Bathroom Bills Part III: How the Wedge Could Dissolve

One of the things we see frequently with wedge issues is that both sides dig in on something pretty quickly as soon as it turns up. On a national level, 2 years ago, bathrooms were a non-issue. Today, they're divisive. One side wants an immediate and sweeping change to a long status-quo, using law; the other side wants to codify the status quo using law. 

How does this gridlock get broken? If we sit back (from a meta-perspective) and just let things run their course, this wedge issue could go one of two ways: the way of Gay Marriage, or the way of Abortion. The first has unraveled and is settled, for practical purposes. The latter of course remains intractable.

The Way of Gay Marriage

Gay marriage, like lots of social change--women's suffrage, civil rights, etc--happened during a generation. It was a non-issue (on the national level), it became an issue, and within a few decades it was resolved.

The factors leading to it were these:

  1. Younger generations were in favor, and as they took command of politics they drove change
  2. Socially, it became increasingly accepted for gay people to be publicly gay and make clear that they wanted equal status: this caused more and more people to become familiar with gay people in society and in their community--people found out friends of theirs were gay, and empathy increased
  3. The change came state-by-state, rather than nationally, and these democratic crucibles showed that the sky didn't fall when gay couples got married

Many of the factors are similar with the transgender bathroom issue. We'll look at California as a case study as there's some good polling data. Right now, 52% of registered voters support law AB 1266 (in effect), which requires schools to let students choose their own bathrooms and locker rooms based on their gender identity, and also choose their sports teams. 41% oppose it.

  1. Generational: If we look at those aged 18-29, 67% support the bill, and 38% of those over 64 support it. If this follows anything like women's rights or civil rights, the newer generation is unlikely to reverse significantly towards the status quo.
  2. State by state adoption: Nationally, support is "in the red" for people choosing their own bathrooms and the like, but many "blue" states and those with very large urban populations show more support. Because the issue's new, many states haven't made general rulings about schools or public facilities (like restaurants, and etc), and as these go to legislature or court, they'll have a public/media eye on them and the public will get to observe how many problems might arise (like the aforementioned concern over cis men entering women's rooms).
  3. Familiarity: 62% of those who know a transgender person support the bill, and 30% oppose it. So it's likely that as more people become familiar with trans people, support will increase. (There may be some reverse causation; those in support are likely of a political and cultural bent that they'll insert themselves into circles with more trans people, and/or trans people may avoid cultural/political groups that are less supportive, but if gay acceptance and marriage is any indicator, osmosis will drive support.)

So from this angle it looks likely that support will coalesce around support for transgender people being able to use the bathrooms of their choice, and it looks like it'll move faster than the generation-long gay marriage issue, given the movement we've seen in polls over just the past few years when the issue has been in the public sphere.

The Way of Abortion

I think there is some chance that the transgender bathroom issue has a complicating factor that is a bit like--though not nearly as intense as--abortion.

With gay marriage, it's really a "not my problem" issue. Two gay people getting married impedes on someone else's personal life not at all. Basically, nobody is affected but the people who choose to get married.

With abortion, many people believe that the fetus does--at some point--become a person. From that perspective, the choice to abort a fetus involves another non-consenting person, and I think that prevents many people from taking the "not my problem" stance that makes it easier for gay marriage to become now-widely supported.

In the case of bathrooms, there is a small "other people's problem" factor. Generally, bathrooms are a place where people are somewhat vulnerable and want privacy. If you are, for example, a woman, you may not want a man hanging around in the bathroom. Custom--if not law--has enforced this, and currently very few people are proposing unisex bathrooms as a whole, which suggests most supporters of transgender bathroom choice are not necessarily asking people to let go completely of this need for privacy/comfort.

So looking back at the aforementioned objection, there's a concern that bathroom choice means that gender privacy becomes unenforcable (because if women want a cis man out of their bathroom, he could claim that he's identifying as a woman): in short, someone may continue to be uncomfortable with the idea that by custom or law, a man might be able to walk into the woman's bathroom. Whether this is your concern or not (just like the personhood of a fetus) isn't the point--the point is simply that there is a small "other people" factor in bathroom choice, in a way that absolutely doesn't exist in the case of gay marriage.

Now, I happen to think that this is small enough that it won't prevent a change in support--particularly because young people are showing increasing comfort with allowing trans people to choose their bathrooms, where newer generations continue to be more split on abortions. So I predict that Americans will trend towards agreement on bathroom choice, in time.


Familiarity with the people most affected by a law can be a powerful agent for creating empathy and changing minds. This may go "both ways" on the political spectrum--it certainly worked for gay marriage. In places like Spain, voters have become more familiar with the frustrations/paperwork/costs that small business owners need to deal with in their regulatory environment, and this helped bring about a "business-friendly" coalition in Spain in the 2011 election.

I think it's clear that this "familiarity" approach is more powerful than beratement. Something to consider next time you're trying to make some change in the world. 


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.