Why is the right so obsessed with bathroom issues? Behind the new wave of anti-LGBTQ attacks
Greene was wallowing in obvious anti-gay bigotry and stereotypes. But she knows her audience well: Trumpists and Republican voters generally share her vile beliefs. Of course the facts do not matter: Like other so-called conservatives, Greene is fomenting a moral panic around the specious claim that the LGBTQ community somehow poses a “threat” to the “traditional family” and offers another example of how “real Americans” — meaning white, supposedly Christian conservatives — are somehow being oppressed or discriminated against in “their own country.”
As seen most recently with the wave of culture-war legislation attacking LGBTQ rights, “critical race theory,” school curricula and other related issues, this is a highly effective strategy for the Republicans and the larger white right in their goal of creating a new apartheid America — one in which women, the LGBTQ community, Black and brown people and other marginalized groups will have their most fundamental rights taken away.
The antisemitic QAnon conspiracy, with its vicious lies about how Democrats and leftists are kidnapping and abusing children —or, in the slightly more coded version, “grooming” them for sexual abuse — has become central to the white right’s revolutionary strategy to return America to the distant and largely imaginary past.
As seen with the Republican attacks against (now) Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson during her confirmation hearing, these culture-war talking points will be their primary political weapons in both the 2022 midterms and 2024 presidential election.
In her newsletter Lucid, historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat explores the connection between questions of freedom, bodily autonomy, fascism and laws that dehumanize LGBTQ people:
These developments are as predictable as they are horrifying. Anti-LGBTQ persecution is a constant among authoritarian governments around the world. Far-right regimes that uphold White racial privilege repress gays, but so do Communist states. Anti-colonial regimes such as those of Mobutu Sese Seko, which rejected White racial supremacy, were equally brutal.
Wherever strongmen rule, gays pay the price. Silencing and punishing those who engage in “nontraditional sexual relations,” as a 2013 Putin law terms them, has been central to authoritarian claims of defending the country and upholding “tradition.”
Authoritarian biopolitics is not just about encouraging the right elements of the population to procreate —fearmongering about declining White Christian birthrates recurs from the Fascists to Orbán and Tucker Carlson — but also about removing the wrong elements from the public sphere, by silencing them, locking them up, or worse.
What the Hungarian lesbian activist Dorottya Rédai describes as the “emotionally and psychologically devastating impact” of being “treated as an enemy” has been part of LGBTQ life under authoritarianism for a century.
As usual, to this point the Democrats have offered no effective defense against such culture war-moral panic attacks. Too many liberals, progressives and others outside the Republican-fascist echo chamber mock and dismiss these culture-war attacks as the stuff of fools and unsophisticated thinkers, as unreal issues or examples of “identity politics,” or as something that can in the end be defeated with facts and reason, by educating the public about “real” such as economic class and other pocketbook issues.
Such attitudes and assumptions all but guarantee defeat for the Democrats and others who believe in a pluralistic society and real democracy. Liberal schadenfreude may feel good in the moment, but it is the path to defeat in the battle against American fascism.
To defeat these right-wing culture-war moral panic attacks, the defenders of democracy must go beyond superficial critiques. They must substantively engage, expose and discredit how and why such attacks resonate for Republicans and “conservatives” — and, unfortunately, for many independents and Democratic voters as well.
To gain more context and insight into the conservative movement’s culture-war bathroom obsession, I asked a range of experts for their insights and what the larger implications of such culture war-moral panic attacks may be for American politics and society.
Dr. Justin Frank is a former clinical professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical Center and a physician with more than 40 years of experience in psychoanalysis. He is the author of the bestselling books “Bush on the Couch,” “Obama on the Couch” and, in 2018, “Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President.”
Toilet life is private life. Partly, that’s related unconsciously to disgust and shame about the human process of elimination. But the Republicans displace anal disgust onto other things and people: For example, onto dark-skinned people and the LGBTQ community. Republican disgust with toilets and with homosexuals is becoming ubiquitous. Southern Republicans and others often talk about toilets, bathroom functions and LGBTQ people interchangeably. Not only do Republicans see things in black or white, they also see things as male or female, without any room for the complexity of “trans.” Instead, they are primarily preoccupied with getting rid of what’s disgusting to them.
On Jan. 6, insurrectionists expressed their disgust through feces because they were not articulate enough to use language or symbolic imagery.
Ironically, smearing shit in the halls of Congress is very much a primitive example of failed projection: On Jan. 6, 2021, MAGA insurrectionists expressed their disgust through feces because they were not articulate enough to use language or other symbolic imagery. After all, why not use the real thing to clarify once and for all how shitty our government is? Their feces was their ultimate smear tactic.
