An LGBTQ activist’s use of a dramatic civil-rights story from the Jim Crow era as he pleaded for understanding and action on behalf of transgender people drew a sharp and passionate rebuke from a Black Broward County commissioner, underscoring the political and cultural fault lines surrounding issues involving gender identity.
The disagreement on display in the County Commission chambers in Florida’s most liberal, Democratic county — and the overall issue it represents and questions it raises — doesn’t follow neat political lines.
The clash began when Michael Rajner, a white gay man, prominent LGBTQ political activist, and appointed chair of the county’s Human Rights Board, implored county commissioners to speed up efforts to get unisex restrooms at county facilities.
Rajner cited a new Florida law that imposes restrictions on bathroom usage in public buildings by transgender individuals.
Unless there’s a unisex facility, people may only use the restroom that corresponds to the biological sex the person was assigned at birth, which means transgender people can’t use the facilities that align with their gender identity. Failure to leave when asked can lead to a trespassing charge.
To help make his case Tuesday evening during a hearing on the county budget, Rajner invoked perhaps the most dramatic scene from the film “Hidden Figures.”
The film dramatized the dehumanizing circumstances imposed on the central character, Katherine Goble, a Black female mathematician vital to NASA’s efforts to launch a man into space before the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, who couldn’t use a restroom in or near the building in which she worked.
After she repeatedly has to make the demeaning, half-mile walk to a “colored” restroom, Goble, portrayed by the actor Teraji P. Henson, is confronted about her long absences by her white boss, and responds with a powerful illumination of the racist rules.
Rajner likened that scene to what transgender people experience today.
He said unisex facilities would provide transgender individuals “safe access to a restroom. But right now it’s even worse than when you see the movie ‘Hidden Figures,’ where a woman has to run to another building to the bathroom. (For transgender people) there’s nowhere to run to, except maybe to find a jar and go behind the bush to do it safely, but you could still get arrested.”
After Rajner’s turn at the microphone, about 50 minutes elapsed as other residents and various county commissioners spoke about the county budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
At that point, Commissioner Robert McKinzie, who is Black, responded to Rajner.
McKinzie said he was “offended” by Rajner’s using what was shown in the film to bolster his point. He suggested that restroom usage is a choice for transgender people, who have access to bathroom facilities, even if not for the gender with which they identify. During Jim Crow, Black people had no option.
McKinzie said something he “would not tolerate is a misrepresentation of the facts. ‘Hidden Figures’ is a true story — a true story — during a time when people that look like me, when the civil-rights movement were trying to move the needle just to be included. She didn’t go across the street to use the restroom just because. She went across the street to use the restroom because the restroom she wanted to use said ‘whites only.’ So when you advocate, advocate your facts, don’t misrepresent the facts, history and the hard work, the dedication, the sacrifice of blood, lives to move that needle.”
McKinzie continued: “Do not misrepresent the facts. Advocate for what you want to advocate for, but please bring the facts. … You use the ‘Hidden Figures,’ and that Black woman going across the street to use the restroom. It wasn’t because that was her choice. She went over there because of the color of her skin.”
Before the civil-rights movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “if you were Black you were not going to use a restroom that was not for ‘colored only,’” said Sharon Austin, a political scientist at the University of Florida and former longtime director of UF’s African American Studies program. “It was a case in which you went to the ‘colored’ bathroom or else. Black people didn’t have an option.”
Transgender people have become a culture war flashpoint in Florida and elsewhere.
People on the political right have been focusing on transgender issues, and enacting restrictive policies on school athletics, gender affirming care, and restrooms.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has been at the forefront of those policy questions, especially as he was preparing to launch his campaign for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, which requires winning votes in his party’s primaries and caucuses around the nation.
“I’ve been an activist in this community for like 25 years. And finally we were starting to see a little progress with the transgender civil-rights movement, and we’re taking steps back now, and it’s very distressing,” said Rajee Narinesingh of Fort Lauderdale, a transgender community activist, actress and reality TV personality.
“I really do feel like we’re being used as a political wedge,” she said.
Politically, the transgender debate helps energize the conservative base of the Republican Party — and it sows discord on the left, dividing Democrats who aren’t all in agreement on the issue.
The McKinzie-Rajner split is a microcosm. Both are Democrats. Black voters, of whom McKinzie is one, and LGBTQ voters, of whom Rajner is one, are among the Democratic Party’s most important — and reliable — voting blocs.
Austin said the back and forth between McKinzie and Rajner is similar to discussions that have taken place in some of her classes.
McKinzie’s view is widely held. “Many in the African American community feel that nothing compares to being Black in the past or present,” Austin said. “Some people in the African American community have resented that people from the LGBTQ community have compared their fight to that of Black people during Jim Crow or before the modern civil-rights movement.”
Austin said she’s “not at all surprised” by McKinzie’s reaction to Rajner’s comments. “It’s not uncommon for people to resent that people who are gay say it’s just like being Black. A lot of people in the Black community feel like the two are not comparable at all.”
