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As More States Legislate Transgender Americans' Bathroom Use, Illinois Eyes Its Own Bill

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Opinion by Mason Johnson

North Carolina's bill limiting bathroom use of transgender and gender non-conforming citizens shares some similarities with a bill proposed by Illinois legislators, but there are also many differences.

North Carolina's legislation is a Frankenstein of a bill, broadly touching on the restroom rights of transgender people, minimum wage and anti-discrimination protections for veterans. Filed and passed in the same day, it's questionable whether members of North Carolina's legislature had time to understand the nuances of the bill.

Illinois House Bill 4474, referred to as the Child Privacy Act, solely deals with bathroom use at Illinois schools. Filed in January, the bill currently sits in the Human Services Committee. Will it become law? On one hand, it may never make it out of committee. On the other hand, the bill is currently co-sponsored by 23 Republicans and six Democrats in the state house.

Illinois State Representative Thomas Morrison (R-Palatine) referred to the bill as a compromise.

"I've attended meetings with PFLAG, I've tried to be knowledgeable from all perspectives, I've heard tragic stories from students who don't drink water during the day because they don't know which bathroom to use," Rep. Morrison told me over the phone. "That's not appropriate, that's not caring and compassionate. Why not create accommodations that are in the school building without interfering with the privacy rights of the other students?"

The Child Privacy Act would require school boards to provide students uncomfortable with the bill's ramifications with accommodations, albeit by request. This is the compromise Rep. Morrison is referring to: single-use bathrooms.

Meggan Sommerville, a local organizer for International Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31st, knows what it's like to be denied access to a bathroom for being transgender: Sommerville's employer has been denying her access to the women's washroom for years. Sommerville thinks bills like Illinois's Child Privacy Act are horrendous.

"It puts a target on trans students' backs," Sommerville told me over the phone. "These are kids that are struggling to find their place and really live who they are, and now the state wants to tell them, 'No, you can't be who you are, regardless of how you present, how long you've lived in your authentic gender.'"

Bills like the Child Privacy Act dictate bathroom use with strict definitions of gender, usually relying on the gender individuals are assigned by a doctor at birth. Definitions of gender that solely rely on biology can be interpreted as offensive, since they disregard gender identity: people's self-interpretations of gender.

For those comfortable with the anatomy they were born with, it's easy to disregard the idea of someone feeling distressed by their biological gender. But gender dysphoria -- the internal knowledge that you are not the gender you were assigned at birth -- is serious. Recognized by the American Medical Association as a condition that should be treated and covered by health insurance, it "can result in clinically significant psychological distress ... debilitating depression and, for some people without access to appropriate medical care and treatment, suicidality and death."

Treatments AMA recommends include mental health care and sex reassignment surgery.

Before Rep. Morrison filed the Child Privacy Act, a Palatine school in his district was sued for barring a transgender student from accessing the girl's locker room. Ultimately, the U.S. Department of Education found that the school district was in violation of the student's Title IX rights.

Emphasizing that the issue doesn't necessarily fall along "normal Republican, Democrat, religious, non-religious lines," Rep. Morrison said he talked to hundreds of people on the issue, from concerned parents to gay-rights groups. He claimed that most of the people he talked to want an objective standard for bathrooms, such as anatomy. At the same time, he acknowledged that school districts have a responsibility to provide accommodations for trans students.

"We don't want to infringe on the rights of anybody," he said.

While some constituents do call for bills that control which bathrooms transgender Americans can use, evidence of these bills' need is thin.

As opinion pieces at both CNN and The Daily Beast point out, in the more than a dozen states and hundreds of cities that have recently enacted laws protecting transgender people's bathroom rights, law enforcement officials have reported zero bathroom attacks.

You can find a handful of news stories from the past 20 years detailing attacks by men in wigs and dresses in women's washrooms, or the occasional fistfight that involved a transgender person, but few of these cases actually happened in places that protected the rights of transgender people to use the bathroom. Not only are these instances statistically insignificant, but their connections to the transgender community are tenuous.

For Rep. Morrison, the dynamics of bathrooms and locker rooms create a "vulnerable place." Staunchly opposed to bullying, he argues the Child Privacy Act would protect all kids, transgender children included.

"There is a dynamic there unlike what we would see in a classroom, or a hallway, or a coffee shop," he said. "There's a reason why bathrooms are set aside."

To Sommerville, lawmakers are not basing these bills on fact, but "ignorance, fear and myths."

"These lawmakers need to sit down with a transgender student who has experienced this on a day-to-day basis," she suggested.

After South Dakota's republican Governor Dennis Daugaard did just that, he vetoed a bill restricting bathroom access for transgender people.

While it's difficult to find evidence that laws inclusive of the transgender community create unsafe environments, evidence that our society poses multiple dangers to transgender people is plentiful. The transgender community -- especially transgender people of color -- face some of the highest poverty and suicide rates. Hate crimes against transgender people have also been on the rise, according to FBI statistics.

Arguably, laws that undermine the existence of transgender Americans are a greater danger than laws inclusive of transgender people.

"I know what these kids go through. Being refused. It's an every-day occurrence for me," Sommerville said. "And there are some days where I have the strength to handle it, and then there's other days when being segregated to a unisex bathroom feels like I'm being segregated to an eight by eight cell. It's dehumanizing, it's demoralizing, it's embarrassing, and it doesn't do anything to recognize the person's true identity."

In its current form, Rep. Morrison thinks Illinois's proposed bill is a reasonable compromise, but also admits that it isn't perfect.

"If anyone wants to add a suggestion, I'm open to that," he told me. "I want to make my bill better."

Mason Johnson is a Web Content Producer for CBS Chicago. You can find him on Twitter.

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