Popaganda Episode: Bathroom Panic


From Wisconsin to Washington to Wyoming, this spring Republican legislators have pushed for 50 new laws that would specifically ban transgender people from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity. Why is there all this sudden panic about where people use the bathroom? And how did this most humble piece of infrastructure become a cultural battleground? On this episode, we dig deep on transphobic bathroom bills, exploring the history of gender segregation in bathrooms, analyzing the right-wing strategy behind this current wave of new laws, and celebrating the resistance of people pushing back against discrimination across the country. 

This episode features interviews with National Center for Transgender Equality Executive Director Mara Keisling, ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio, and York University Associate Professor Sheila Cavanagh, who literally wrote the book on queer identities and bathroom politics. Plus, writer Sam Riedel shares her essay debunking five right-wing myths that fuel bathroom bills. Tune in! 






This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by She Bop, a women-owned, female friendly sex toy boutique for every body located in Portland, OR and online at sheboptheshop.com. Popaganda listeners receive 15% off any online order—just use the coupon code BITCHVIRAL.


• The National Center for Transgender Equality tracks anti-trans bills nationwide. You can look up your state to see if any anti-trans legislation is being proposed by your representatives. 

• If you want to get more involved with LGBT organizing in North Carolina and other Southern states, one great resource working on the ground to oppose anti-trans legislation is Southerners On New Ground

• For more on the history bathroom politics, check out Professor Sheila Cavanagh’s book Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygenic Imagination. Sheila also wrote a play based on that book called Queer Bathroom Stories. She said that any Popaganda listeners who want to produce the play in their town or college are welcome to get in touch

• The photo featured on this podcast was taken by Joe Longobardi at a March 24 protest against North Carolina’s anti-LGBT bill HB2.

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Our show was transcribed by Cheryl Green of StoryMinders. We’re proud to make Popaganda accessible to people who are Deaf or hard of hearing.



 [theme music]

If you turned on the TV in Houston, Texas this fall, you might have been convinced that something very scary was happening in an unexpected place: public bathrooms.

[From TV commercial, ominous music] ANNOUNCER: Houston’s Proposition 1 bathroom ordinance:  What does it mean to you? Any man at any time could enter a woman’s bathroom simply by claiming to be a woman that day. No one is exempt. Even registered sex offenders could follow women or young girls into the bathroom. And if a business tried to stop them, they’d be fined.

SARAH: Yeah. You might think that advertisement, complete with its doomsday soundtrack, was calling on voters to reject some kind of law that related to sexual assault services. It definitely sounds like if you don’t vote no, you’re putting women at risk for violence, right?

But, actually, that ad was taking aim at an anti-discrimination measure.

Last year, Houston’s City Council passed a law that bars discrimination in employment, housing, and public spaces against people on the basis of a bunch of different things, including age, military status, disabilities, and sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s this last point that right-wing critics latched onto. The law would allow transgender people to use the bathrooms in public places–like restaurants, shops, and city hall–that match their gender identity.

Right-wing opposition groups forced the anti-discrimination measure to go on the ballot for a city-wide vote. Then, they ran TV and radio ads designed to inspire fear. They recruited people like a former baseball star to campaign against the measure in a radio ad, describing transgender women as “troubled men.”

[radio ad with soothing piano music] LANCE: I’m Lance Berkman. I’ve played professional baseball for 15 years, but my family is more important. My wife and I have four daughters. Proposition 1, the bathroom ordinance, would allow troubled men to enter women’s public bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms. This would violate–

SARAH: This fear-mongering tactic worked. Voters in Houston, which is the nation’s most racially diverse city, voted to repeal the anti-discrimination law.

Since then, Republican legislators have proposed a wave of transphobic “bathroom bills” across the country. Everywhere they’ve been proposed, from Washington to Wisconsin to Wyoming, these bills stir up fear of transgender people, specifically trans women. 

On today’s episode, we’ll be looking at this rising panic around who can use the bathroom and where. How did the bathroom become such a place of charged and hateful gender politics? And why is are these laws that are built on pure hysteria, and not fact, finding such support? Stay tuned.


