I’ve been in a wheelchair for nearly twenty years, due to an accident that left me paraplegic. So I’ve experienced my share of exclusion: by doorways too narrow, by stairway access, by hills and cobblestones and grass and other obstacles, by the arrangement of banquet tables. Generally I just accept exclusion as my lot in life. After all, the Appalachian Trail was carved into rugged terrain laid out millennia before the Americans with Disabilities Act was ever envisioned. It’s my problem that I’ll never check it off my bucket list now, not yours. My exclusion is usually the result of neglect or oversight, not deliberate dismissal. Although my worth as a human being sometimes seems diminished by my use of a wheelchair, nobody, as far as I know, viscerally despises me for my disability.
But once I experienced rejection as an intentional act. And the experience, for me, shines a light on the lives of other vulnerable minorities who are deliberately disenfranchised and oppressed. I think I have at least some insight into how people who are the targets of the current “bathroom bills” must feel as they are singled out for discrimination by zealous legislatures.
It was at a weeklong conference in western New York. I was among a crowd of enlightened liberals, a thoughtful, well-educated group that had gathered to hear Bill Moyers, among others, talk about politics and compassion in presidential election cycles.
The iconic facilities were largely inaccessible for persons with mobility challenges, in spite of the fact that the majority of those in attendance were in their golden years. After all, who else would have the time, money, and inclination to retreat for a week to listen to intellectually stimulating lectures? Every venue was littered with walkers and scooters, like the aftermath of a successful healing crusade.
But there were plans being drawn up to improve the site and to make it more accommodating. In fact, a tour was offered to present the new vision. I gladly signed up to learn more and perhaps offer observations from my experience. The tour was enjoyable enough, until the tour guide led our small group of about a dozen down a ramp that was far too impossibly steep for me to follow safely. I sat at the top and watched my group descend. When they reached the bottom, I called out, “EXCUSE ME, BUT I CAN’T GET DOWN THERE.” The group looked at me like cows across a field.
“SORRY,” the tour guide offered.
“WELL, COULD YOU MAYBE COME BACK SO I COULD HEAR THE REST OF THE TOUR?”
The tour guide thought about this for a minute, and then surveyed the group. “How many of you would like to continue the tour?” A show of hands. “OK, how many of you would like to go back up where that guy in the wheelchair is?” Another show of hands, but from a smaller sampling.
“SORRY. THE GROUP VOTED TO GO ON.” And that was the last I saw of them.
My participation had been put to a vote! And I had lost!! A group of my peers, ostensibly interested in making accommodating changes to this venerable venue, had voted, right in my presence, to abandon me because they didn’t want to be inconvenienced by my special needs. I vowed to never set wheel in that venue again.
I wonder if that’s how my gay, lesbian, and transgender colleagues feel when waves of state legislatures are busy enacting laws to prevent them from using the public restroom facilities corresponding to their gender identity. But no, it can’t be. Not quite. Because my LGBTQ colleagues are also exposed to vitriol and disgust spewed by the legislators who enact these laws and by their hate-driven supporters. I may be ignored, but I’m not reviled.
Public restrooms and fitting rooms are already menacing enough for people with non-conforming gender identities. A masculine-appearing female colleague of mine writes that she and her wife always share a joke when she goes to the bathroom: “Okay, honey, if I’m not out in five minutes, come look for me.” But the joke isn’t funny anymore, as actual laws prohibit transgender persons from public accommodations, as actual police drag gender non-conforming individuals from bathrooms, and as bigots post threats that they will now be packing heat when they go into public bathrooms. My friends are no longer safe taking a pee.
Don’t talk to me about protecting our wives and daughters. More people have been sexually assaulted by lawmakers than by transgender individuals with full bladders. Don’t bring up your “Christian values” unless you’re also prepared to give up shellfish and football. I’m a pastor myself. I’ve been studying scripture professionally for forty five years.
I know what it feels like to not fit in – literally – when my chair is too wide to fit or can’t negotiate the stairs. I have my own bathroom stories. But I don’t imagine that architects are scheming over their blueprints to deliberately keep the disgusting cripples out of their facilities, or that sinister tour groups are secretly plotting to jettison the worthless rolling persons trailing after their tour. In my case it’s just neglect, self-absorption, and lack of attention.
For the LBGTQ community, this is raw bigotry aimed squarely at them. Mean-spirited, hateful, unenlightened folks have found a way to lash out against the encroachment of civil rights for all. As the arc of history bends inexorably toward acceptance and inclusion, there are those who feel threatened by this trend and who are desperate to derail or delay it. To the point of regulating the potty behavior of their selected scapegoats.
These people will attempt to preserve their worldview and privilege by any means possible. They will build walls to keep Mexicans out. They will put mosques under surveillance and restrict Muslim immigration. They will carpet bomb the enemy and waterboard its combatants. They will exclude gender non-conforming people from their bathrooms (since they can’t seem to legislate them out of existence). They will aggressively and sometimes violently counter any claim that Black lives, like the lives of the dominant culture and race in this country, should matter too. They will refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Disenfranchise millions through stricter voter ID laws.
The battlefields will vary: Stairs and ramps. Bathrooms. Seats on the bus, lunch counters, and drinking fountains. Head coverings and accents. Waistband height. Wedding cakes. Photo IDs. But the pain is common to all who don’t fit the majority narrative.