Barred from Bathrooms, Barred from Rights: The Dragnet of Anti-Trans “Bathroom Bills”
June 01, 2017
By Laura Erickson-Schroth, MD and Laura A. Jacobs, LCSW-R
For now transgender Texans can breathe easy, but there’s no knowing how long yet. The recent Texas anti-trans “bathroom bill,” very similar to North Carolina’s, did not make it through the legislative session that ended on May 29. Several business CEOs, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Apple’s Tim Cook, contacted Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to call him out on the discriminatory bill. Although the bill is dead, supporters of the measure are waiting for a special session to breathe new life into it.
These bathroom bills, of course, are not about bathrooms. Based on unfounded fears and bigoted misconceptions, they are attempts to strip a targeted section of the population of its civil liberties. So where does this specific misconception around transgender people and bathrooms come from? Psychiatrist Laura Erickson-Schroth and psychotherapist Laura A. Jacobs unpack this myth in “You’re in the Wrong Bathroom!” And 20 Other Myths and Misconceptions about Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming People. The following excerpt reveals the roots of this transphobic legislation and the harm it does to the trans community.
Transgender people have faced scrutiny and harassment in bathrooms for decades, but only recently has this discrimination become law. In 2013, Arizona was the first state to sponsor a “bathroom bill,” which made it a crime to use a bathroom that did not correspond with your birth certificate. Fortunately, as the Transgender Law Center pointed out, that piece of legislation was “flushed away” later that year. But other states followed suit, including Texas, Nevada, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Tennessee, and, most prominently, North Carolina.
Arguments against transgender people’s access to bathrooms that match their gender identity almost always center on issues of safety. The claim is that transgender women, or those not genuinely trans but pretending to be so for malicious purposes, could sexually or otherwise physically assault cisgender women. Not only is this highly unlikely, but transgender women face enormous risks of violence and assault. The Office for Victims of Crime reports that half of transgender people are sexually assaulted or sexually abused during their lives. This number is even higher for trans youth, trans people of color, and trans people who are homeless. The Williams Institute reports that 70 percent of transgender people surveyed have been denied access, verbally harassed, or physically assaulted in public restrooms. For some trans people, every time they walk into a restroom they are putting themselves at risk.
One commonly held misconception is that without anti-trans “bathroom bills,” they are “free-for-alls” in which anyone can claim a trans identity and have access to spaces where people are vulnerable so as to perpetrate sexual assault. But restrooms are among the most highly scrutinized places in our communities. Gender-nonconforming people, whether trans or not, are routinely stared at, verbally harassed, and even physically removed from bathrooms. In New York City, during the 2007 Pride parade, a cisgender woman named Kadijah Farmer used the restroom in a West Village restaurant. A security guard entered the bathroom and began pounding on the stall door, insisting that Farmer leave and refusing her offers to show ID. In Detroit in 2015, a cisgender woman named Cortney Bogorad was pushed out of a restaurant bathroom by a security guard who insisted she was a man and then was forcibly removed from the restaurant. Both Farmer and Bogorad filed lawsuits. Most people targeted by gendered bathroom policing do not.
The focus in bathroom debates has primarily been on transgender women and not transgender men. Bathroom cultures differ by gender, and women’s bathrooms tend to be places of more scrutiny than men’s bathrooms. However, trans men in men’s bathrooms often worry that if they are discovered, they could be physically or sexually assaulted. Many trans men experience anxiety using urinals or while waiting for a stall.
Proponents of bathroom bills often do not consider that forcing transgender people to use the bathroom matching their birth certificate can also cause many awkward moments. Michael Hughes, a muscled, bearded trans man from Minnesota, started a campaign taking selfies in women’s bathrooms and posting them on social media with messages like “Do I look like I belong in a women’s bathroom?” Similarly, Kelly Lauren, a prominent, very feminine transgender woman and performer, posted pictures surrounded by men using urinals with the caption “Houston, do you REALLY want me in the same restroom as your husband or boyfriend?” While both these people were using dramatic images as forms of activism, such uncomfortable, potentially dangerous situations for transgender people would occur countless times daily should such legislation pass.
