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Tennessee's anti-transgender bathroom bill, explained

A bill that would have banned transgender students in Tennessee from using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity will be held until next year, Rep. Susan Lynn, its sponsor, announced Monday.

The bill would ban transgender students, who identify with a gender different than the one assigned to them at birth, from using bathrooms and locker rooms in public schools and colleges that correspond with their gender identity. The Tennessee House Education Administration and Planning Committee passed the bill on April 6.

The bill is one of multiple Republican-backed state measures passed and proposed in the past year in response to major LGBTQ rights victories, particularly the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of marriage equality, and as trans people have become much more visible in media.

Supporters argue that Tennessee's bill is necessary to protect students from sexual assaults and harassment in bathrooms and locker rooms. But there's no evidence that sexual assaults and harassment increase when schools let trans students use the bathroom or locker room that matches their gender identity.

Prior to the bill's advancement in committee, business leaders also warned that the bill could lead to a backlash from the business community that would hurt the state's economy. The bill could also violate federal law, particularly Title IX, potentially putting the state's federal funds for schools at risk.

The bathroom myth is, well, a myth

bathroom signs

Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images

Behind the Tennessee bill is the bathroom myth: the idea that if trans people are legally allowed to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity, men will take advantage of the policy to enter women's bathrooms to harass and sexually assault women.

But even if governments let trans people use the bathroom for their gender identity, sexual assault and rape remain completely illegal.

Moreover, there's no evidence that allowing trans people to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity leads to more sexual assaults or harassment.

Experts from 12 states with legal nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people, which typically enable trans people to use the bathroom for their gender identity, told Media Matters that they don't know of a single reported instance of sexual assault in bathrooms stemming from the laws.

Experts say LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws do not lead to sexual crimes in bathrooms. Media Matters

In another investigation, Media Matters also found that 17 school districts across the country with protections for LGBTQ people, which collectively covered more than 600,000 students, had no problems with harassment in bathrooms or locker rooms after implementing their policies.

Still, the myth remains prominent. In Houston, it was one of the ideas opponents of a nondiscrimination law used to get people to vote against the local measure. North Carolina lawmakers cited the myth to ban trans people from using the bathroom that they wish to use in schools and government buildings in a sweeping anti-LGBTQ law, which also struck down all local ordinances that forbid anti-LGBTQ discrimination in certain settings.

Yet while there's no evidence for the claims behind anti-trans laws, there is evidence that passing these types of measures can put a state's economy and schools at risk.

Businesses and the federal government could take action against Tennessee's bill

A Dow Chemical building. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Already, business leaders and advocates have warned that Tennessee's bill could have a negative impact on the state's economy and school funding.

The Tennessean reported that executives from several companies, including Dow Chemical and Hewlett-Packard, have called on the legislature to oppose the bill, arguing that the measure could lead some businesses and potential employees to pull out of the state.

In a letter published by the Human Rights Campaign, these executives wrote:

This is not a direction in which states move when they are seeking to provide successful, thriving hubs for business and economic development. We believe that SB2387 will make it far more challenging for businesses across the state to recruit and retain the nation's best and brightest workers and attract the most talented students from across the country. It will also diminish the state's draw as a destination for tourism, new businesses, and economic activity.

This isn't entirely hypothetical.

North Carolina, for one, has already faced a big backlash due to its own anti-LGBTQ law, which includes an anti-trans bathroom measure. On April 5, PayPal pulled an expansion into the state that would have created more than 400 jobs, saying the law "perpetuates discrimination and it violates the values and principles that are at the core of PayPal’s mission and culture." A+E Networks and 21st Century Fox also said they would reconsider using North Carolina as a filming location in the future. And more than 120 major CEOs signed a letter asking North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory to repeal the law.

Other states have faced a similar response due to anti-LGBTQ laws and bills. In 2015, business pressure forced Indiana to amend a religious freedom law to clarify that it does not allow discrimination. In March, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a similar religious freedom bill after businesses, including Disney and Marvel, threatened to boycott the state if it passed the measure.

What's more, these types of bills could put states' federal funds for schools in jeopardy. Banning trans students from using the school bathroom that comports with their gender identity could violate federal law, particularly Title IX.

The Department of Justice and Department of Education interpret the law as banning not just sex discrimination in federally funded schools but also anti-trans discrimination. So if Tennessee passes an anti-trans bathroom law, the state could risk big federal funds for public schools.

For LGBTQ advocates, pointing out the potential business and political backlash has become a key strategy for fighting back against anti-LGBTQ bills, including bathroom bills.

"Whether you're a Democratic governor or a Republican governor, virtually without exception, goal No. 1 is to keep jobs in your state and to attract new jobs that you don't currently have," Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin previously told me. "So the increase in business [engagement and lobbying against these laws] has been key to our success, and I think it will be key to our success as we engage in these battles in the future."

In a conservative state like Tennessee, business advocacy may even be one of the few obstacles to an anti-trans bill.

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