The current preoccupation with toilets has to do with anxiety being stirred up — sexual anxiety, racial fears, fears of women — and they all get condensed into one main conscious preoccupation: toilets and bathrooms.
Dr. John Gartner is a psychologist, psychoanalyst and former professor at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School. He is also the founder of Duty to Warn and was a contributor to the 2017 bestseller “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.”
Authoritarian regimes always cast themselves as the guardians of morality, and cast all who oppose them as perversely evil, deserving the severest of punishments. Since the founding of the Moral Majority by Rev. Jerry Falwell in the 1980s, there has been an alliance between “biblical morality” and GOP politics. It’s worked well for them.
The problem the Republican Party has now is that it is losing the culture war. Marriage equality is popular, and no one is surrendering that right. So now, trans people are the new gays, and scapegoating them is the new way of rounding up votes. But like voter fraud, trans people in bathrooms is a non-problem. No one knows and no one cares who is in the stall next to them. They’re grasping for straws, or straw men, to make a wedge issue out of nothing.
Dr. Anthea Butler is a professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her new book is “White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America.”
It’s not a surprise that the Republican Party and the conservative movement are so interested in toilets. After all, genitalia are important to their most loyal base, religious conservatives (evangelicals). Most if not all of these prohibitions and worries are also about policing people: where they go, what they do, who is allowed and who is not. Consider: If you have a political party that is steeped in ideas about law and order, gender and sexuality, the bathroom is one place you can control if you can’t control the bedrooms, as states used to with sodomy laws.
Bathrooms are also historically places where people meet for illicit sex. The bathroom obsession, especially the previous bathroom battles in schools and states like North Carolina, is about their need to prevent sexual contact and the ways in which they are laser-focused on these issues, as we saw in the hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson. While it may seem to outsiders that this obsession with the bathroom is a fetish, it’s actually about the irrational fears, and sometimes fantasies, of lawmakers influenced by religious conservatives who are also obsessed with controlling genitalia and bodily functions.
Wajahat Ali is an author and political commentator. His essays and other writing have been featured at the New York Times, CNN and the Daily Beast. His new book is “Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American.”
The GOP are obsessed with toilets because it’s beautiful, raw red meat for their base and to stir up cultural anxieties about LGBTQ folks ahead of the midterms and elections. They don’t have any solutions or plans for climate change, income inequality or COVID relief. Transgender people are going to be the scapegoats and Trojan horses for their ugly culture war for the midterm and 2024 election. This explains Sen. Marsha Blackburn’s question to Justice Jackson about how to define a woman. They’re going to say that Democrats are all godless atheists who are going to turn your son into a woman, and also that they are part of an international cabal of sex traffickers, as in the QAnon theory.
Republicans are going to say that Democrats are godless atheists who will indoctrinate your children to hate America — and are going to turn your son into a woman.
This is tied to their manufactured weaponization of critical race theory. Democrats are allegedly going to “indoctrinate” your children not only to hate America, democracy and white people, but also to become gay. We laugh at this, but this is going to be a winning strategy. They are going to peel off independents and some Democratic voters from religious communities — and this includes people of color by the way. It would be foolish to ignore this cynical line of attack. The Democrats need a counter-message.
Tim Wise is an author, activist and leading expert on white privilege and racism. He is the author of many books, including his most recent “Dispatches From the Race War.”
There is an obsession with purity. It is part of the right wing’s hyper-religiosity and repressive sexual politics. It’s part of their obsession with the notion of “contamination” by immigrants, especially from what Trump called “shithole” countries. And what better symbol of impurity and uncleanliness and contamination than a bathroom? What better symbol of filth and vulnerability than the place you go to shit? They are manifesting precisely the fears one would expect them to, given their obsessions with control and purity and order.
In addition, right-wing (and especially white) obsessions with purity and “contamination” are what long animated racism against Black folks: the fear being that white women needed to be protected from the impurity of Blackness.
Federico Finchelstein is professor of History at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College in New York. He is the author of several books, including “From Fascism to Populism in History.” His most recent book is “A Brief History of Fascist Lies.”
My general take is that it is essential for any wannabe fascist politician in America today to construct an enemy to define the “we.” In the same way as the Nazis needed to create and define the Jews as total enemies, the followers of Trumpism and the GOP first have to define who to hate in order to define themselves.
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
In order to do this, they return to the traditional enemies of American fascism and the extreme right (from Father Coughlin to the Ku Klux Klan) and they also invent new ones. More specifically, there is no fascism without hatred and xenophobia, and the United States has a long history of linking hatred to bathrooms. The later examples in North Carolina and elsewhere are typical smokescreens, aiming to turn us away from real problems (social, economic and political) in order to focus on bogus ones. Another example is of course the issues regarding critical race theory, the “don’t say gay” law in Florida, etc.
