North Carolina law sparks questions in Wisconsin

Posted at 10:52 PM, Apr 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-20 06:28:14-04

North Carolina has become the first state to require transgender people to use restrooms in schools and public buildings that correspond with their birth gender, instead of the gender they identify with.

During the past legislative session, a bill was introduced here in Wisconsin that would set gender restrictions on school bathrooms and locker rooms. It never made it to the floor, but it shows local lawmakers are thinking about the issue.

"These laws are saying to trans people that your gender identity can never be validated, that you're always wrong, that you're perpetually confused," says Cary Gabriel Costello, who was assigned "female" at birth, but now, is a transgender man. Costello leads the LGBT Studies Program at UW-Milwaukee.

"If I were to walk into a women's bathroom, I would immediately say excuse me and back out, because that is not the bathroom in which I would feel comfortable, or that other people would expect me to be in," Costello says.

The UW System and some Milwaukee businesses are sensitive to that. For example, the Riverwest Public House does not label its bathrooms for "Men" or "Women." Rather it's "Sit," or "Sit-Stand."

"A lot of people do point it out because they don't see that anywhere else," says Lisa Knapp, the manager of Riverwest Public House. "Anyone can use either. It doesn't matter. Whatever you're comfortable with. We want to be totally open and inclusive to everybody."

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele says the intolerance being displayed elsewhere, is cause for concern.

"What I worry about are more states looking at what North Carolina is doing and saying we should pass a law like that too," he says.

Abele says protecting transgender rights goes beyond moral responsibility.

"If people care about economic development, the largest demographic in the United States in U.S. history is millennials," he says. "And this issue is settled for millennials. What do we talk about all the time? How do we attract the best and brightest, young, creative talent? Well, you know how you don't do it? You show that you're a closed-minded, intolerant state."

Costello says a more open-minded approach starts with honest conversation.

"I would hope that our legislators would meet with trans people and see that we're ordinary people, not some sort of monsters," he says.

We reached out to the Wisconsin lawmakers who introduced the bill regulating the use of school bathrooms, and other state leaders who said they'd support it. All were unable to do an interview.