Now that Ted Cruz’s last hope for stopping Donald Trump rests on ginning up panic and outrage over transgender women using the ladies room, we can officially say that the Republican nominating process is in the toilet.
Cruz is stoking fear about transgender sexual predators stalking women’s rooms, asserting at a rally last week that Trump (as well as Hillary Clinton) would let “grown men use the little girls’ restroom.” He trotted out his two admittedly adorable daughters in matching pink dresses to make sure that no one misses his point that the country’s little girls are in clear and present danger.
His comments follow Trump’s shrug-off of the transgender restroom controversy following North Carolina’s passage of a law that says people must use the bathroom that corresponds to the sex on their birth certificate. Trump said that allowing transgender individuals to use the bathroom of their choice hadn’t caused any problems to date and that people should “use the bathroom they feel is appropriate.”
But beyond Cruz’s craven politicizing of the issue, the transgender bathroom controversy demonstrates what’s really at stake in the larger “religious liberty” debate.
Despite the fact that the only way this could genuinely be said to be a religious liberty issue is if individuals were being prevented from worshipping freely in restrooms, many religious conservatives clearly now see the bathroom debate as a matter of religious freedom, illustrating the relentless creep of the issue.
The North Carolina measure was included in a broader religious liberty bill, while in Pennsylvania conservative groups like the Pennsylvania Family Council are opposing a proposed bill that would provide anti-discrimination protections to LGBT people, including in public restrooms, calling it “one of the most significant threats to religious liberty and privacy rights in the history of the Commonwealth.”
What’s at stake, however, isn’t religious liberty but the right of one group, people who hew to conservative, “traditional” views of marriage and sexuality, to impose a form of socioreligious privilege on society at large. Cruz gave it away when he said that he had no problem with a man who “wishes to dress as a woman and use her home bathroom.” However, he said, “people do not have the right to impose their lifestyles on others.”
Social conservatives are offended by seeing transgender people in restrooms because it undermines their traditional, religiously-based view of gender as binary and fixed. Therefore, to protect their religious beliefs, transgender people must be marginalized and the bathroom issue is, to borrow Fred Clarkson’s term, religified.
The issue has taken on special potency regarding school restrooms, with several parents challenging schools who let transgender children use the restroom of their choice, because they don’t want to have to explain to their kids why Brenda is now Johnnie. This upsets the whole applecart about fixed gender identities as well as traditional male and female sexual and culture roles.
It’s not hard to understand how the more public emergence of transgender people is upsetting to more traditionally minded people, especially in areas without a lot of cultural diversity. Until recently, the social marginalization of LGBT people as a way to maintain rules about gender and sexuality was largely unquestioned. As R.R. Reno charges in First Things, these rules about “gender roles and other foundational categories” were what “ordinary people use to orient themselves and make sense out of their lives,” but now the “transgender revolution” is dismantling these rules as part of an effort to “efface the social authority of the male-female difference.”
But this discomfort, no matter how acutely felt or culturally disorienting, does not equal an affront to religious freedom. It’s easy to see, however, how people make the leap. As one Cruz supporter told New York Times, “The Bible says he created them male and female, so therefore that’s what it’s supposed to be.”
And it’s because the religious liberty issue is just a stalking horse for a broad counter-cultural protest about increasingly liberal attitudes about sexuality and gender identity that the Supreme Court’s effort to find a compromise in the Little Sisters of the Poor case is doomed to failure.
What the conservative justices don’t get (besides how health insurance works or how women access contraception) is that the case has been about asserting socioreligious privilege all along, not about finding the right form for the nuns to sign. The Catholic bishops and their allies on the religious right long for the day when shunning transgender people or shaming sexually active single women was OK because, at the end of the day, the maintenance of their paradigm of sexual morality requires that someone, somewhere isn’t allowed to pee in peace.