A proposed ordinance that would have prohibited transgender people from using the appropriate public restroom in Rockwall died on the vine this week, when Rockwall Mayor Jim Pruitt couldn’t even get a second to his motion that the city council vote on the ordinance.
But the issue may not be dead yet.
While many of the almost 30 Rockwall residents who spoke at the meeting opposed the proposed ordinance because they said it was bigoted and discriminatory, most of council members insisted the proposed ordinance was not aimed at transgender people, and instead said they opposed it because it was “unenforceable” and an unnecessary intrusion by government into private business’ affair.
Several times in the debate during the Monday night, May 2 council meeting, Pruitt asked other council members if they would support such an ordinance if it were rewritten to address only public, multi-stall bathrooms on property owned and operated by the city.
“My feeling is, this might be back again in a form more acceptable to those who didn’t support it” this time, noted Nell Gaither of
Trans Pride Initiative, a transgender activist who helped organize a protest outside Rockwall City Hall prior to the council meeting.
At least four of the city six councilmen, not including Pruitt, said during the meeting that when they first read the proposed ordinance — which Pruitt himself drafted and put on the agenda, and which would require individuals to use public, multi-stall bathroom facilities based on the gender listed on their birth certificates rather than their gender identity and presentation — they supported it.
It wasn’t until they began thinking through all the ramifications, they said, that they began to have reservations.
Most of the councilmen also said Pruitt proposed the ordinance to address what they appeared to believe is a new policy instated by Target stores regarding use of public facilities by transgender people. In fact, Target simply recently reiterated, in light of North Carolina’s infamous bathroom bill, its longstanding policy that employees and customers may use restrooms according to their gender identity.
Councilmen also defended Pruitt against accusations by some residents that the mayor only introduced the ordinance to try and use controversy over the issue to make a name for himself among conservative voters in hopes of being elected to higher office in the future.
“This is not a transgender issue. But it’s been hijacked to be a transgender issue,” insisted Councilman Mike Townsend. “It’s all based on Target’s policy. … I think this is a security issue.”
He acknowledged that there are no known cases of transgender people attacking women or children in public restrooms, but insisted that Target’s “new” policy “waves a huge flag, it creates an opportunity that anybody can walk in” the women’s restrooms, including sexual predators looking to harm women and children.
“I agree with what I perceive as the intent of this ordinance, which is to protect people who need to be protected,” Townsend said. But he added, “this ordinance isn’t going to accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish,” and he suggested the council table it or rewrite it.
Townsend also reiterated his criticism of Target, suggesting that those who disagreed with the policy boycott Target store. He said Target has already lost $2.5 billion — a claim Dallas Voice has been unable to confirm with mainstream news sources — because people are boycotting over the policy. “That’s how you make them stop,” he said.
Mayor Pro Tem Dennis Lewis said he, too, “was 100 percent behind” the ordinance when he first read it, and still supports what he sees as the bill’s intent to protect women and children. But he said he reconsidered because of his belief that “government should stay out of private business” and because he sees a “huge enforcement problem.”
Councilman Scott Milder said his first reaction was also “100 percent support” for the ordinance, and that he believes Pruitt “put it forth with public safety in mind.” But, Milder added, after doing “a lot of reading and educating myself” on the topic, he couldn’t support the ordinance.
“I don’t want a man dressing as a woman going into the women’s restroom. But I believe it would cause even more uproar for a man dressing as a woman to go into the men’s restroom,” Milder said. “But it’s not about what I believe. … It comes down to a policing issue. It’s unenforceable.
“Above all else, God commands us to love each other,” Milder added. “In a case like this, I ask myself, what would Jesus do? I don’t think he’d vote in favor of this ordinance. Instead, I think he’d invite this community into his church.”
Councilman John Hohenshelt left the meeting early to attend his son’s lacrosse game, but said before he left he did not support the ordinance. But it was Councilman David White who spoke most forcefully against it.
“When I first read this ordinance, I was against it. I am still against it,” he said, adding that he sees it as a property rights and a privacy rights issue. “It was well-intentioned, but it was not well thought out,” White said. “If you believe Target is a dangerous place for your children, then don’t go to Target. It’s very simple. But don’t go running to the government saying please protect us in the bathroom at Target.”
Pruitt spoke up to defend the ordinance, reminding the council that it wasn’t just about restrooms in private businesses, but those on city property, too, insisting that there was no ordinance keeping sexual predators out of women’s restrooms on city property. But White was not convinced.
“If an obvious man walks into the women’s restroom, will the city do nothing? No. You use common sense. You go in and ask what he’s doing. And if he says, ‘I’m in here being a pervert, you call the police,” White declared.
“Laws don’t stop crime,” White continued. “They punish people for ill behavior. They are not for controlling people’s lives.” When “government gets involved in where you pee or poop,” then there’s a problem, he said.
Insisting that police currently have no legal basis for questioning someone who might be in the wrong restroom without a good reason, Pruitt said, “You can make a law to govern that.” White responded, “You don’t need a law. You have probable cause.”
When Pruitt asked if he would support a rewritten version of the ordinance focused on city-owned property, Townsend said it is a “multifaceted issue. … I don’t know. I’d have to see it, think it through.”
While the councilmen didn’t see the ordinance as being discrimination targeting transgender people, most of the residents who spoke certainly did. Several called the ordinance a “solution in search of a problem,” and stressed the ordinance’s unenforceability.
“Is the Rockwall City Council seriously suggesting that a business owner needs to inspect a patron’s genitals before letting them use the restroom?” resident Sol Vilasano asked.
One woman asked what protections the ordinance would put in place to protect transgender and gender-non-conforming individuals from harassment and vigilantism, and several speakers said they were ashamed to see the council even considering such a discriminatory law.
Pruitt said he asked Rockwall County Criminal District Attorney Kenda Culpepper, who is also his wife, to speak as a “resource witness” on why such an ordinance was needed. Culpepper said that suggesting that there are no sexual predators in Rockwall exhibited a “dangerous misunderstanding” of the truth.
She noted one case of a man caught masturbating in his car in a Target parking lot in view of a 7-year-old girl, and another of a man in Dallas County who would follow young boys into the men’s restroom at movie theaters and then molest them under guise of being a doctor. She was not able, however, to cite any cases in which someone dressed up as a woman to get into a women’s restroom to molest someone.
One of the most impassioned arguments of the evening came from Karen Roggencamp, the mother of a transgender child, who said the ordinance is based on “hideous stereotypes and misinformation,” and would “take away the safety” of transgender people in Rockwall.
In a comment posted to the Dallas Voice website, Roggencamp said: “I found the mayor’s desperate attempts to get the city council at least to let him discriminate against trans citizens and visitors in city-owned property perhaps the most pathetic moment of the evening. In speaking with him afterward, he continued to contend that this bill has nothing to do with transgender people, and it was only about protecting children — including, he claimed, mine. I am astonished at the illogic and his inability or unwillingness to see what is right before his eyes.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 6, 2016.