Metro Weekly

Tennessee House passes “Business Bathroom Bill” in effort to shame trans-friendly businesses

Business owners say they don't see the point in the law, which requires them to pay to post signs with anti-trans language.

tennessee, bathroom
An all-gender restroom sign – Photo: Ted Eytan, via Wikimedia.

Tennessee lawmakers have passed a bill that seeks to compel businesses to bar transgender people from using restrooms aligning with their gender identity by forcing establishments to post signage advertising their restroom policies, in an effort to shame trans-friendly businesses.

Last month, the Tennessee House approved HB 1182, a bill that requires businesses with multi-user restrooms, whether unisex or open to use by people based on their gender identity, to post 8-inch by 6-inch signs outside each restroom reading: “This facility maintains a policy of allowing the use of restrooms by either biological sex, regardless of the designation on the restroom.”

The State Senate is expected to take up an identical bill, SB 1224, next week, beginning with a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 13. The bill is expected to pass committee and ultimately be approved by the Senate, due to the heavily Republican-lean of the upper chamber and the overwhelming support the measure received from House Republicans.

It is unclear whether Gov. Bill Lee (R) would sign the measure into law, but he has already signed a bill banning transgender athletes from competing in sports based on their gender identity. Additionally, Republicans are so dominant in the legislature that even if Lee were to veto the bill, lawmakers could override his veto, just as Republicans in Arkansas did after their Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, vetoed a bill banning trans youth from accessing gender-affirming medical treatments. 

The bill is part of a package of bills that LGBTQ advocates have dubbed the “Slate of Hate” because they target members of the LGBTQ community for discrimination. In the case of the bathroom signage bill, lawmakers are not only singling out transgender people, but targeting and attempting to socially ostracize business owners who are not actively engaged in discrimination against transgender customers.

Melodía Gutiérrez, an associate regional campaign director for the Human Rights Campaign, called out House lawmakers following initial passage of the bill, saying it continues lawmakers’ “relentless assault” against members of the transgender community.

“Denying transgender people the ability to play sports or access the bathroom consistent with their gender identity is part of a pernicious, degrading, and  systematic attempt to dehumanize one of our most vulnerable communities,” Gutierrez said in a statement. “Transgender children especially are faced with heightened levels of anxiety, depression, and dysphoria when they are denied the chance to live consistent with their identity. The people of Tennessee are facing serious challenges that affect their everyday lives, from healthcare to infrastructure, including a pandemic that requires decisive action from its state leaders. Instead, the legislature is focused on targeting transgender people and advancing their ‘Slate of Hate.'”

See also: Tennessee bill would allow students to sue over sharing restrooms and locker rooms with transgender peers

Joe Wooley, the CEO of the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the bathroom signage bill, noted that several businesses objected to the measure because it required them to shell out money to pay for and install the signs outside each restroom and outside the main entrance to the establishment. Then, a group of pro-business organizations that are not concerned with being LGBTQ-friendly, including the National Federation of Independent Business and the retailers’ federation, lobbied lawmakers to gut some of the bill’s enforcement mechanisms and eliminate the requirement for the sign on the front entrance.

“If a business has inclusive bathroom policies and they do not put up these signs as the law states they should, there are no penalties for them,” Wooley said. “So nothing happens. So literally, the only thing the bill does is put discrimination into a green book to sit on a shelf. … It’s just discrimination on the page.

“Now, we continue to warn businesses and our members that lawmakers could easily come back to this issue next year and put the penalties back in, so they should be opposed to the bill and trying to kill it now,” he added. “But let’s just say there are penalties and that most businesses do comply. What it does is it paints a target on the front of an inclusive business. It puts a target right on their front door.”

The Redheaded Stranger restaurant in Nashville – Photo: Instagram.

Wooley also raised the possibility that anti-equality advocates could threaten or even carry out acts of violence against businesses with trans-friendly policies. But what’s more likely is that some customers offended by trans-friendly restroom policies would stop doing business or frequenting certain businesses.

“What the bill’s sponsors wanted to do was discriminate against trans people. And if they can punish a business that is inclusive of trans people, by making them pay for a sign, all the better,” Wooley said. “And that’s what it comes down to, is legislators trying to discriminate against transgender individuals, and if they can punish the businesses that support them, they’re going to target those businesses and try to hurt them as well.”

