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House Speaker Kevin Cotter sinks low with his comments on gender identity guidelines

Mar 25, 2016

Thirty years ago I was a young editor at the Detroit News, and there was an employee who was a transgender woman. She was not a journalist and I did not see her often, but when I did, I made small talk about things like the weather.

One afternoon she came up to me crying, and thanked me for treating her as a human being. I felt then and feel now as if I didn’t deserve any credit. I had merely talked to her as I would someone standing in line with me at the dry cleaners.

I told her this, and she said most people had made her life a living hell. This was a lesson in what Tom Watkins, president of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, often says: Stigma kills.

Our society has come a long way since then.

Unfortunately, some of our so-called leaders have not.

Earlier this week, Kevin Cotter, speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, dove into the gutter, attacking the State Board of Education for new voluntary guidelines designed to make LGBTQ students feel safe and protect them from harassment.

Among those guidelines are allowing students to be called by whatever name they choose, and to be respected if they choose to pick their own gender identity.

Additionally, the board recommended students be allowed to use the restroom that matches their gender identity.

This was enough to turn Cotter into a pandering politician ready to whip up fear.

He said, "parents have very real concerns about the potential abuse of increased bathroom and locker room access that puts their children at risk."

He also said he was outraged because this would let students determine their own gender identity, and that this somehow threatened “children’s privacy and safety.”

Cotter was, of course, evoking the old stereotype that anyone who is transgender is apt to sexually attack someone, or at least that children would be traumatized for life by having to share a bathroom with someone of a different gender.

Well, there are places where teenagers usually have to share bathrooms with people of different genders every day. Those places are called their homes.

I have no idea whether Cotter is pandering for votes or expressing his own bigotry. I do think it would be a good idea if we all agreed to invoke the good old conservative value of privacy.

I am an exclusively heterosexual male in late middle age. I couldn’t care less if my coworkers are straight, gay, transgender or karaoke fans, and don’t think it is any of my business.

I think my gender identity says about as much about me morally as the fact that I prefer Cavatappi pasta to elbow macaroni, which is to say, it says nothing at all.

John Austin, the principled president of the State Board, said all he and his colleagues are doing is suggesting kids get to feel safe when they go to the bathroom. The public is invited to let the board know what they think of these guidelines.

I hope many decent and fair people do just that. Here, by the way, is my two cents worth: in doing this, the State Board of Education has made me proud.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.