Few among us could have foreseen the culture war that is currently ripping America apart. Like abortion and gay marriage, it has pitted conservatives against liberals, thrown communities into turmoil, inspired impassioned editorials, and prompted boycotts by Hollywood celebrities.
The issue: Which bathroom should transgender people use? Nobody had thought about this question until the day before yesterday. But now, invoking the ghost of Martin Luther King, even President Barack Obama has weighed in.
In the United States, the bathroom wars started as a brush fire and turned into a major conflagration. They are typically depicted as a brawl between right-wing fundamentalists and enlightened champions of progressive values.
But that's not the whole story. They are also a prime example of elitist overreach by left-wing ideologues, who think nothing of trampling over the right of reasonable people to sort out complex problems in reasonable ways.
The turning point was the case of a transgender high-school student in suburban Chicago, who was born a male but now identifies as female. School districts across North America have been grappling with the issue of accommodating transgender kids, and this school had already done much to support the student. She's on a girls' sports team, goes by a girl's name, and went to the prom in a sparkly dress. The big question was: Should she be allowed to use the girls' locker room?
School officials decided that she could – so long as she changed behind a curtain. Sounds reasonable enough.
But it did not sound reasonable to the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued that the teenager's rights were being violated because she was restricted from behaving exactly like every other girl. "The district's insistence on separating my client from other students is blatant discrimination," an ACLU official argued. "Rather than approaching this issue with sensitivity and dignity, the district has attempted to justify its conduct by challenging my client's identity as a girl."
The ACLU took up the case with the federal Department of Education, which, in a landmark decision, agreed that the school had violated anti-discrimination laws.
Now every school across the United States faces sanctions – and even loss of federal funding – if it does not comply with the absolutist interpretation of equal treatment.
No wonder local folks are furious. They think the real zealots are in Washington, D.C., and they are not wrong.
At least 11 states have launched legal actions to fight off what they see as a grotesque power grab by Washington – the same sort of overreach that made universities police the sexual conduct of their students, with disastrous results.
Both sides in the bathroom wars are using wild hyperbole to make their case. The "antis" have raised the spectre of male predators in drag who will invade ladies' rooms and assault women and children. The "pros" warn that denying bathroom access to the transgendered will increase suicides.
I seriously doubt that either side is right. What I don't doubt for a minute is the vast resources that are about to be tied up in useless litigation, to say nothing of the millions of dollars that schools will waste retrofitting their locker rooms and washrooms to conform to the wishes of civil liberties lawyers and bureaucrats in Washington.
Maybe I'm naive, but I have great confidence in ordinary people to work out this issue on their own. Martin Luther King might even think so, too.
On the whole, we are a highly tolerant and fair-minded society. Who cares if a biological man decides to use the ladies' room once in a while, or vice versa? Not anybody I know.
In Canada, our schools seem to be working out reasonable accommodations using common sense, without a lot of fuss They don't need to be legislated into virtue.