In the latest addition to It’s Your Fault, The Cubit’s series on blame in contemporary society, RD associate editor Sarah Morice-Brubaker explores how some conservative Christians channel their anxieties about social change and urban environments through imaginary, fake-transgender bathroom predators.
“The desert was a ‘counter-world,’ a place where an alternative ‘city’ could grow,” writes historian Peter Brown in his beautiful and influential book The Body and Society, a study of early Christian ascetics. Brown explains that the physical geography of Egypt suggested a certain theological geography—a way for ascetics to imagine both the cultured city they were leaving and the brutal desert they were going to. The city and the desert were near each other, thanks to the physical characteristics of the Nile delta. Both the earth’s physical features, and human beings’ built environments, marked a boundary between the two.
Which brings us to Springfield, Missouri. And Fayetteville, Arkansas. And Charlotte, North Carolina. And other red-state cities whose legislative bodies have proposed ordinances that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In each case, the language of these ordinances has included exceptions for religious groups, yet prominent Christian conservatives in each of these areas have mounted campaigns to defeat the ordinances with help from national groups like The Black Robe Regiment, Alliance Defending Freedom, and Watchmen Pastors.
And in all these fights, public toilets—and the possibility of disingenuous creepers lurking therein—became a point of contention. The thinking goes like this: If people are afforded nondiscrimination protections based on gender identity, then some men will put on dresses and claim to be transgender just so they can go into women’s bathrooms and assault girls.
Let’s pause here to note that nothing in the nondiscrimination ordinances makes it legal to commit assault. Supporters of the ordinances claim that municipalities which already have such ordinances have not seen any increase in reports of bathroom assaults. And given the appallingly high rate at which transgender individuals suffer assault or worse, it’s pretty tenuous to conclude that nondiscrimination ordinances create a powerful incentive to pretend to be transgender.
But those points do little to quell the fear expressed by those opposed to nondiscrimination ordinances. Calvin Morrow, one of the prominent faces of the repeal effort in Springfield, told the Springfield News-Leader that the ordinance “will shock the senses of decent people. This will scare most women and little kids”; in Charlotte, N.C., city council member-at-large Michael Barnes expressed his concern that passage of a nondiscrimination ordinance could result in a man following his daughter into a public restroom; in Eureka Springs, Ark., those opposed to the ordinance hung doorknob signs saying “Keep our daughters safe in Eureka Springs bathrooms”; and some conservatives with a national platform, like Mike Huckabee and Bill O’Reilly, have joked that, given the chance, their younger selves would have exploited SOGI ordinances to creep on teenage girls.
So why all the pearl clutching about fake-transgender bathroom creepers? Let me float a working hypothesis. Perhaps the “bathroom creeper” functions here like the satanic daycare provider did in the 1980s, or the evil stepmother did in so many Grimm’s fairy tales. That is, he is a mythical folk villain, the personification of a community’s fear about changes in social relationships.
The fake-transgender bathroom creeper perfectly encapsulates the bind that many Christian conservatives find themselves in. They cannot easily avoid entering into economic relationships with parties they find morally troubling, and even threatening to their worldview. Yet their historic allegiance to capitalism and democracy (the antidote to “godless communism”) prevents them from overtly blaming market forces or the democratic process.
The fake-trans bathroom creeper villain springs out of these worried minds as a perfect recipient of the blame that can’t be directed elsewhere. By means of duplicity, he has finagled entry into a public women’s restroom, an area that well-intentioned people cannot always avoid, even though they might prefer to never go there. The fake-trans bathroom creeper exploits this vulnerability. He means harm, and uses contemporary notions of gender identity as a tool for enacting it. And the people he wants to harm are the very people that patriarchal societies have imagined themselves to be protecting: those weak women and girls whose purity must be safeguarded.
Now, what if we substitute “centers of commerce” for “public restrooms,” “modern secularism” for “fake-trans bathroom creeper,” and “Christian conservatives, especially suburban ones” for “those who care about protecting the imperiled virtue of women and girls”? Do those substitutions work? Hard to say in the abstract. Let’s look at a specific case in Springfield, Missouri.
