Legislating priorities: like where people pee

Mar 4, 2015 at 3:09 pm

This year marks my seventh in the Kentucky General Assembly as the Fairness Campaign’s director, and through all the good and bad I’ve seen, I never thought we’d be busy debating where people pee, but that’s the Kentucky Senate for you.

Freshman Senator C.B. Embry, a Morgantown Republican, has sought to make a name for himself with what he calls “the most popular bill I’ve ever introduced” — an anti-transgender “Bathroom Bully Bill,” Senate Bill 76, which requires biological and chromosomal proof of a student’s gender to use the bathroom.

The legislation should never have seen the light of day, but very little light — or logic — is ever shed upon issues of LGBT rights in Frankfort. Not only did the Senate Education Committee schedule a hearing on the issue, they did so in the midst of Kentucky’s snow emergency, when most schools and even the Kentucky House of Representatives called off, but not the Senate. They had gravely important matters to legislate, like where people pee.

During testimony, the bill’s sponsor and policy wonks from the Family Foundation touted the dire importance of “decorum” and espoused their fears that trans folks would go about flashing folks in the bathroom.

Henry, a 16-year-old transgender high school student, spoke simply and compellingly to legislators, letting them know how embarrassing it was to be before them talking about where he goes to the bathroom. He explained that, above all else, he’s just a normal kid and wants to be treated like one.

Henry’s mother shared the same and added the fears she’s experienced having a trans child, like the incredibly high harassment and assault rates against trans teens and worst of all, the fact that nearly 50 percent of all trans kids attempt suicide because of the rejection and isolation they feel.

Finally, Dr. Tom Aberli, principal of Atherton High School, addressed the panel. Last year, it was Dr. Aberli’s school that — after countless hours of research, multiple public hearings and three separate votes — decided to allow a transgender student to use the restroom facilities that matched her gender identity. Dr. Aberli testified that there have been no problems since the policy’s implementation and that he saw this issue as one of basic human dignity.

Moved by the testimony, the Senate Education Committee did something it never does — it failed to pass an anti-LGBT law. Achieving just six of the seven votes necessary for passage, with bi-partisan opposition, the measure failed.

And then it didn’t.

Less than a week later, with many members missing, the committee re-voted 8-1. And that’s just how things go in Frankfort. Last Friday, the full Senate sounded off on what they must consider one of the most important issues of our time — where Kentucky kids go to the bathroom. During the robust debate, Chairman Wilson once again insisted the bill was about “modesty.”

Louisville Senator Gerald Neal had his fill: “This is not about modesty. This is about fear.”

Several others spoke out against the bill, including former Governor Julian Carroll of Frankfort, who cited the issue of bullying as one of his utmost concerns.

Louisville Senator Morgan McGarvey reminded colleagues that if they passed Senate Bill 76, they would be removing the capability of local schools to do what they think is best for their students, and Lexington Senator Reggie Thomas cautioned, “It represents a dark day in this chamber when we adopt a policy that discriminates against a group of people.”

Perhaps Louisville Senator Perry Clark summed it up most bluntly, “It seems to me we are using the sledgehammer of state law. These are simply children trying to use the bathroom.”

Their voices were joined in “No” votes by Louisville Senator Denise Harper Angel and three Senate Republicans — Louisville Senator Julie Raque Adams, Berea Senator Jared Carpenter and Union Senator John Schickel. Though the legislation passed the Senate 27-9, never before had there been such significant debate on LGBT rights amongst Kentucky’s upper chamber, and never before had Senate Republicans voted on the side of Fairness.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo suggested his chamber has more important things to debate in their last week than where kids pee, so it seems likely this legislation will fade into the annals of 2015’s failed bills, but expect more issues like this in coming years. Call 800-372-7181 today to let your State Representative know you’re opposed to Senate Bill 76 and keep an eye on the Fairness Campaign’s Twitter feed @FairnessCamp for breaking news on legislation that affects LGBT rights in Kentucky.