The bulk of criticism about trans people using bathrooms is directed at trans women. It often focuses on their potentially being sexual predators who would target cisgender women and children. Fears of trans women as sexual predators stem from myths about trans women transitioning for sexual gratification. Trans men, on the other hand, are often assumed to transition in order to obtain the privileges of male status in a patriarchal society. These assumptions about trans women’s and men’s respective reasons for transition are a reflection of how we as a society value masculinity and devalue femininity.
Many contend that the debates about bathroom bills are not about trans people at all but, in fact, mostly about cisgender men. Proponents of bathroom bills frequently discuss the danger of “men” using women’s bathrooms to lure and attack women. They argue that allowing trans people to use the restroom matching their gender identity will lead to men dressing up as women in order to prey on them. In September 2016, the American Family Association, which organized the Target boycott, published a blog post titled “10 Examples of Men Abusing Target’s Dangerous Policy.” At least nine of the ten examples listed are clearly cisgender men, most accused of taking photos or videos from under or over a stall door in a women’s bathroom. Legislation criminalizing sexual assault already exists.
A December 2016 study published in the journal Gender Issues confirmed that cisgender men were the ones expressing this concern, finding that cisgender women were approximately four times more likely to state that “transgender women do not directly cause their safety and privacy concerns.”
According to the Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Center at the University of Michigan, 99 percent of sex offenders in single-victim incidents are men. Women spend much of their mental energy on a daily basis thinking about ways to keep themselves safe. Given the intense social policing of bathrooms, dressing up as a woman to stealthily enter a women’s bathroom is one of the most difficult ways to find victims. Reducing sexual violence, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator, is a goal of society as a whole. Further discriminating against transgender women, already some of the most vulnerable, is a misdirection of effort.
For transgender people, just going to a public bathroom—something all of us may need to do multiple times a day—can be extremely frightening. In the wake of numerous state bathroom bills, many transgender people have contributed to the hashtag #WeJustNeedToPee. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report focusing on trans youth and sex-segregated school facilities reveals that preventing youth from using bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity leads to numerous health and safety issues. A fourteen-year-old transgender girl in Texas who was forced to use the boys’ locker room was assaulted by a group of football players. A fifteen-year-old trans boy in Utah told HRW, “I just don’t go to the bathroom at school,” and another said, “I go home for lunch and use the bathroom there. And I don’t go for the rest of the day.”
Avoiding fluid intake or holding your bladder can lead to dehydration, urinary-tract infections, and kidney problems. In the HRW report, the mother of another transgender boy in Utah stated: “He told us about junior high and not going to the bathroom all day. He was getting bladder infections and we didn’t know why.” While the Department of Justice and the Department of Education have announced that Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 protects transgender students’ rights to use the facilities corresponding with their gender identity, a number of states have sued to challenge the federal government’s interpretation.
Fighting anti-trans legislation in schools and other public spaces is important. But there are a number of smaller changes we can make as individuals or as members of organizations or companies to improve bathroom access for transgender people. Single-stall, gender-neutral restrooms can be beneficial not only for trans and gender-nonconforming people but also for families and people with disabilities. In larger, multi-stall restrooms that cannot currently be converted to single bathrooms, urinals can be removed and stalls upgraded for complete door and side coverage, so that people of all genders can be invited in. Work can also be done to change the language of bathroom access, acknowledging that many people, including trans people, require more access rather than less.
About the Authors
Laura Erickson-Schroth, MD, MA (New York, NY), is a psychiatrist working with LGBTQ people in New York City. She is the editor of Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, a resource guide written by and for transgender people.
Laura A. Jacobs, LCSW-R (New York, NY) is a trans and genderqueer-identified psychotherapist, writer, activist, and public speaker working with transgender and gender-nonconforming, LGBTQ+, and sexual/gender diversity issues. Follow her on Twitter at @LauraAJacobsNYC and visit her website.