A city ordinance protecting residents from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was approved by the Houston City Council – a city which, for three consecutive terms – elected a lesbian mayor without much fanfare. When opponents got through with its narrative hijacking, the ordinance was defeated overwhelmingly. Their message? “No men in women’s bathrooms.” The story that opponents adopted was that expanding protections for transgender people would endanger women and children, and that compelling story won the day over an ordinance designed to limit discrimination.
That was last year. Since then, at least 30 bills have been introduced in 16 states mandating that use of bathrooms, locker rooms, and shower facilities match the gender on one’s birth certificate.
This is not a blog about whether such bills are discriminatory, nor is it an opinion piece about such efforts. Instead, I attempt here to examine the fascinating storytelling lesson to be learned.
The argument is simple: Restricting women’s bathroom access to those who were born a woman would keep men from dressing up as women and entering a restroom to sneak a peek, or worse, to assault women and children. The image that this narrative evokes is compelling. We share a strong expectation of privacy, security, and anonymity when we enter a public bathroom. There is a vulnerability that finds its way into that stall with us. Violating that sacred space with an unwelcome set of eyes is as revolting as it is unimaginable. And yet, we imagine it.
Fear is a destabilizing emotion. It is not subject to rationale or reason. It has the luxury of ignoring fact or logically-weighed risk. Fear does not need to acknowledge that no incidents of the aforementioned “trans defense” have occurred by a peeping tom, nor is there any evidence of an increased public safety risk in the hundreds of local jurisdictions that have successfully instituted ordinances designed to allow transgendered people to enter the restroom of the gender with which they identify.
The story that bathroom-bill-proponents tell is one rooted in fear. No one would dispute that. So why does it work?
There are four basic elements to a good narrative, and this one hits all four.
Stories must elicit an emotion. Supporters are angry at the prospect of increased danger. Opponents are angry at the perceived misinformation or fear-mongering. All sides are fearful, either at the success or failure of such an ordinance. The debate surrounding these issues is highly emotional, from charges of hate to accusations of perversion.
Stories must carry an element of trust. For fear to be a motivating factor, audiences must believe that the risk could be real. Is it that hard to imagine a creepy guy in a dress walking into a women’s restroom, lurking over the stall divider? And the more heartfelt a messenger appears in their defense of these bills, the more believable the scenario becomes.
Stories must elicit a visualization. Audiences must be able to put themselves or someone they know into the scenario in order for the fear to be real. They must be able to see the problem and visualize the solution. The risk here is revolting, but it’s also quite simple, and so is the solution. Easy to imagine makes it easy to visualize.
Stories must be repeatable. If a narrative is emotional, believable, and relatable, the likelihood that an audience can carry that story and spread its spirit and message increases exponentially. This is a story that is easy to frame. It is about protecting women and children from creeps.
It isn’t just fear that drives this narrative. Stories rooted in fear lose public contests all the time, and they will again. The force behind this particular narrative is one that is not just about fear. It is fueled by the ease with which this narrative can spread, due to its simple structure and relatable premise. Whether or not you agree with its impact, this is an exemplar in using compelling narrative to influence public dialogue and advance a cause.
Shaun Adamec is a communications professional, crisis planning expert, and recovering political operative. He is President and Founder of Adamec Communications, which helps those who seek to change the world find their voice.