Restroom bill sparks emotional, legal debate at hearing

Minnesota lawmakers tiptoed on Tuesday into a brewing national debate over gender-based restrictions on restroom use, airing their divide during a House committee hearing featuring legal analysis and personal accounts on both ends of the transgender issue. They took no vote.

Introduced with 35 Republican co-authors on the heels of North Carolina's enactment of a law designating bathroom and locker room use based on biological sex, the Minnesota bill won't advance this year. But that didn't quell emotions during a 90-minute House Civil Law Committee hearing in which the chair frequently resorted to her gavel to quiet the crowd.

Supporters used their allotted time to argue that expectations of privacy shouldn't be trumped by transgender accommodations, with some saying that relying on legal protections based on gender self-identity or sexual orientation are ripe for abuse.

"Anyone can claim to be transgender, even sexual predators who are not in fact transgender," said Minneapolis attorney Melissa Coleman. She added, "Inviting men into women's bathrooms puts women and girls at risk of sexual assault."

Kate Ives, who spoke of being uncomfortable at her health club, said she fears being called "transphobic" for advocating for the bill, which would reserve women's restroom facilities for people biologically defined as such and men's restrooms in equal fashion.

"I am trying to be sensitive to their feelings, but I don't believe that I need to relinquish my right to privacy and safety," she said.

North Carolina has faced a backlash for its law. Democratic governors such as Minnesota's Mark Dayton restricted state employee travel there, entertainers have canceled appearances and corporations scaled back expansion plans. The most recent example came Tuesday, when Deutsche Bank AG froze its 250-job growth plan at a Raleigh-area software development center and cited the law as the reason.

A string of opponents, including transgender people and their relatives, railed against the Minnesota bill as an invitation for discrimination or worse.

Riah Roe, a transgender woman from Minneapolis, told of being forced to show identification before being allowed into a restaurant restroom.

"I have the right to exist, to present as I wish, to be called what I like. And I have the right to use the bathroom," Roe said. "It did not matter if I were to have gone into the men's room or the women's room that night, the message would have still been the same: Get out of our non-transgender spaces."

Rep. Barb Yarusso, DFL-Shoreview, a parent of a transgender son, said the bill's aim is misguided and brought up memories of the civil rights movement.

"Fear does not equal danger and, people, the whites-only bathrooms were justified by fear and privacy concern," Yarusso said. "As a mom, I am afraid for my son's safety. Needing to pee is a basic biological need. If my son can't go to the men's room with his beard, he's not going to be able to go to the women's room with his beard. This bill treats my son like a dog because he can't pee inside a public accommodation."

Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, said a law of this kind would be difficult to enforce.

"Do we get to the point where it's as ridiculous as we have equipment checkers standing at the door.  And how does that work?" Lesch asked rhetorically. "I can only imagine the personal privacy rights that are violated in that instance."

Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, the lead sponsor of the bill, stressed that he has built-in exceptions to permit opposite-sex access for parents accompanying minor children, caretakers for the disabled and in cases of emergency. He said employers and others can also opt for single-stall occupancy facilities to comply.

While no vote was planned or taken, Democrats on the committee said it revealed questionable priorities by majority Republicans. Committee Chair Peggy Scott, R-Andover, chafed at the charge.

"All across the state of Minnesota there are parents showing up in school districts today that are concerned about the privacy and safety of their children at their own schools," she said. "Minnesota needs to have this discussion."

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