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Welcome to the home of the toughest 'bathroom bill' in America

How others see it

The Oxford, Ala., City Council passed an ordinance that punishes transgender people with up to six months of jail for using the bathroom that matches their gender identity. The move draws support – and questions.

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    Whitney Kirby stands outside Target in Oxford, Ala., April 28. Target's corporate policy allows patrons to choose which bathroom, male or female, they use. The Oxford city council passed an ordinance punishing people who use bathrooms that are not assigned to their birth sex with a $500 fine and up to six months in the county jail.
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Philip Taliaferro is in total agreement with the toughest “bathroom bill” in the United States.

To him, the new ordinance passed by his hometown of Oxford, Ala., is holding the line against a country “that appears to be going down the wrong road,” when it comes to prioritizing the rights of a small minority of transgender people over the safety of women and children.

“I’d never want my granddaughter to experience that,” the carpenter said on a recent morning. “It’s as if people don’t think about the consequences.”

Bottom line, he adds: “We are who God made us. And God doesn’t make mistakes.”

The debate over gender identity and bathrooms that has tumbled through state legislatures this spring is now spreading to cities and towns from Oxford to Ocala, Fla. North Carolina and Mississippi have passed “bathroom bills”; 15 other states are considering doing so.

Mr. Taliaferro’s deep discomfort with the idea of allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity is in the majority in this Southern city just west of the Talladega Mountains.

But his isn’t the only voice. Some residents questioned why this was even the subject of a national debate. Others are concerned the new ordinance will humiliate already vulnerable people. And some are uncomfortable with Oxford’s place at the vanguard of what resident Mary Hollingsworth calls “our growing war over private parts.”

“What we’re finding on transgender issues is that people aren’t as familiar with the issues or the terminology or what’s really meant when people say their gender identity doesn’t match their assigned sex at birth – a lot of people, even gays and lesbians, are uncertain about that, and uncomfortable with the idea that gender is flexible,” says Don Haider-Markel, a political scientist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, who has studied America’s shifting perceptions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues.

That’s certainly true here in Oxford.

Target as a target

The local Target became the unlikely center of controversy here after the corporate office in Minneapolis last week affirmed its policy of allowing shoppers to choose the bathroom that corresponded with their gender identity.

On Tuesday, the city council passed an ordinance that covers both private business and state-owned buildings. Anyone caught using the “wrong” bathroom faces a $500 fine and up to six months in jail. Citizens are being asked to report suspects to the police. The city council said it reacted directly to resident complaints about Target’s policy.

Oxford City Council President Steven Waits said the ordinance was not passed "out of concerns for the 0.3 percent of the population who identify as transgender ... [but] to protect our women and children."

Concern that allowing transgender women to use women’s restrooms will make it easier for male sexual predators to commit crimes in bathrooms and locker rooms has been frequently raised. At this time, it appears to be mostly hypothetical, at least in the United States. The Charlotte Observer, among others, launched an investigation into such claims. It didn’t find a single confirmed case in the US.

“We haven’t found any instances of criminals convicted of using transgender protections as cover in the United States. Neither have any left-wing groups or right-wing groups,” the Observer wrote. “There was one incident in Canada, involving a rapist. In the US, there have been a few yet-unproven allegations.”

Oxford’s ordinance goes further than any other both by the size of its penalty as well as the fact that it doesn’t just apply to publicly funded facilities, such as laws passed in North Carolina and Mississippi.

And that concerns lifetime resident Whitney Kirby, who was pulling up to shop at Target Thursday. Like Taliaferro, she turns to the Bible for instruction, but she just doesn't understand “punishing people who already have really hard lives.” 

The ordinance, she says, “is really just a way to control people,” and a sign that “we can’t decide what we want to be as a country. But as a person, even considering the laws of God, who am I to say what is or isn’t right?”

Some 300,000 transgender youth and adults might be affected by bathroom bills, according to the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles that researches sexual orientation and gender identity law. The Institute didn’t have figures for Alabama, but according to a March study, there are about 18,000 transgender people in South Carolina, a state of similar size and demographic make-up.

'More acceptance every day'

Evidence suggests that transgender Americans are usually victims of assault, not aggressors. According to a 2013 survey of Washington, D.C., transgender Americans, some 70 percent of transgender adults say they’ve been confronted about their choice of bathroom, including being ridiculed and having the bathroom door barred. Nine percent said they were physically assaulted. 

The governor of South Dakota vetoed a bathroom bill earlier this year after meeting, behind closed doors, with transgender teenagers, who reportedly revealed their deep fears around attending bathrooms that don’t correspond to their gender identity.

According to interviews with several LGBT residents here, at least a handful transgender people live in Oxford or nearby towns served by Target.

Ms. Hollingsworth and her partner, Emily, have thought about moving to more accepting places like Chattanooga, Tenn., or Atlanta. But instead, they have decided to accept the challenge of living life as LGBT people in the Deep South, which amounts, basically, to “not pushing our relationship in people’s faces,” says Hollingsworth. “For a long time, people knew us as roommates,” she says. But, she adds, “everybody pretty much knows the truth.”

To them, the Oxford bathroom law is “wrong” and “infuriating,” the product of a “close-minded” culture.

Still, she says, Oxford is changing. The downtown business area has become home to growing numbers of “eccentric” business owners. “There's more acceptance every day,” says Hollingsworth.

Marcus Pettus, an Oxford bike shop owner, says he feels “the general consensus in town is that the ordinance is kind of a misdirection – people pushing their agenda when it’s just a big deal made out of nothing.”

At the same time, he doesn’t feel those who support the ordinance are motivated by bigotry. “I think most people overreact by thinking, ‘If my daughter is in the restroom, is there going to be a man next to them?’ I’d argue, though, if you’re looking in the next stall, that would raise more questions” than a transgender person in the restroom.

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