Around the country this winter and spring, Republicans proposed 50 different laws that would impact the rights of transgender people to use the bathroom of their choosing. In Wisconsin, for example, a proposed bill required schools to make sure that students were only using the bathroom that matched their “sex assigned at birth.”  In Kansas, legislators proposed a similar law and then also added a clause saying that any student who saw a trans person in a restroom or locker room could sue their school for $2500. In Washington state, six proposed bills aimed to repeal the statewide protections for transgender people to use the bathroom matching their gender identity.

Those bills all failed to pass.


But in two states, anti-LGBT bills became law. In Mississippi, a new law expressly allows businesses and public employees to discriminate against LGBT people. And in North Carolina, a new law not only repealed anti-discrimination measures that more progressive cities and towns in that state had passed, but makes it illegal for people to use bathrooms that don’t match the gender noted on their birth certificates. So if you’re planning to use the bathroom in North Carolina, you should make sure you have a copy of your birth certificate on hand? How does that make sense?

Watching this wave of discriminatory legislation, you have to wonder:  What’s the big deal about using the bathroom?

How did the most humble part of our public infrastructure, the bathroom, become the site of fierce debate in distinguished capitol buildings around the country? In our houses, people of all genders use the same bathrooms. You don’t find a men’s room on the first floor of my house and a women’s room on the second. So why is it so different in public buildings?

At the heart of these bills is a debate over public space, specifically who’s allowed in our public spaces?

Bathrooms are a particularly complicated public space. To get some background on how bathroom politics have changed over time, I called up someone who literally wrote the book on queer identities and bathrooms.

SHEILA: My name is Sheila Cavanagh. I’m an Associate Professor at York University. I’m also the Chair of the Canadian Sexuality Studies Association.

SARAH: Sheila Cavanagh is the author of Queering Bathrooms, which examines gender, sexuality, and bathrooms. I think of bathrooms as being gender segregated, typically:  Men and women. Strictly binary. But as Sheila points out, bathrooms have been segregated throughout history in other ways.

SHEILA: I think that the gender panic we’re witnessing today around bathrooms has a history. I mean, certainly we have the history in the United States of racially segregated public bathrooms, right? There was not just a gender divide; there was also a racial divide. We also see that in some of the older original buildings in our cities, frequently, let’s say in a court house, it wasn’t uncommon to see a bathroom built for men but not women. Because it was assumed that men worked in that public building and that women lived and worked predominantly in the home, in the private sphere. We also see class segregation around bathrooms. Frequently, janitors or custodial workers who clean bathrooms in malls or schools or in office settings aren’t allowed to use the very bathrooms they clean.


SARAH: Maybe you haven’t taken a deep dive into the “toilet history” section of Wikipedia, but as Sheila Cavanagh points out, the history of bathrooms actually reflects some important social dynamics. Cities in Europe started building public bathrooms in the 1800s, a delightful technological advancement over men peeing in the streets. As women started having the ability to participate more in public life outside the home—going to work in factories, eating in cafes, going to department stores, riding the trains—the Victorian-era morals often led to the construction of separate women-only facilities. Not just bathrooms, but everything. Separate counters in stores, separate floors in factories.

In her classic book Cat’s Eye, author Margaret Atwood has a vivid description of a school in rural Canada in the mid-1900s that still has separate doors for male students and female students.

KATE: There’s a front door, which is never used by children. At the back are two grandiose entranceways with carvings around them and ornate insets above the doors, inscribed in solemn, curvy lettering: Girls and Boys. If you go in the wrong door, you get the strap, or so says everyone. 

SARAH: Just as Margaret Atwood makes clear in that passage, read by my coworker Kate Lesniak, the gender norms of these segregated places are often strictly enforced, whether by peers, teachers, or even the police. While many of these once-segregated places have become integrated over the last hundred years, gender-segregated bathrooms have remained.

In a recent article for the New Yorker, writer and professor Jeannie Suk noted that part of the reason public bathrooms remain segregated is building codes:  Many building codes written long ago, and unchanged since then, mandate that there be separate bathrooms for men and women in businesses and places of work. But she also points out a current of paternalism that established these rules to begin with. The ideology of “separate spheres” for men and women grew out of a desire to protect women from the “crude dangers of the male world.” Women were fragile; we needed to be protected.

These days, in our political rhetoric, we’re seeing a resurgence of paternalism. Remember the radio ad in Houston calling for the repeal of an anti-discrimination measure there?

[Radio ad] LANCE: This would violate their privacy and put them in harm’s way. That’s just wrong. We must prevent this potential danger by closing women’s restrooms to men rather than waiting for a crime to happen.

