When Republican primary front-runner Donald Trump came out last week against North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” he revealed a previously hidden fracture within the conservative movement on the issue.
Although Mr. Trump quickly walked back the claim — saying access to restrooms of the opposite sex is a matter best left to the states — his primary rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, made sure GOP voters wouldn’t forget it.
“He said he thought men should be able to go into the girls’ bathroom if they want,” Mr. Cruz said. “Let me ask you, have we gone stark-raving mad? This is political correctness. This is nonsense.”
Mr. Cruz followed up the attack with an advertisement depicting a little girl and a grown man going into the same restroom, accompanied by audio of Mr. Trump supporting transgender restroom access.
But other conservatives, many of them critics of Mr. Trump, have come to the businessman’s defense. Charles Krauthammer, whom Mr. Trump has called a “highly overrated pundit” and “overrated clown” for his biting criticisms of the Trump campaign, said North Carolina’s law is much ado about nothing.
“To me, what’s puzzling here, what I really don’t understand — this is a solution in search of an issue,” Mr. Krauthammer said on Fox News’s “Special Report.” “I mean, do we really have an epidemic of transgenders being evil in bathrooms across the country? I haven’t heard of a single case.”
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“We are talking about as if transgenders are like a fifth of the population,” he continued. “This is a very small problem at the edges of other problems having to do with gender identity that’s become national precisely because Republicans in North Carolina decided it was a problem”
Taylor Millard, writing at Hotair.com, said that while he’s not ready to turn in his #NeverTrump membership card, he agreed with the tycoon, “even if it may be a case of Trump the blind squirrel finding the nut.”
“The fight over bathroom access seems to be something which would turn away more libertarian minded people, who are more interested in the government leaving them alone,” Mr. Millard wrote. “The GOP actually had an opportunity to show how freedom-loving they were, and blew it.”
Mr. Trump’s usual defenders also jumped into the fray. Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham similarly questioned the importance of the issue.
“This is not exactly Rosa Parks and the bus here,” Ms. Ingraham said on Fox News’s “Special Report.” “This is a bathroom — there’s got to be a common sense solution that people can agree to.”
But Joseph Backholm, director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, said both critics and defenders of Mr. Trump miss the mark.
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He said conservatives should not overreact to transgender people, some of whom easily pass as the opposite sex and use the restrooms of the opposite sex.
“Transgender people have been going to the bathroom forever,” he said. “I don’t know anyone who cares about that. This was happening long before it was explicitly legal.”
But he also chided those who dismissed the importance of the issue, saying laws regulating restrooms on the basis of gender identity come full of unintended consequences.
Under such laws, he said, voyeurs and sexual predators can access restrooms of the opposite sex simply on subjective self-identification. He pointed to a case in Washington in which a man who had only recently begun to self-identify as a woman began changing in front of a girls’ swim team.
“This was a person who two years prior had decided to identify as a woman, though anatomically was male, and was undressing in front of a youth swim club of girls,” he said. “That behavior now is legally protected under the framework. The ability to abuse that is pretty obvious.”
The primary issue, he continued, is that there is no definition of who qualifies as “transgender.”
“In this case, the only way that you can determine whether someone is qualified or not is to ask them,” he said. “And when that’s the standard, how do you disprove it? And the answer is you don’t.”
As Zack Ford, the LGBT editor of Think Progress, demonstrated in a Twitter dispute last week, even gay rights activists don’t know how to determine who qualifies as transgender and who does not. After The Federalist accompanied an article about transgenderism with a picture of a man putting on make-up, Mr. Ford said the person in the picture was obviously not gender nonconforming, citing among other things his watch.
“He has facial hair, a short haircut, arm hair, and he’s wearing a man’s watch,” Mr. Ford said in a tweet. “That’s not a transgender woman.”
But why should something as trivial as wearing a man’s watch determine gender identity?
“The simple fact is that Ford and his allies in the fight for transgender access to bathrooms and locker rooms do not have the slightest idea who is and who is not trans,” David Marcus wrote at The Federalist. “They never have.”
Mr. Backholm also noted the “status quo was not broken” until progressives began passing laws guaranteeing access to restrooms of the basis of gender identity.
“I am not aware of any situation where a transgender person has been forced to go to the bathroom in their pants because no one was allowing them access to a bathroom facility,” Mr. Backholm said. “Now, I hope that doesn’t happen, because that would be very unkind. And I have no reason to believe that it has happened. But that is the theoretical framework that is being presented to us.”