did some web surfing to find me news stories.

Bathroom bills have cropped up around the US, in part in response to former President Obama’s executive order that told schools that they should let transgender students use whatever bathroom they chose. Houston’s Bill–the reason I refused to go ACSP when it was on the ballot–failed. In North Carolina, they seem to be struggling with how to make it look like they have repealed HB2 without really letting transgender folks use the restrooms of their choice, with the rural folks in the state trying to make sure Charlotte and Chapel Hill people live the way rural folks think they oughta to live.

The North Carolina case and the Houston cases are interesting; Houston voters seemed to knew full well that these bills were inappropriate to urban contexts. In a high school, where all the labels have assigned you somewhere in the pecking order, people know who is struggling with bathrooms and bullies. In small towns, people know who is who; they can even (often) make exceptions based on the quid pro quo of everyday life for their gay or transgender residents, the ones they cherish at the same time they are worried about the ones “out there” and what they are doing.

In cities, we don’t know who has what equipment in their pants, and enforcing bathroom bills would mean we have to get up into each others’ business–and that is utterly antithetical to urban contexts. We don’t know who is in the stall next to us, and we don’t want to. And who wants to be the cop who has to check? Staying out of each others’ business keeps the social life of cities manageable, and bills like these make it hard to stay out of each other’s lives.

I did some media analysis of those who reacted negatively against Obama’s executive order and some of the writing that has appeared in favor. I do not have the material on the legislative debates yet, but those should be analyzed separately. This was a good exercise because it showed some pretty interesting themes.

I used a grounded theory approach of around 270 news stories to find the following frequencies. I do not have the concurrence chart yet, as I need to diddle with the coding some more:


Several themes emerge: first, people in favor of bathroom restrictions didn’t like President Obama and are mad at “the Left.” No surprise there, the sort of stuff you would expect to come up in any partisan discussion.


I coded just about all the security mentions according to gender: security in most of these stories have to do with the safety and security of women and, in particular, girls. But I coded out separately themes relating to privacy and freedom of association, and I think I may need to go over that coding again because I may have been too likely to code as “privacy” comments more related to security. That is, in general, security should be here in my top mentions, and it is not, and the reason it is not is that I broke up with the coding method. There are insights to be gained this way, such as what people are thinking of when they think “security”, but I think security needs to be understood here somewhat differently than what I was able to do with my first-run coding. I also think I may be on shaky ground with separating claims about perversion from claims about mental illness. The latter are tweets or blogs or comments that specifically mention mental illness in tandem with transgender individuals.

Either way, the theme I really want to get at is the idea of freedom of association. The problem among those proposing these bills is the idea that women and girls might have to associated with people they do not want to. It’s hard to argue with freedom of association; it’s a pretty fundamental right, even when you are talking about the civil and human rights of transgender people. Cities alter what association means; cities require spatial association at the same time that spatial proximity of association does not carry social proximity per se–the social proximity that implies a full association of being together. Cities require us to be together physically but not necessarily socially, and that condition befuddles those who would argue that freedom of association should trump other concerns here. We can’t feasibly legislate who can be where in cities because we do not know enough about people to decide, ethically, whether we want to associate with them or not.