SARAH: That’s textbook paternalism.

And it’s not just bathrooms.

The need to “protect women’s health” is the main talking point for Republicans who say that “protecting women” requires defunding Planned Parenthood. Here’s Mitch McConnell reiterating that point last summer as he proudly backed a bill to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding.

MITCH: This will ensure that taxpayer dollars that are supposed to be spent on women’s health are, in fact, spent on women’s health.

SARAH: Never mind that Planned Parenthood is the nation’s largest reproductive health provider.

This paternalism is combined with anxiety around gender, forming a toxic mix of transphobic laws that find support by saying they’re “protecting women.”

SHEILA: I think it’s important to remember that bathrooms in the North American context have always been used to segregate people. For me, the really good barometers, the really good indexes, into which bodily differences matter– And I think right now, one of the things that’s on people’s radar is transgender identifications.

SARAH: So why have other parts of our society—like our trains, our schools, our department stores—integrated gender while our bathrooms remain segregated?

SHEILA: To be really honest, I struggle to understand that myself.

SARAH: Sheila says a lot of it has to do with shame and anxiety about how many, many people carry around a lot of anxiety about their bodies, and that they’re afraid of bodies that seem different than theirs, that are unfamiliar.

SHEILA: I think certainly there is a lot of fear and a lot of shame around the body and gender and sexuality. Certainly, in very conservative Christian spaces, there is a very obvious discomfort with anyone who departs from gender normativity or with anyone who is gay or lesbian or bisexual, or even with anyone who is overtly sexual in a way that doesn’t fit into the conventional nuclear family monogamous structures.

SARAH: A lot has changed since the Victorian era when bathrooms were first built, but though gender norms have evolved—we can show our ankles and even get credit cards all by ourselves—they haven’t fallen away entirely.

SHEILA: We’re often held to very, very extreme stereotypical constructions of masculinity or femininity. And we’re supposed to take on a gender that seemingly matches the sex of our body. Well, as you can imagine, this is a very narrow and prescriptive–and I would suggest reductive–idea about gender. I think that actually left to our own devices, gender is much more variant and much more complex than the two signs on the bathroom door allow us to understand.


SARAH: In recent decades, the design of bathrooms has evolved somewhat. Over the past 20 years, thanks to work by transgender advocates and allies, roughly 150 colleges and dozens of public buildings have created “Gender neutral” or “all gender” bathrooms. Many companies have policies that make it clear customers can use the bathroom matching their gender identity (like Target, which is now facing a boycott from Christian right groups for this stance). There’s even a gender-neutral bathroom database online, Refugerestrooms.com, where you can search for gender-neutral restrooms in any city. A search in New York turns up 280 gender-neutral bathrooms…and yet we’re not seeing the kind of terrifying situation the right-wing radio ads insist will occur if we protect the rights of transgender women to use women’s restrooms.

For her book Queering Bathrooms, Sheila Cavanaugh interviewed roughly 100 LGBT people about their experiences accessing bathrooms. What she found is that many trans and gender-nonconforming people face violence and harassment in bathrooms. That jives with what other studies have found:  According to a 2013 report by the Williams Institute, about 70% of trans people have reported being “denied entrance, assaulted or harassed while trying to use a restroom.”

While some people are clearly still afraid of gender difference, says Sheila, there’s not any factual basis for being afraid that trans people will assault someone in the bathroom.

SHEILA: In my entire research, I couldn’t find any example of trans or gender-variant people committing physical or sexual assault in gendered bathrooms. I only encountered incidences of those who are cis-gender, that is non-trans, either verbally or physically and sometimes sexually assaulting those who are trans. So when we’re talking about issues of safety, physical safety, I think it’s really important to put our prejudicial ideas aside and to look at statistics and to look at hard facts. Certainly, I feel absolutely comfortable saying that trans people do not pose any kind of a threat to anybody, regardless of what bathroom they use.

SARAH: So if they’re not “protecting women” what are these laws protecting? The ability to enforce old-school ideas about gender through the law.


You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today’s topic:  Bathroom panic!

Last Monday, Mara Keisling was arrested for the first time in her life. She was in Raleigh, North Carolina, taking part in a “Moral Monday” protest. Over 1,000 people gathered at the state capitol to protest the passage of HB2, the law that nullifies local anti-discrimination laws and living wage laws around the state and makes it illegal for transgender people to use the bathroom matching their gender identity.

