Civil Rights

Prince, North Carolina and the right to define one’s identity

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The late pop star Prince and North Carolina’s House Bill 2 anti-transgender bathroom law might, at first glance, not appear to have much in common. But both concern the right to define one’s own identity — and pose a question about America’s identity.

{mosads}H.B. 2, officially called the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, was enacted in North Carolina in March. The law makes it illegal in that state for transgender persons to use public restrooms that do not correspond to the gender on their birth certificate. Perhaps not since Tennessee and the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, where a high school biology teacher was charged with a crime for teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, has a state exposed itself to as much ridicule and opprobrium. On “The Daily Show,” host Trevor Noah mocked H.B. 2 by saying, “It’s like proposing a law to kill all kittens, then calling it the Bird Protection Act.” Following H.B. 2’s enactment, over 400 companies, including Facebook, Apple and Paypal, expressed anger or concern; the state lost 1,000 jobs; entertainers such as Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam canceled performances; and the NBA is under pressure to relocate next year’s All-Star Game to another state. NBC estimates that the boycotts have already have cost North Carolina $186 million. H.B. 2 actually may lead to the harassment of both transgenders and non-transgenders. There likely will be numerous cases of mistaken transgender identification by the bathroom vigilantes because most transgenders cannot be distinguished from other persons.

In the midst of the H.B. 2 controversy, the news of Prince’s death set off an extraordinary tsunami of grief and appreciation. As many Prince tributes noted, his life and music was about his identity and at the core of his identity was defying gender categories. “I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. I’m something that you’ll never understand,” Prince sang in “I Would Die 4 U.” In “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” he asked,

If I was your girlfriend
Would U remember 2 tell me all the things U forgot
When I was your man?

Prince was a gender shape-shifter, wearing winged eyeliner and platform heels, and wielding guitars with phallic silhouettes. As one heterosexual fan said, “I would go gay for Prince, except I am not entirely sure Prince has a gender.”

The core of Prince’s message was that you can be whoever you want to be. It’s more than a gender slogan; it’s a driving force in American history. Those supporting H.B. 2 don’t get this and neither did their predecessors — the ones who jeered at the suffragettes; hurled racist epithets, or worse, at the civil rights marchers; and accused gay rights campaigners of undermining American morals. The claim that H.B. 2 is a safety measure echoes the justification in the Jim Crow South for segregated public facilities. Occidental College Professor Lisa Wade, a gender issues researcher, recently pointed out that “segregationists in the South, like anti-trans choice advocates today” claimed that integrated restrooms would be dangerous for white women because “they would be infected with black women’s venereal diseases.”

In 2007, Prince performed at the Super Bowl. He sang, among other songs, “Purple Rain,” standing on a brightly lit “Love Symbol,” his graphic that fuses the Mars-male and Venus-female symbols. The huge crowd of machismo-minded football fans went crazy, waving their arms and, according to Billboard, “howling in falsetto.” Billboard voted Prince’s halftime show the greatest in Super Bowl history.

That’s the best America has to offer — individualism and freedom; energy and exuberance; courage to explore a frontier; and, unlike H.B. 2, finding bonds that bring Americans together instead of driving them apart.

Wallance, a writer and lawyer in New York City, is the author most recently of “America’s Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department, and the Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy.”

Tags bathroom Identity North Carolina Prince restroom Transgender

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