Meanness and meaning

We are living in very mean times.

The news is filled with police assaults and murders of people of color. Congress is continuing to try to gut health care and other social safety nets. Certain elements of the media continue to blame women, immigrants, the poor, religious minorities and people of color — amongst others — for all of society’s ills.

In the way of all this, the religion right — presumably feeling that the writing is on the wall for the marriage battle they’ve fought since the 1990s — is looking for new avenues that will allow them to continue to discriminate against LGBT people.

With a stroke of Gov. Mike Pence’s pen, Indiana became the most recent state to pass a “religious-freedom bill.” The bill, SB 101, opens the door for discrimination against LGBT people in the Hoosier State based on one’s religious beliefs.

The Indiana law, which has since been amended but not to the level LGBT advocates say is necessary, is one of 21 laws enacted by states after the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 was held as unconstitutional as applied to states in 1997. The push for these bills has ramped up, too, in the wake of the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the case that allowed that company to not cover contraception for its employees under the Affordable Care Act based on the corporation’s religious beliefs.

As the wildfires that are these “religious-freedom” bills continue to spread, this is not the only tack the right is taking. Within the transgender community — as I have discussed more than a few times — the fight is on to bar transgender people from restrooms and other public facilities under the guise of “public safety” and a mythological fear that sexual predators will use such bills to commit crimes.

Bills continue to proceed in Texas and Florida. A third bill, in Kentucky, has thankfully failed to pass a Democrat-controlled House, but not without a good fight.

A pair of Missouri bills provides an additional wrinkle: One will disallow bathrooms that aren’t single-stall to be gender-neutral, while another would disallow state revenue to be used to help create a “gender-neutral environment.”

I’m trying to figure out how removing gender-neutral bathrooms can be really covered under this veneer of “public safety.” It can only be assumed to be squarely to disallow transgender people equal access to public facilities.

A recent case in Midland, Mich., may be a new flashpoint in this battle. A Planet Fitness location canceled the membership of one of its users, Yvette Cormier, who had stated that a “man” — in actuality, a transgender woman — was using the facility, and complained to several other customers about it. Planet Fitness, citing its policy as a “judgment-free zone,” canceled her membership.

Cormier is not going quietly. Indeed, she is suing Planet Fitness for more than $25,000, claiming “embarrassment, humiliation and severe emotional distress” from “a man [using] the locker room” while Cormier did. Her counsel, the Kallman Legal Group, has a history of anti-LGBT causes.

I want to share one more story, though, perhaps in contrast to the above. Planet Fitness is not the first gym to face a similar issue.

Some months back, a transgender woman by the name of Tammy Powers was at a 24 Hour Fitness location in San Francisco. She had been using this facility for just over a year.

Much like the Planet Fitness incident, Powers was in the changing room when another woman started shouting. “There’s a man in here,” she called. The two of them exchanged words, making their way to the front desk to complain about each other.

The staff of 24 Hour Fitness took them both aside to get their individual accounts. At the end of this, Powers was told that this situation would not happen again. Powers did not ask what the staff had done, deciding that it was over and time to just “move on.”

There’s more to this story.

Months later, a woman approached Powers at the gym, saying, “Hi, remember me?” It was the woman who had called her out.

She continued, “I really need to apologize to you.” She added that she had no real information about transgender people, and did not understand what Powers was going through. She had since learned more. At the end, they hugged.

I spoke to Powers before finishing this column, and we discussed how this contrasted with what happened at Planet Fitness. It reminded me of an important part of all of these bathroom bills, and one I’ve addressed before.

Many people out there, even now, do not understand us. They may not even realize they know any transgender people. We’ve not been a part of their experience. When their lawmakers push for these anti-transgender “bathroom bills,” people don’t see how this will harm anyone — and they may truly believe that anyone who is transgender is a potential predator.

Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, especially in the wake of all this anger, hate and general meanness in the air. We can hardly claim to be this modern, enlightened society we often claim to be while blacks are still being lynched in Mississippi, or while women still get blamed for helping to “cause” their own rapes.

As we gain a voice, and as we continue to gain visibility, we become harder to demonize. People begin to see transgender people not as some faceless “other” in the world, but as their coworker, family member, friend. We become human. Sometimes the greatest change will not come from policy or law — but from people losing their fear through familiarity.

That, too, will beat any meanness.