The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Tim Rudd (R-Murfreesboro) told local CBS affiliate WREG that the law is needed to protect people, particularly women and children, from sexual predators who may enter a bathroom for prurient purposes, and the only way to ensure that does not happen is to require transgender people to use bathrooms matching their assigned sex at birth. Otherwise, he claims, predators will claim to be transgender to take advantage of trans-friendly policies.

See also: Young Americans oppose restrictions on bathroom use for transgender people

But Micahel Shemtov, the proprietor of Nashville-based restaurants Butcher & Bee and Redheaded Stranger, says he believes the issue of restroom usage is a “fabricated” one. After being read the language on the sign, Shemtov said he thought the sign’s references to “biological sex” were misleading.

“I’m in a lot of conversations with a lot of restaurant owners. I’ve not heard this  mentioned a single time ever, anywhere, in 20 years in the restaurant business,” Shemtov says, noting that when he first heard about the bill, he thought of paying the fine rather than installing the required sign. “Again, this is not a problem that we’ve ever heard about from a customer or a staff member or a colleague.”

Shemtov says he doesn’t wish to anger or offend customers by delving deeply into the culture wars — after all, he’s mindful that some proportion of his customers, who largely hail from Nashville and the Middle Tennessee region, will be offended by any pro-LGBTQ policies — but believes most of his customers would stand by the business, even if he was forced to post the sign.

“Generally, I don’t think we should be fighting culture wars in politics, and definitely not in restaurants, but if pushed to stand by our opinions, our values, I’d rather have less business and know that we support what we believe in than compromise our values to be more hospitable to homophobic or transphobic people,” he says. “We’re willing to make that trade off, if it comes down to it. But we also are not looking to unnecessarily inflame customers.”

Butcher & Bee in Nashville – Photo: Facebook.

He says he sees the bill as an unnecessary distraction from more important issues.

“I think it’s a shame with the pandemic and an economic crisis and all the injustices that have been laid bare, that this is where we’re focusing,” Shemtov says. “It reminds me a little bit of what happens in the Middle East, where I’m from.

“When a country’s economy is really problematic and there’s social unrest and there’s issues with civil society, they lob a bomb at Israel, verbally or literally, to sort of get everybody focused on, ‘Hey, that’s not the real enemy. So what if there’s not enough food to eat, and there’s graft at all levels of the government? There’s Israel and they’re the bad guy. They’re evil,” he adds. “It’s just inflaming people’s passions about cultural issues, related to religion, as a means to distract from the poor job that we’re actually doing dealing with a public health emergency and an economic emergency.”

Wendy McCown, the transgender owner of Club Temptation in Cookeville, Tennessee, says she also feels it’s unnecessary and a waste of money for businesses to post signage regarding their bathroom policies. Because her club has a third unisex bathroom — showing a picture of Bigfoot, a woman, a man, and an alien with the message ‘I don’t care who uses this as long as you wash your hands’ — in addition to one designated for women and another for men, Club Temptation would be among the establishments required to post a sign regarding their bathroom policies.

“I think it’s a waste of time, considering that even though my business is an LGBTQ bar, my clientele is 50-50 in terms of straight versus LGBT,” she says, noting that, in her experience, it’s cisgender women who are the most likely to use restrooms regardless of their designation — something that flies in the face of of the talking points advanced by lawmakers pushing for the signage bill. “I’ve never had an issue for four years, serving a very diverse group of people — and I’m talking about people from the far left to the far right, politically — coming into the bar to drink and play pool and watch the drag shows or karaoke.

“I don’t think people are there to sit and watch who’s going in and out of the bathroom. And I just find it something odd in the middle of a pandemic and health care issues and education issues and everything that’s going on for small business owners, that now they want to add something so trivial to the list of things that I need to do in order for my business to be compliant,” McCown says.

McCown says she’s not even sure of the purpose of the law, questioning whether lawmakers intend to pester small business owners and levy fines against them for lacking proper signage.

“Are people going to be on a registry or list of businesses that have unisex bathrooms? Are people going to stop at my door and ask, ‘Do you have a unisex bathroom?’ … I don’t see what the purpose of this is, except to target individuals, or provide red meat for [politicians’] base. Is this just providing red meat for the base because they lost a presidential election? Because as a trans woman owning a business, when I go into a bathroom, I go in, I use the restroom and I wash my hands,” McCown says

“I’ve spent 20 years transitioning. I am very happy and lucky that I that I pass in society. nAnd in my 20 years of living as Wendy, I’ve never had someone stop me and say, ‘By the way, what is your biological sex?’ So I don’t understand how we’ve gotten to this point.”

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