There is no fascism without the invention of an existential enemy (of the self, the nation, the people, the leader). In America, fascists, as in the Ku Klux Klan, almost naturally endorsed bathroom segregation because, as in all forms of fascism, segregation, demonization and eventual persecution and extermination are different aspects of this deep need to define the other to elevate the self
Matthew Sheffield is an expert on right-wing news media, messaging, and communication strategies. He is also the editor and publisher of Flux and host of the “Theory of Change” video podcast.
What calls itself “conservatism” in the United States is actually a reactionary movement that began in the 1930s as a frantic attempt by corporate interests to block Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration from adopting the worker-friendly tax and regulatory policies that were then emerging in Europe and some other parts of the world.
American reactionaries have for decades sought to trump up imaginary moral panics in order to scare less-informed Christians about various minority groups. The target group has always shifted over time, but they generally rotate between racial minorities, women and LGBTQ people, and atheists and liberal believers.
“Trans panic” is a complete repeat of the lies told in the 1970s and ’80s to try to stop lesbians and gays from having any freedom to live openly. It’s a scapegoat operation to distract lower- and middle-income people while Republicans pick their pockets.
The latest “trans panic” is literally a complete repeat of the lies that were told in the 1970s and 1980s by people like Anita Bryant to try to stop lesbians and gays from having any sort of freedom to live openly. It’s all the same lies about bathrooms and “recruitment.” This rhetoric, and the laws it inspires, are nothing more than scapegoat operations to distract lower- and middle-income people while Republicans pick their pockets, such as by canceling school lunch programs while many people are still jobless.
Jason Colavito is a journalist, author and professional skeptic whose work has been featured in the New Republic, Esquire, Slate and other publications. He is completing a book on James Dean and the sex panic of the 1950s.
The obsession with bathrooms revolves around the notion of purity, both physical and moral. As a place where genitals are exposed in public, bathrooms become a place of special vulnerability. Those feelings of being exposed can create particular anxieties in terms of seeking to protect oneself and others during those moments of vulnerability. When combined with the hygiene rituals of bathrooms, in which we purify ourselves of the results of bodily functions, it’s easy to see how conservatives can transfer those feelings from excretory functions to sexual ones. They therefore seek more rules to reduce their own sense of impurity and vulnerability by displacing discomfort onto disfavored groups.
Moral panics have been a regular feature of American life and often serve to highlight the anxieties and fears that dominate an era. Today’s moral panic over sex and gender is remarkably similar to the moral panic of the 1950s that saw nationwide efforts to restrict LGBTQ Americans. In both cases, political and social anxieties about changes to American society and America’s place in the world manifested as an effort to “purify” the country in the name of morality.
Timothy Stewart-Winter is a professor of American Studies as Rutgers University — Newark. He is the author of “Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics.”
My father tells me that when I was an infant, and only women’s bathrooms had baby changing tables, he had to kneel and place a blanket on the floor of men’s rooms to change my diaper. Indeed, public bathrooms are always changing. In the mid-20th century, few could accommodate a wheelchair, and it was more common than it is today both for gay men to cruise for sex in them and for undercover police to spy on and arrest those men (though both practices persist).
Public bathrooms were central to the Jim Crow order. Well within living memory, “white” and “colored” signs came down across the U.S. South, and even then, public bathrooms remained sites of white anti-Black surveillance and violence. In the spring of 1965, Sammy Younge Jr., a 20-year-old Black college student in Alabama, marched from Selma to Montgomery for the right to vote. The following winter, before he could exercise that right, he was murdered by a gas station attendant in Tuskegee for trying to use a bathroom reserved for whites.
Public bathrooms also teach us about gender. Especially since 2015, right-wing activists and the Republican Party have breathed new life into transphobic and homophobic ideas about trans women in bathrooms as purported threats to children, using these manufactured fears to undermine anti-discrimination laws and win elections. In the real world, it is people who defy gender norms who face harassment and violence routinely in public bathrooms — and we should recognize that there is nothing natural about that fact. As the sociologist Erving Goffman memorably wrote in 1977, “it has come to pass” that modern societies have separate bathrooms for men and women, a pattern that he believed set “a sort of with-then-apart rhythm” that shaped public contact between men and women more broadly.
For Goffman, the crucial thing about sex-segregated bathrooms was that they “cannot be tied to matters biological, only to folk conceptions about biological matters. The functioning of sex-differentiated organs is involved, but there is nothing in this functioning that biologically recommends segregation; that arrangement is totally a cultural matter.” (Emphasis his.) For Goffman, and I think for us, what he called “the sequestering of public toilets by sex” produces gender norms — not the other way around.
Read more on the right-wing assault on LGBTQ rights: