Credit: woaiss / Shutterstock.comOne of the reasons the trans* rights movement has fallen so far behind the gay rights movement is that the latter has an umbrella issue, marriage equality, that acts as a comfortable gateway for Americans to gay rights in general. Marriage equality is winning issue—it’s easy to love and impossible to oppose without being a bigot—and it opens the door to support for the broader gay rights agenda. But thus far, trans* people have struggled to find a single unified rallying cry that can capture hearts and minds to the same degree.
Now, however, the search may be over. On Thursday, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Nicole Maines, a trans* fifth grader, must be allowed to use the girls’ bathroom in school. Although Maines has identified as a girl her entire life, her school refused to allow her access to the girls’ bathroom—a violation, the court found, of the state’s broad Human Rights’ Act. Because the 5-1 ruling was based on state law, the Supreme Judicial Court has the final word on the matter; from now on, all trans* students in Maine must be permitted to use the bathroom of their choice.
The victory comes on the heels of a similar success in California, where the state legislature recently passed a transgender students rights law designed to let trans* students use the bathroom of their preferred gender. During debate over the bill, representatives spoke eloquently about the challenges young trans* kids face on a daily basis, the fraught confrontations and bullying that can turn a regular school day into a living hell. The act easily passed the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, though it may now face a statewide referendum in November.
What we’re seeing in California and Maine—as well as Massachusetts, which also grants school bathroom protections—is the possible birth of a winning issue for the trans* movement. When most Americans think of trans* people, they become fascinated by, even fixated on, questions about their genitalia. This preoccupation occludes their perception of trans* people as actual humans, and allows conservatives to hijack their humane impulses with panicked screams of perversion. But kids are different. It’s hard to look at Nicole Maines and see anything other than a normal (if very poised and eloquent) fifth-grader who wants nothing more than the ability to use her school’s bathroom in peace. Her opponents, meanwhile, come across as mean-spirited bullies, inexplicably dedicated to ruining her childhood.
And that’s the brilliance of the bathroom battle: By focusing on blameless children, the trans* movement has deftly turned the tables on conservatives, transforming The Bathroom Horrible from a touchy side issue to a righteous (and winnable) campaign. For decades, conservatives have tried to paint kids as the victim of LGBTQ rights, moaning that trans* acceptance will disturb and distress innocent little schoolchildren. Now the tables have turned, and those schoolchildren are suddenly the victims of conservatives’ rancorous and cold-blooded campaign against basic human rights.
Only three states, of course, have explicitly handed trans* kids the right to use their bathroom of choice—but even that may be enough to change the tone of the conversation. While explicit gay-bashing has largely disappeared from mainstream media, trans*-bashing remains alive and well, much of it seizing on a predictable call to “protect the children.” Now it’s trans* activists who want to protect the children, and conservative bigots who want to deny them the right to live their lives as normal kids. And in a country like America, that kind of bullying doesn’t play too well in the court of public opinion.
Mark Joseph Stern is a Slate contributor. He writes about science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.