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Analysis: Taking Culture Wars to the Toilets

Politically, bathroom bans are in the same category as requiring voters to show photo IDs — a favorite on the right — and renaming buildings and things after historical figures who haven’t fallen out of favor — a current liberal favorite.

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It’s not easy to get a clean win in government — taking an action that your supporters will love that does not come with side effects that they dislike.

Think about it: You can’t tinker with public school funding without touching one of these three toxic bases: local property taxes, state spending/taxes, and education standards. If the financing system is out of balance, lawmakers have to choose between product — education — or price — taxes, local or state.

It’s ugly, but that’s how lots of things in state government work: Voters want stuff, stuff costs money, money comes from voters. Nobody who knew what they were talking about ever said politics was easy.

For a particular variety of Republican officeholder, bathroom bans offer a clean win, politically speaking. The question sets up like this: Should transgender people be allowed to decide for themselves whether to use the men’s or women’s restrooms?

The answer, offered this week by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in an interview with The Texas Tribune’s Patrick Svitek: “I think the handwriting is on the bathroom wall: Men need to stay out of the ladies’ room. This isn’t about equal rights. This isn’t about being against anyone or anti-any person. This is about common sense, common decency and allowing women to have comfort when they’re in the bathroom.”

Politically, this issue is in the same category as requiring voters to show photo IDs — a favorite on the right — and renaming buildings and things after historical figures who haven’t fallen out of favor — a current liberal favorite. The groups that are offended are often on the other side; as a matter of political calculus, they were going to be on the other side anyway.

The bathroom bans — derided by LGBT advocates as discriminatory and divisive — have until now been a local issue in Texas. But Patrick and others are talking about a state law, one that would likely pre-empt local laws on the subject.

So be surprised if the Republican Party of Texas gets out of its convention in Dallas next month without putting the bathroom ban in the platform. Sure, there’s a backlash to this kind of political move, but it mostly offends the opposition. Fighting the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance was a rallying point for conservatives in that city last year. It’s classic culture war fodder that allows political people to incredulously ask why you’d want to see men in your daughter’s restroom or women in your son’s.

Never mind how it ranks on the list of problems. It rallies conservatives and infuriates liberals. It doesn’t raise taxes. It doesn’t change school standards. Like it or not, it is a political win.

It does need a warning label, however. North Carolina passed its version of a bathroom ban and prompted negative reactions from businesses thinking about relocation and from artists like Bruce Springsteen, who canceled concerts in the state. A year ago, Indiana was getting those kinds of reactions with its “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” That state is the site of the next round of Republican presidential primaries; don’t be surprised if you hear about culture wars from Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

Do be surprised if the Texas Legislature — made up, as it is, of about two Republicans for every one Democrat — doesn’t try to pre-empt whatever cities are doing with anti-discrimination ordinances by passing a state law requiring people to use the stalls set aside for the gender that’s on their birth certificates.

Patrick is working on it. The people who want to lead the Republican Party of Texas are for it. If Houston is any indication, many voters are receptive.

Perversions and assaults that might occur under current law — often cited as the reasons a ban is needed — are already illegal. In practical terms, this is about what, if anything, makes you more uncomfortable.

If a bathroom ban were to pass, Texans born as men who identify as women would have to use the men’s room, in their dresses and high heels, while those born as women and now identify as men would have to use the women’s room, with their beards and mustaches.

Public restrooms that aren’t gender-specific would presumably be open to anyone who needs to go, no matter what they look like.

The practical effects would take some sorting out. But the political accounting is clear to conservatives and liberals alike, and they’re sticking with their voters.

Maybe the goodwill they get from their followers will get them through the next gnarly round of school finance. 

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Politics State government Dan Patrick Texas Legislature