The following story is part two of a series. Click here to read part 1: Using Trans Panic to Stop Equality.
Have you ever watched as members of a town claimed that your restroom usage opened a pandora’s box of sexual predators that would destroy the community? Have you felt the hatred of total strangers miles away directed personally and deeply at you for simply existing? Have you watched a mother shake with anger at the idea that you might share a bathroom with her daughter? I have, and I’m sure, if you are trans, you have too. As 51 people regurgitated the lies they had been fed by the Family Policy Council of West Virginia, I watched from the comfort of my home. It felt like watching the Salem witch trials, and I was the witch. The false accusations fueled by religious fever burned through me.
The city council of Fairmont’s September 12th meeting reminded me that my trans identity is sorely misunderstood and, in some places, used as a tool to promote fear and hate. I kept asking myself, how did these people get here? How do so many people aggressively follow a lie into such an emotional stir? I was disturbed. How can facts prevail when lies are so much more sensational, so much more frightening? I began my research.
The FPC’s smear campaign began after Fairmont’s local newspaper published its August 23rd article about city council’s upcoming vote on the human rights commission ordinance. However, for the next week, their Facebook posts about Fairmont were infrequent until a canceled meeting at The Poky Dot.
The Poky Dot
The Poky Dot has been a Fairmont staple for over 50 years. You’ll find over-the-top desserts and colorful decor. Over a year ago General Manager Alyssa Caputo received standing reservation for 30 plus people every Wednesday morning from Phil Mallow. She said the group would occasionally have guest speakers, but she wasn’t privy to the topics discussed. She was happy to have the steady business until Tuesday, August 29th. Caputo left work early that day, something she rarely did, to take her mother out for a birthday dinner. But within an hour of leaving The Poky Dot, she began to receive phone calls from the waitstaff. They were concerned because they were receiving upset calls from the community. Caputo checked her phone. She runs all of The Poky Dot social media accounts. She had 67 notifications. She knew something wasn’t right.
She scrolled through the messages. She said the messengers were upset about the speaker for the next Wednesday morning meeting. She said the messages included threats to storm the restaurant if the speaker came. The speaker it turns out was the president of the Family Policy Council Allen Whitt. The angry callers and messengers were not happy with the group coming to their town. Caputo reached out to Mallow about the meeting. He decided to cancel the meeting in light of the events.
I asked Caputo to see the messages that were sent to The Poky Dot. I told her I wouldn’t publish them but wanted to get a sense of their context. The FPC decided to leverage the controversy around this meeting for their own favor. They claimed pro-LGBT activists threatened violence against The Poky Dot. While I agree that storming any restaurant does imply violence, I also would argue that the FPC is a group that feeds on violence and fear. Every group has its extremists. Caputo said she did not want to show me the messages. I will say I got the sense that she wanted to protect her staff and The Poky Dot. That perhaps she was caught up in a shitstorm and was ready to flush. I have no doubt the waitstaff was afraid that night. The staff is, according to Caputo, a group of 18–22-year-olds working at a fun-loving restaurant. I would guess being thrown into the middle of a town’s rift is terrifying. However, I can’t speak to the validity of either the FPC or Caputo’s claims that the messages and calls were threatening as I could not see them for myself. What I can tell you is this ramped up the FPC’s campaign against the ordinance.
Not a Bathroom Bill But Even If It Was
The FPC’s focus steadily increased as the September 12th city council meeting approached. The main theme of their fight continued to be that this ordinance will somehow allow “men into little girls’ showers.” This is so completely false it is laughable (read full ordinance here). First, IF the ordinance was pro-trans, it is not, it would allow transgender people into the bathroom of the gender they identify with. At no point would grown-ups be allowed in children’s shower, under no circumstance, in no situations. The intentional verbiage used by Whitt and the FPC is meant to scare the Fairmont community. Also, the argument has been made across the country that protecting transgender people’s bathroom choices leads to pedophiles using the restrooms. If you believe that, I doubt I can change your mind. But let me say this, it is always illegal for someone to expose themselves in public and it is always illegal for someone to touch another person inappropriately. (See facts and myths about transgender bathroom debate.) Pro-trans bathroom bills don’t change those laws; they simply protect transgender people.
It’s clear in FPC’s language they have never talked to a transgender person. In fact, Allen Whitt tried to describe me as a trans person and started saying something about a man who looks in the mirror and sees a woman. Nope. Not me. You pegged me as the wrong kind of trans. For a group so obsessed with trans bathroom issues, they seem to have no real knowledge of trans people.
On the day of the city council meeting, people began to gather as early as 9 a.m. at the public safety building. By noon those who opposed the ordinance mingled with those who were for it. They shared snacks. They even created a system to ensure everyone got a fair chance at speaking at the meeting. After all, in a town as small as Fairmont many of these folks knew one another. Fairmont resident Stephanie Carter described the mood as friendly.
Once the hearing portion of the meeting was underway, 86 people were allowed to voice their opinion. One councilmember commented it was the biggest crowd he’d ever seen at a meeting. Out of those 86 people, 51 were opposed to the ordinance with the majority of them directly connecting their opposition to the fear of “men in women’s restrooms.” The FPC had done their job. Neighbors were divided by fear. A fear that stemmed from a lie. But what about the city council? It would seem their constituents were primarily against the ordinance. As I watched seven of the nine councilmembers vote in favor of the ordinance, I nearly wept. How did they go so bravely against the lies and the hate? Fairmont’s mayor Tom Mainella said, “The action of the Family Policy Council and the belligerent misinformation and the bully from the people who didn’t support the issue just made the seven us stronger in our will to favor the ordinance.” He also noted that many of those who spoke were not residents of Fairmont but surrounding communities. He said that “Christian, civil people were indoctrinated and propagandized by the FPC.”
When Hate Comes To Town
Fairmont is a beautiful place but can seem so ugly when fear turns to panic. As a transgender person I was genuinely worried driving into town last weekend. I believe the residents want a friendly, inviting town. Mayor Mainella echoed that sentiment and said that he believe the majority of Fairmont was in favor of the ordinance. An ordinance meant to create a commission to educate about and promote tolerance. I can’t think of a better time to promote tolerance. I don’t understand the motivation of the FPC and, honestly, after listening to Allen Whitt’s interviews and scrolling their Facebook, I have no desire to have a conversation. Their rhetoric terrifies me. There is a group out there going into small towns and making me out to be the boogeyman. You should be scared too. The FPC is a group that can work a mob into a frenzy with no facts but only the phrase “men in ladies’ rooms.”
I reached out to many who opposed the ordinance because they were afraid of men using women’s restrooms. There was one person who was willing to have a conversation. Fairmont resident Josiah Batten explained his argument that if the city opened the protected classes to include sexual orientation and gender identity, it opens the door to these classes being protected beyond just this ordinance. That would mean that yeah, maybe, trans people would be protected to use the bathroom of their choice.
But wouldn’t that be a good thing? Protecting people that are vulnerable and expanding equality for everyone.
The fight isn’t over. As I write this FPC and several local churches are working to gain enough signatures to stop the ordinance. The fight continues.