Tatiana Williams, an African American transgender woman, also said McKinzie’s view is widespread.
“With all due respect, I’m not surprised at all. He’s a Black man. And a Black man understanding LGBTQ community and specifically the trans community I am not surprised at all,” Williams said.
“When it comes to the trans community and the African American community, there’s a lot of things that come into play,” Williams said, adding it “can be kind of harsh when it comes to the LGB community itself. When you add the ‘t’ in there,” disapproval can be even stronger.
Williams is founder and executive director of Transinclusive Group, an advocacy organization based in Wilton Manors, is a member of the Broward State Attorney’s Office Hate Crimes Task Force, and is involved with the LGBTQ organizations Equality Florida and Human Rights Campaign.
The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature passed, and DeSantis signed, the “Safety in Private Spaces Act,” which went into effect July 1.
Restrooms and changing facilities in public buildings must be divided by gender unless they are unisex. People are prohibited from willfully entering a facility for the opposite sex and refusing to depart when asked to do so, violators are subject to trespassing charges, and the state attorney general can take steps to enforce the law.
A legislative staff analysis said the new law defines “female” as “a person belonging, at birth, to the biological sex which has the specific reproductive role of producing eggs” and “male” as “a person belonging, at birth, to the biological sex which has the specific reproductive role of producing sperm.”
A 2022 Pew Research Center poll found 41% of U.S. adults would strongly or somewhat favor requiring transgender individuals to use public restrooms that match the sex they were assigned at birth, not their gender identity.
Pollsters found 31% strongly or somewhat opposed such policies and 28% said they would neither favor nor oppose them.
Older adults were almost twice as likely as younger adults to support such policies and Republicans were more than three times more likely than Democrats to support such a restriction.
A Broward County summary reports the county has a total of 183 facilities, and 132 of them have restrooms.
Currently 87 have a unisex or family-oriented restroom and 45 don’t. That’s 66% with and 24% without.
The summary shows 20 of the facilities without unisex restrooms are open or accessible to the public and 25 are for employees only. The public facilities include the West Regional Courthouse, the Main Library, and the West Regional Library. The highest-profile facility without unisex restrooms is the Emergency Operations Center.
Rajner, speaking before the County Commission, said his impression from conversations with County Administrator Monica Cepero was that the county had a goal of unisex bathrooms in all facilities by 2027, a timetable he said should be accelerated.
There is not a timetable with a specific date for compilation of all renovations, Gregory Meyer, assistant director of public communications, said Friday via email. The county is evaluating the feasibility of retrofitting restrooms and in some cases building new ones, along with identifying funding.
“As we design new facilities, including the future Governmental Center, we plan to incorporate the additional restrooms as an option for our diverse community. Broward County embraces people from all cultures, backgrounds, gender identity and sexual orientation. We want to ensure that everyone has the option of privacy when using a public restroom,” Meyer said.
Williams, who later saw video of the Rajner-McKinzie exchange, said she’d like him and others to learn more about transgender people.
“As a woman of trans experience, I was offended when he said it,” she said. “There are a lot of people who may feel our lifestyles are a choice. But people don’t understand.”
Narinesingh is now an outreach advocate for TransSOCIAL, an agency that works with and advocates for transgender people.
Before transitioning, Narinesingh said, living as an “effeminate gay male was hard. Once I transitioned it became even harder to maneuver in corporate America and try to work. I put up with a lot just so I could have a job and support myself.”
From 2004 to 2010, she worked in North Miami and Sunrise for a company that had an outsourced contract for a major corporation.
On the second day of training, after having used the women’s room on her first day, she was called in by a supervisor and was told not to do so again, and allowed to use a single-person restroom in the Personnel Department.
Once on the job, she said her experience was like the movie.
She said she worked in an enormous building, but was still allowed to only use a single-person restroom on the other side of the building — except she often worked evening shifts and the Personnel Department closed at 4:30.
“Often times I didn’t have a bathroom on my shift, depending on my hours,” she said. “The times I did use the bathroom was like walking a whole football field to the bathroom.”
She said she would try to rush, but her supervisor monitored her and docked her for the time away.
“(In) the movie where she (Henson) was racing, trying to get to the bathroom and get back, that’s where it connected with me,” Narinesingh said. “There were times I went to the bathroom in my car. It’s just so embarrassing to admit. People do what they have to do to survive and to maneuver through it and all. I did what I had to do.”
“I would not dare stand up here and compare the story of what I went through at my job with ‘Hidden Figures’ unless it was true. I wouldn’t do that. But it was true,” she said in a telephone interview.
“It affected me not only physically, but mentally and spiritually. It does something to a person when you’re the ostracized one, and your fellow co-workers can do something that you can’t do. It can really play a toll on you, self-esteem wise,” Narinesingh said. “It was just so devastating.”
Anthony Man can be reached at email@example.com and can be found @browardpolitics on Facebook, Threads.net and Post.news.