It worked in Houston. That’s where social conservatives won their first battle using the bathroom predator myth, an argument that alleges allowing transgender people to use the restrooms that correspond with their gender identity would result in men putting on dresses, sneaking into women’s restrooms and sexually assaulting women and children. In November 2015, Houston residents voted 61 percent to 39 percent against an equal rights ordinance, following a campaign that alleged the ordinance would result in bathroom assaults.
It also worked in North Carolina, and in other states. North Carolina is facing backlash from across the country after passing a law that would require transgender people to use the bathrooms that correspond with the gender on their birth certificate, also after conservatives waged a similar campaign.
Playing to people’s fears, instead of relying on a fact-based argument, is a well-tried approach in politics. But in the battle for LGBT rights, it hasn’t worked in nine cities in West Virginia.
Charleston was the first city to enact an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance. The ordinance passed unanimously in August of 2007. At the time, Mayor Danny Jones said, “Hopefully other cities will follow.”
They range from Thurmond, the smallest town in the nation with such an ordinance, to the state’s capital city and its most populated.
Morgantown, Huntington, Harpers Ferry, Sutton, Lewisburg, Martinsburg and Shepherdstown also have enacted similar ordinances.
In the nine years since the first ordinance passed, there have been no reports of bathroom assaults occurring as a result.
“We’ve never had that problem,” Mayor Danny Jones said last week.
In contrast, Jones said the ordinance has been good for the image of the city. He said he doesn’t believe “that ordinance really has much to do with bathrooms.”
“Nor do I think the one in Charlotte, North Carolina had much to do with bathrooms,” he said. “It was just a regular human rights ordinance.”
Huntington’s passed in December of 2013.
At the time, Kat Williams, now chair of Huntington’s LGBT advisory committee, was just a citizen who was paying close attention.
Williams didn’t know of any instances when a resident has had to sue, using the ordinance. But Williams, who is a lesbian, explained that the ordinances are about so much more than the ability to sue.
“I moved to Huntington in August of 2001 to take a job at Marshall,” she said. “I have watched the city grow and change and become more inclusive, but what was always missing was the feeling that the city leaders, the politicians, the city council cared about me as a citizen and my rights as a citizen of Huntington... It does make me feel like a full citizen.”
Thurmond unanimously passed the ordinance in February 2015.
No lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people live in Thurmond. It didn’t matter, according to Tighe Bullock, one of the town’s council members.
“We wanted to show that from the smallest town to the biggest town that West Virginians believe in equality,” he said. “Charleston was pushing from the top. I wanted us to push from the bottom, so that everyone in between would follow suit.”
Thurmond made national news after their ordinance passed.
“My favorite comment was some guy saying ‘thanks Tighe, what am I supposed to do with my preconceived notions of backwoods West Virginia now?’” Bullock said. “It definitely helped our national image.”
Five of the ordinances passed in just the last year. And in at least two of the cities, social conservatives have attempted to defeat the ordinances using the bathroom predator tactic.
Sutton passed their ordinance in October, before conservatives started trying the bathroom predator argument in the state.
“We wouldn’t put up with such shenanigans,” said Mayor Johnnie Campbell.
The Family Policy Council, a conservative organization that fights against effort to expand LGBT rights in the state, didn’t implement the strategy until later, in Lewisburg.
“They’re an industrious bunch and any time they can garner a headline they like to do it, but I don’t think they’re get very far here,” Campbell said. “I think we’d laugh them right out of town.”
In Lewisburg, City Council members heard the argument for weeks.
During the final reading on Feb. 1, more than 500 people packed the venue. Many of the opponents, most of whom were not from Lewisburg, relayed bathroom-related fears when speaking against the ordinance.
The vote followed weeks of unanticipated, impassioned debate in Lewisburg. City Council members had been bombarded with comments. But they did some soul searching, and in the end, they unanimously voted in support of the ordinance.
Two months have passed, and no one has been attacked in any bathrooms, so far as Mayor John Manchester knows.
“For the whole build-up, it was very stressful,” Manchester said. “In the long run, I’m proud of my council for taking a stand they felt was important despite the intensity of the emails and phone calls that they received. I hope that as time elapses and with no adverse effects of this ordinance that people will understand that the intent of the ordinance was simply to indicate support for equal rights in employment, housing and public accommodations.”
Next came Martinsburg. People called council members, invoked the bathroom predator myth and tried to intimidate them into voting against it, according to Jason Baker, one of the council members.
“I’ll be honest,” he said. “It was working very well with some council members at one point in time.”
People on both sides of the issue packed chambers for the vote, there too. Most supported the ordinance, but some opposed.
“We had one preacher on the council floor who told us hell was going to open up and we were going to fall in,” Baker said.
But in the end, council members didn’t buy the argument there, either. On Feb. 11, they unanimously voted in support of the ordinance.
“It was so outrageous of an argument for them it just didn’t hold any weight,” Baker said.
Three of the ordinances — those in Lewisburg, Martinsburg and Shepherdstown — passed while a battle over LGBT rights was being fought in the West Virginia Legislature.
The West Virginia Religious Freedom Restoration Act would have established a legal process for courts to follow when people or businesses believed governmental action — such as local nondiscrimination ordinances — was violating their religious beliefs. Some supporters openly said the bill was a reaction to the legality of same-sex marriage.
Baker said he believes the bill, and another sponsored by Senator Craig Blair, was a direct response to cities’ enacting LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances. Blair, a Republican, introduced a resolution that would have invalidated LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances. He happens to represent Berkeley County, where Martinsburg is located.
It was a busy session for both the Family Policy Council and the statewide LGBT rights group Fairness West Virginia, according to Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia.
“Allen [Whitt, president of the Family Policy Council,] said to me at one point ‘can we make a deal and you guys hold off on supporting those nondiscrimination ordinances during the session?’” Schneider said. “I said ‘are you crazy?’”
Whitt did not return calls from the Gazette-Mail.
Schneider has a theory on why the bathroom argument hasn’t taken hold in many cities in West Virginia.
“Very few places compare to the warmth and friendliness of West Virginians,” he said. “We need each other. We’re in a small state that is economically struggling and we need each other.”