America’s Controversial Topic No.2: Who gets to use which bathroom?

Published on 2016/05/11
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There are just two overwhelming issues dominating the news on American television right now. The first is Donald Trump. The second concerns the heated debate about who should be allowed to use male and female bathrooms. So just how are these two issue related?

The furore over North Carolina’s recent bathroom bill has escalated. In March, the state passed legislation requiring men to use male bathrooms and women to use female bathrooms, with a person’s gender determined by what appears on their birth certificate. This led to an outbreak of protest as transgender people loudly proclaimed that the law discriminates against their civil rights. Men who identify as women want to be able to use female bathrooms, and many women feel threatened as a result.

America’s Justice Department has taken the view that North Carolina’s law, which governs the use of restrooms and showers in all public buildings, clearly violates the civil rights laws enacted in 1964 to prohibit employers from discriminating against their employees on grounds of gender.

In 1964, as anti-discrimination laws were being formulated, lawmakers were primarily concerned with women’s rights. Nobody considered transgender people in those days. In fact, I’m not even sure that the term “transgender” existed back then. I personally encountered the word “transgender” for the first time about a year ago – thereby filling what was most likely a serious gap in my previous education.

This issue has long been a source of passionate disagreement in the USA. In June, the Virginian Gavin Grimm, backed by the “American Civil Liberties Union”, sued his school as, although he was female at birth, he identifies as male and felt that his/her civil rights were being violated when his/her school insisted that he/she use the girls’ restroom. The school proceeded to build a bathroom just for Gavin, which he/she was also not happy with. He/she would accept nothing less than the right to use the boys’ restrooms. (More on this story in SPIEGEL ONLINE from 15.6.2015).

America’s federal government now wants to bring all of its legal might to bear in North Carolina and force a breakthrough for transgender rights. The government has threatened to withdraw billions in federal funding for the state’s education system unless the civil rights of transgender individuals are respected, and restrictions on their use of bathroom facilities are lifted.

I honestly love Americans. But, in certain respects, they are close to being crazy. It used to be said that, “Being German means exaggerating things for their own sake”. This quality has now become decidedly American, even if Germans are still pretty good at it. Can you remember the case of a consumer successfully suing the energy drink producer Red Bull because, in contrast to its marketing claims, the drink did not give him wings? In the USA there are self-help groups for everything and anything. For example, for people who believe that they have been abducted and sexually violated by aliens.

What does controversy no. 2, i.e. “bathroom use and transgender civil rights in North Carolina” have to do with controversy no. 1, Donald Trump?

Trump’s success can be explained to a large degree by the fact that he articulates and instrumentalises the irritation felt by many Americans towards “political correctness” and discussions of the type currently underway in North Carolina. He is perceived by many of his supporters as the voice of the majority: a majority that feels under-appreciated and neglected as they see more and more credence given to the rights of minority groups. “Don’t they have any other problems to deal with in Washington?” is the question being asked by many Americans, as feelings of economic and social isolation have become entrenched.

The Democrats have done well to maximise their share of the vote over the last few years, positioning themselves as the mouthpiece of every minority group going. And the success of a man like Donald Trump can only be understood against this background, as one extreme is followed by another, contrasting extreme. On this level there is clearly a connection between the bathroom use controversy and the controversy surrounding Trump.

One addendum to the bathroom use issue: Deutsche Bank, not always known for its slavish adherence to the letter of every law, reacted to the transgender bathroom controversy in North Carolina with 150% political correctness: As a result of the new law, Deutsche Bank has suspended its plans to create 250 new jobs in North Carolina.

About the Author

Dr. Rainer Zitelmann is one of the leading experts for the strategic positioning and communications of companies.