Not From Springfield
In October 2014 the City Council of Springfield passed a resolution protecting LGBT residents from discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodation. By April 2015, Springfield voters had repealed the SOGI ordinance, thanks largely to the efforts of conservative Christian leaders in the area. Throughout the public debate, opponents of the ordinance raised the specter of bathroom creepers.
Those outside of the heartland might express surprise that a SOGI ordinance could ever pass in southwest Missouri, much less in the city that hosts the headquarters of the Assemblies of God, a major conservative evangelical denomination. But Springfield has nearly 200,000 people, several universities, and a thriving LGBT community center.
Opposition came from Christian Ministries Church, among other places, though CMC is not in the city limits of Springfield, it’s in Billings, Mo., eighteen miles away. But to hear the church’s pastor, Ashley Ellison, tell it, the church is plenty close enough to be a mover and shaker in Springfield politics.
According to this recent sermon, the anti-discrimination ordinance came about thanks to a duplicitous move by the City Council. “They passed it secretly, the City Council of Springfield did,” Ellison says. Shortly thereafter, according to Ellison, he was contacted by Tim Barton of Wallbuilders about helping to repeal the ordinance. (Tim Barton is the son of David Barton, the faux-historian beloved by Glenn Beck. The elder Barton founded Wallbuilders for the purpose of “educating the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country.”)
Ellison was on board. “I said, ‘You bet.’…. [E]ven though our church is not in the city limits of Springfield, in fact we’re quite a ways from it, but we said we’ll devote all that we can, time and energy and people, to help repeal this thing.” In a post for Barton’s Black Robe Regiment network, Ellison elaborates that his vested interest in Springfield’s nondiscrimination policies mainly has to do with commerce. He explains that he was “amazed that such an ordinance would be passed in a city in which I and every member of our congregation do business.”
But Ellison’s claim that the City Council “passed it in secret” is hard to square with the available facts. The City Council had been working on the ordinance as far back as 2012, even responding to the public controversy by creating a task force to study the issue before voting. All of this is a matter of public record. When the ordinance finally did pass in 2014, opponents’ only recourse was to gather enough signatures to repeal it by public vote.
It was a task that Ellison and his church embraced with gusto. Ellison wasn’t alone. James River Church and its pastor John Lindell, for starters, were heavily involved in the effort to repeal. As with Christian Ministries Church, James River Church is not within the Springfield City Limits. Calvin Morrow, the head of a group called Christians Uniting for Political Action, quickly became a prominent face of the pro-repeal effort. According to his LinkedIn listing, Morrow lives in Mansfield, MO, an hour away from Springfield.
One Springfield resident, who preferred not to be named, told me on Facebook that the senior pastor of her Assemblies of God church— not James River, but a different Assemblies of God congregation—urged the congregation to vote for the repeal; he couldn’t do so himself, he said, because he lived outside the Springfield city limits. According to this same resident, the church made pro-repeal yard signs available for free. And Emily Bowen-Marler, a Springfield pastor who supported the ordinance (and who, in full disclosure, is a friend), told me that the pro-repeal electioneers she encountered at polling places were from churches 45 minutes away.
Of Bathrooms, Boundaries, and ‘Burbs
Let’s tally this up. Accusations of duplicity and secrecy? Check. A sense that conservatives’ moral convictions should dictate behavior in a domain that does not belong to them alone (because, after all, they can’t avoid entering that domain sometimes)? Check. An assumption that progressives are operating in bad faith, offering “nondiscrimination,” when really they intend to harm the integrity of the conservative Christian’s worldview? Check.
Viewed in this light, it seems plausible that “public restroom” is serving as a fear proxy for both “the city” and “places where secular transactions take place.” Indeed, the two are not altogether distinct. Very often cities are where business is done, and their influence is only increasing. Urban studies scholarship gives the lie to the outdated notion that suburbs are thriving and cities are blighted. To the contrary, the United States is becoming a more urbanized country, and in many areas cities are thriving while suburbs are losing ground. In general, residents of cities tend to be more socially liberal than residents of suburbs.
