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Restrooms again!

I remember a sign on the courthouse in the main square of my hometown: "Ladies Rest Room: Whites Only." In my childhood it was illegal for black people to go into the same restroom as white people. There were signs like that on many restroom doors. Black people knew. Unless the restroom said it was yours, stay out!

Then the federal government started passing laws that violated what many in the South called our "sacred traditions." The federal government made it a law that white people must let black people into the same restrooms, schools, restaurants and other facilities that white people used. There was an angry reaction. All over the South, public swimming pools closed and private schools opened.

In those days governors and state legislators bravely tried to stand up to the unwelcome government overreach. Alabama's George Wallace, Ross Barnett of Mississippi, Lester Maddox of Georgia, and Arkansas' Orval Faubus fought courageously against what Gov. Faubus called "an all-powerful federal autocracy." He claimed "to defend the constitutional rights of the people, ... the great freedoms and privileges which we have known." Those governors knew they were speaking for the majority of voters.

Those "radical" changes, giving equal rights to black people, violated the personal conscience of many white people. They also violated some deeply held religious beliefs. Preachers gave grave warnings and pointed out from Scripture how from the beginning of humankind, God had separated the races.

Fifty years later we're a little embarrassed about all that. But it seems like some of the same sorts who were on the wrong side of history then are on the wrong side of history now.

Today's bathroom fear is directed at our transgender neighbors. My goodness! How threatening can they be? Fewer than 1 in 300 persons are transgender. There is no history of a transgender person harassing anyone in a restroom or in a locker room. Plenty of transgender persons have been harassed and bullied. From news reports there is more reason to keep priests and ministers and coaches out of restrooms and locker rooms than transgender persons.

I wish you could know some of the wonderful transgender friends that I know. I roomed with a transgender priest on a mission trip a few years ago. Great guy. With his neatly trimmed beard he would look odd in a women's bathroom. Two weeks ago my wife and I went to the theater in New York with our delightful niece and her transgender partner. They are a talented and affectionate couple, and we spent a lovely evening together. One of my lay leaders who reads Scripture and serves the communion chalice is a transgender man who often ministers at the altar with his mother. What a good family. As always, love endures and prevails.

I realize I am lucky. I know a lot of transgender people, and I know that they are good and completely unthreatening. Most adults have grown up not knowing a transgender person. Initially, most of us simply accept the cultural bias of our upbringing.

The good folks in my hometown who believed that black people shouldn't go to the bathroom or school or soda fountain with their white children were good folks. They taught us Sunday School and coached our Little League. They meant well. They just didn't know any better. They only knew what they had been taught. They honored the traditions of their culture, their parents, and their churches. But they were wrong.

Racial discrimination is wrong. Discrimination against women, gay people, and transgender people is wrong.

But you have a right to your opinion. And a right to your religious beliefs. A constitutional right. However, your right to act upon your religious beliefs stops when it violates the constitutional freedom and rights of another person. In this free country, you can't refuse to serve a black person, or a gay person, or someone you think is transgender, or Muslim, or interracial, or a racist, or a soldier, just because they may offend your religious sensibilities. The First Amendment allows your church to discriminate against them, but you can't. And you shouldn't.

Don't be on the wrong side of history again. Recognize that your transgender neighbor is also a child of God, created in the image and likeness of God, seeking to live life as authentically and truly as possible. Your transgender neighbor has faced struggles you have never faced. Be compassionate. It's really pretty easy. Just love your neighbor as yourself.

Commentary on 05/31/2016

Print Headline: Love thy transgender neighbor

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