The 'bathroom battle' heats up as conservatives fume over transgender policies
Washington has warned bills requiring transgender people to use restrooms that match the sex on their birth certificate, violate the constitution (AFP Photo/Mark Ralston)

A heated national debate over access to bathrooms by transgenders is sweeping the United States, with schools and businesses grappling with the issue that has become a hot topic in the presidential campaign.

The so-called "bathroom battle" erupted after North Carolina in March became the first US state to require transgender people to use restrooms in public buildings that match the sex on their birth certificate, rather than the gender by which they identify.

Mississippi followed suit in April and a number of other conservative states and cities are mulling or have passed similar legislation.

Proponents of the controversial bills argue that they are needed to protect women from sexual predators.

But civil rights groups say the laws are irrational, unenforceable and actually endanger trans people.

"I think opponents of same-sex marriage have realized that they've lost the legal battle to prohibit same-sex couples from marrying and they have shifted their strategies toward transgender people," said Katherine Franke, director of Columbia Law School's Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. "They think they can get some traction with discriminatory rules around who can use what bathroom."

The controversial laws have met with a national outcry from transgender and LGBT rights organizations, and several major companies and entertainers have denounced the measures.

The online payments company PayPal last month scrapped plans to open an operations center in North Carolina that would have employed 400 people and several musicians, including Bruce Springsteen, have cancelled concerts.

The retailer Target, for its part, hit back with a statement that said customers and staff could use "the restroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender identity."

The statement sparked a backlash, with more than one million people signing a petition by the American Family Association (AFA) -- a conservative Christian group -- to boycott the retail chain.

"Clearly, Target's new policy poses a danger to wives and daughters," the AFA said in a statement. "Target's policy is exactly how sexual predators get access to their victims."

The government, meanwhile, has warned that the transgender bathroom bills violate the constitution and on Wednesday ordered North Carolina to rescind its bill or risk federal funding cuts.

The city of Oxford, Alabama on Wednesday repealed a similar ordinance a little more than a week after it was passed.

- 'Anxieties about sex and race' -

"These laws actually open up the door for harassment, not only against transgender people, but for anyone who looks a little bit different or doesn't meet stereotypes of what a man or a woman should look like," said Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center.

Hayashi said arguments about safety fly in the face of common sense as laws already exist to protect people against anyone who wants to commit a crime in a public restroom, whether that person is transgender or not.

"I transitioned 20 years ago and have safely and without incident used the women's room," said Mara Keisling, executive director of the Washington-based National Center for Transgender Equality. "Now, suddenly, I have to worry that some vigilante yahoo is going to start getting in my way when what anybody wants ... is just to do their business in peace."

The controversial issue has also entered the US presidential campaign.

Donald Trump, who is not known to hold back on sensitive topics, said last week that transgender people should be able to use whatever bathroom they want.

His comments were in stark contrast to his opponent Ted Cruz who, before dropping out of the race, said in a tweet: "We shouldn't be facilitating putting little girls alone in a bathroom w/grown men. That's just a bad, bad, bad idea."

Franke said she expects the bathroom battle to continue to generate headlines in the coming months but to eventually fizzle out, as was the case with the debate over same-sex marriage.

"Crazy things come up in American elections and they become kind of magnets for what are really broad-based social anxieties that usually have to do with sex or race in this country," she said.

"This year, unfortunately, it's transgender people who are being used as kind of a political football."