What does this mean for today’s religious right, whose success is so intertwined with the rise of suburbs? One possibility is that American evangelicalism will become more urbanized—leaving suburban evangelicalism with an uncertain future. The conservative Christian publication World Magazine (not to be confused with the conspiracy-theory-laden website WorldNet Daily) suggests as much when it reports that evangelicalism’s celebrities are becoming more and more citified:
Just 10 years ago, you would have chosen James Dobson’s Colorado Springs, Rick Warren’s Orange County, and the Wheaton-Willow Creek axis in Chicagoland as the epicenters of evangelical activity—suburbs or exurbs all…. Now, the shepherds are heading to big cities: Mark Driscoll’s Seattle, Louie Giglio’s Atlanta, and, of course, New York—home to Tim Keller, Eric Metaxas, Gabe Lyons, Carl Lentz, Greg Thornbury, Jon Tyson, and others.
Perhaps the implicit fear here isn’t altogether wrong. Suburban conservative Christians may be on to something when they detect that it will be increasingly difficult for them to limit their business relationships to the religiously or politically like-minded. If true, this wouldn’t excuse the reprehensible scapegoating of trans women, of course. But it would provide some necessary context for understanding the scapegoating. That’s important, because unfortunately the phenomenon is not limited to Springfield.
For example, the City Council of Charlotte, NC also considered a nondiscrimination ordinance this year. At the public meeting where it was debated and ultimately voted down, pastor Flip Benham accosted a transgender woman who had gone into the women’s restroom. According to the woman, Benham called her “young man,” “punk,” and “pervert.” Flip Benham, if you’re unfamiliar, is a prominent pastor and leader of Operation Save America, an anti-abortion group that emerged out of Operation Rescue. Operation Save America’s offices are located near Charlotte. They’re in Concord, a suburb with its own government.
When Fayetteville, Arkansas City Council passed a nondiscrimination ordinance, no less a celebrity than Michelle Duggar recorded a robocall that went out to thousands of Fayetteville residents. In it, she stirred fears of bathroom predators—“males with past child predator convictions [who would] claim they are female to have a legal right to enter private areas that are reserved for women and girls.” The Duggar family also donated to the campaigns of Fayetteville politicians who supported the appeal.
The Duggars live in Tontitown, a nearby bedroom community, and not in Fayetteville. It’s striking that the Duggar robocall would raise worries about bathroom invaders, when arguably they were the ones trying to exert influence on a space that wasn’t exactly theirs.
The language and behavior of other conservative activists is likewise instructive. Pastor Jeremy Flanagan describes Fayetteville’s increasingly liberal politics as a sort of invasion from within. He faults liberals for forcing too many rules upon businesses, even as he’s blaming them for not regulating bathrooms.
“Sure,” writes Flanagan for the Black Robe Regiment, “we notice that businesses are fleeing to neighboring cities because of overregulation. We see the liberal agenda being promoted under the mantra of ‘Keep Fayetteville Funky,’ but it has never encroached on us personally…. In August, all that changed.”
Meanwhile, another Fayetteville pastor, Duncan Campbell describes their side’s effort as a virtuous takeover from the outside. “It was light invading the darkness,” he explains, “and the center of the dark cloud was at the very gates of our city.”
Think about the theological and spatial metaphors at play here. Invaders of light coming from outside the city—a city that’s still “theirs”—to do battle with the forces of evil secularism that have somehow appeared from within the city itself. As far as coherence goes, I’m not sure the metaphors hang together. The pairing of opponents seems off, like Jedi vs. Zombies, or Crusaders vs. Martian Bodysnatchers. (OK, those could be awesome movies, but you get my point.)
But note how these metaphors behave similarly to the agents in the fake-trans bathroom creeper scenario. When Campbell says that “the center of the dark cloud was at the very gates of our city,” one might ask: whose city? To which the answer appears to be: our city, we who are invading, bringing light from outside.
And when one hears the argument that nondiscrimination ordinances will invite fake-trans bathroom creepers into “our” midst—nay, at the very door of the stall—one might ask: whose midst? And the answer is, again, those who impose Christian virtue upon it from the outside.
It’s rather ingenious, really. It allows conservatives to appeal to two sentiments that convey powerful moral urgency, even if they ultimately contradict each other. “I am not from here. I have been sent from a better, holier place to fight the forces of evil that have contaminated the city.” And then, in the same breath: “I’m from here. This is my home. I will fight to protect it.”