Several Letcher County citizens attended an early-morning meeting of the Letcher County Fiscal Court to voice their concerns about a proposal that could result in a county ordinance regulating bathroom use in public and county-owned buildings.
As many as 20 citizens attended the 8:30 a.m. meeting to object to District One Magistrate Bobby Howard’s request last week that the fiscal court pass a “transgender law” requiring individuals to use restrooms that correspond with the gender they had at birth rather than the gender they identify with. The court authorized Letcher County Attorney Jamie Hatton to see what action, if any, the fiscal court could take.
The issue of transgender bathroom rights has been in the national news lately, most prominently after North Carolina passed a law which states that public occupancy bathroom use in schools or other public and government buildings in North Carolina will be regulated to make certain that gender identified multi-use restrooms are only to be used by a person of the sex that matches their birth certificate.
The North Carolina law led to the Obama administration issuing a federal directive specifying that under the Title IX federal civil rights law, schools must treat a students consistent with the student’s gender identity. The directive says schools cannot require transgender students to produce a birth certificate or force them to use bathrooms inconsistent with that identity.
Cowan resident Elizabeth Sanders told the court that she felt it was part of her responsibility as a citizen to take part in the conversation and that she is concerned about how financial resources are being used in the county. She said a discriminatory bathroom ordinance could severely affect the county’s budget and planning, along with the limited resources the county has for tourism.
“No one is going to want to come here,” said Sanders “People will boycott this town if we move forward with this ordinance.”
Sanders said she feels that the court will face a number of expensive lawsuits if the ordinance goes forward. She added that it is the court’s responsibility to see that the budget goes forward prudently and she did not believe a discriminatory ordinance would help.
“Even bringing this ordinance into public discourse is really harmful to our community at large, whether it goes through or not,” she said.
Sanders spoke after the court finished with a special budget workshop meeting held May 20. She thanked District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming for the items he had had restored to the county’s operating budget for the next fiscal year (related story appears elsewhere in this edition) and said she wished she lived in his district, but “unfortunately, I live in Mr. Howard’s.”
Sanders told the court she grew up in Letcher County and returned here after college. She said she lives in the Cowan area and was introduced to Howard at the Cowan Community Center. She said that while she thinks Howard has done some good things, she is very disappointed in what he has brought to the community with his ordinance proposal.
“You’re not serving the people of your district. I’m one of them, I elected you,” said Sanders. “Not only have you lost my vote, I will do everything in my power to make sure you are not elected again, because we don’t need this in our county.”
Sanders said she had joined the court members in the opening prayer when they asked God to help them make responsible decisions for the county. However, she said that “God doesn’t discriminate. I ask you to do us right and drop this bathroom ordinance.”
Whitesburg resident Terrance Ray commented that he had just witnessed an hour of budget arguments, and that during that time he had wanted to stand up and tell the court that the best way to stimulate the budget is to make the county as inclusive as possible.
“Passing anything that causes discrimination in this community is not going to make any of these conversations about a budget any easier,” he said.
Brandon Jent, who said he represents a group of young leaders in Letcher County, told the court he does not feel the bathroom ordinance is a good way to address the county’s limited financial resources. He thanked the court for letting him speak and said he wanted to interject a personal note into the conversation. Jent said that even though the ordinance has not yet been passed and is in its earliest stages, his sister, who he said was born female and identifies as a female, was harassed outside a bathroom in a grocery store in Letcher County recently by a man who thought she was transgender.
“If any of you think this will protect community members like my sister, it has already put her in more danger,” said Jent, and he urged the court to take the matter seriously.
Pound, Virginia resident Annie Jane Cotton told the court the conversation reminded her of the time Pound outlawed public dancing in 2001, resulting in the loss of businesses and visitors. She said she does not go to bars, she does go to the Cowan Community Center to dance. She told the court that she spends her dollars in Lecher County because it is more accessible and she can find other young people who understand the world the way she does.
“If you put something like this bathroom bill into effect, you’re losing people like me,” said Cotton. “It’s not just me, it’s a lot of people. As someone who has seen the impact in my own community, it’s real. Believe me it’s real. We (Pound) can’t even pay our water bill.”
Eric Dixon, Coordinator of Policy and Community Engagement at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg, told the court that he feels that the bathroom ordinance would adversely affect the county’s limited budgetary resources. Dixon said he is not originally from Letcher County, but he now lives at Cowan and he loves the county. He said Letcher County is a loving community full of loving people who are willing to make sacrifices for the people they love. Dixon said with that in mind, he has to assume that the proposed ordinance came from a concern for the people of Letcher County.
“But concerns and laws based on ignorance can be extremely dangerous,” said Dixon. “There are plenty of communities in this country that allow people to use the bathroom they identify with and what we know from these communities is that allowing people to use bathrooms that match their gender identity just does not make anyone less safe.”
Dixon said it is a myth that predators are waiting for the opportunity to sneak into bathrooms dressed as the opposite sex, and the facts prove that. He added that while it is important for laws to reflect a person’s identity, he would guess that if he offered anyone in the room a large sum of money, it would not persuade them to alter their gender because it would not feel right to them.
‘That’s how people who are transgender feel too. It’s just that what feels right to them happens to differ from the gender they were assigned at birth,” he said.
Dixon said that using county money to pass discriminatory laws invites lawsuits and that the court should pass laws that project civil liberties for everyone.
Jonathon Hootman of Cram Creek told the court he felt “it is our obligation as human beings that we pass laws that are fair.”
Letcher County citizen Tanya Turner echoed Hootman and praised Magistrate Fleming. She said she appreciates the court’s efforts to balance the budget and that she hates to hear that fewer funds are available. She said she agrees with Fleming that tourism will pay for itself and that publicity from laws passed in ignorance and bigotry will not do anything but present Letcher County as a rural racist area in the national media.
“People will not come here if they don’t think Letcher County is a supportive community,” said Turner. “We have so many things to deal with, we can’t just sit and watch Fox News.”
Turner said she had recently read about the increase in HIV and HEP C in Letcher County and asked why the conversation was not geared toward methods to keep people safe from needle borne diseases. She added that young people are already being discriminated against because of their sexual identity and that teenagers who indentify as gay or transsexual are much more likely to commit suicide and be bullied at school. She finished by saying that she would like to see women and younger citizens be elected to the court.
After the meeting, Magistrate Fleming said his greatest concern about the proposed ordinance was that it might elevate the level of harm to some young people. He said he is particularly worried about suicide and bullying.