[Protesters chanting, cheering]

PROTESTER: We must love and support one another!

CROWD: We must love and support one another!

PROTESTER: We have nothing to lose but our chains!

CROWD: We have nothing to lose but our chains!

SARAH: Mara, who’s the director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, wasn’t arrested for breaking that “bathroom bill” law.

MARA: They technically arrested us for a fire code violation, but they knew why we were there. The fire code is just what they hung their hat on with it. Interestingly, earlier in the day when we got to the Governor’s office in the Capitol, I had gone to use the restroom, as people do during the day. I used the women’s room; that’s the restroom I always use and have for 20 years. The police knew I was using the women’s room, the receptionists knew I was using the women’s room, and nobody cared. They weren’t even enforcing the law, basically in the Governor’s office building.

SARAH: The police arrested 56 people during that protest, including Mara.

MARA: It’s very tricky for a trans person. I don’t mean tricky. It’s very dangerous for a trans person to get arrested, or for anybody to get arrested, but particularly for a transgender person, particularly in a place where there are now hostile laws about being transgender.

SARAH: But Mara says she was in good company. The protest against the bill was organized by the North Carolina NAACP. Among the people arrested were racial justice organizers and labor organizers who were very familiar with the long history of civil disobedience.

MARA: To be singing old civil rights songs and old labor organizer songs while riding a bus to the county jail was remarkable. And if you have to get arrested, these are the folks to get arrested with and to be booked with and to be sitting there in a county jail, knowing that all you were trying to do was talk to the government.

SARAH: When she got to the jail, instead of being afraid, Mara took the chance to do a little education.

MARA: Because I was in the first group of people who was arrested, I took the opportunity to ask the officer in booking for a supervisor, and the Captain came over. I talked to the Captain and one of his subordinates about the trans people who might be coming through that evening and how to appropriately handle them.

SARAH: So if I get this picture straight, you’re being booked into jail, and you’re handcuffed. And between getting your mug shot taken and the fingerprinting, you’re talking to the police officers about, “Hey, here’s a mini-lecture on how to properly handle transgender people who you’re arresting today?” [laughs]

MARA: That’s right. I thought there would be– And there may have been. I didn’t get to see everybody who went through. But I was concerned that there would be a lot of young trans people, particularly young trans people of color, who wouldn’t be treated as gently as I was treated.

SARAH: Since the Republican-held North Carolina legislature passed HB2 in March, people around the state and country have pushed back. The law rolls back rights for many marginalized groups in the state.

MARA: So it’s now not possible in North Carolina to sue in state court if you face discrimination based on sex, race, religion, or nationality. And they also made it impossible, or illegal, for cities to pass living wage laws or to raise the minimum wage. They just thought, I think Governor McCrory in particular, thought that he could do these things, get business on his side, get the hardcore right wing extremists on his side, and blame it all on trans people, and nobody would fight back.

SARAH: But they have been fighting back. In Chapel Hill, LGBT activists led a march down a main street and took over an intersection for hours.

[Crowds and leaders chanting, clapping, calling for justice]

SPEAKER: I don’t know if you can see it, but I am filled with rage, wrath, and anger.

PROTESTOR: I can see it.

CROWD: [laughs, cheers]

SARAH: In another protest, activists delivered a giant port-a-potty straight to the statehouse.

NEWSCASTER: CBS North Carolina’s Michael Highland is there. Michael, they think the law stinks, and they have a unique way of showing it, don’t they?

MICHAEL: [on location] Absolutely. State legislators are trying to block an ordinance in Charlotte that let people use the restroom based on their gender identity cited safety concerns and said the City overreached. But in response to that, the protestors behind me have brought this here. They brought this port-o-potty just about half an hour ago. As you can see clearly, it is for both men and women, and they are trying to make a point here by setting it up just outside the Capitol building.

SARAH: These protests are one way people are fighting the discriminatory bill. While activists are in the streets, others are in the courthouse.

CHASE: Hi, this is Chase Strangio. I’m a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.

SARAH: Chase is part of the legal team fighting anti-trans legislation around the country. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, legislatures have proposed 50 anti-trans bathroom bills around the country. So far, 41 of those have been neutralized. But eight are still up for debate, and only one has passed. That would be North Carolina’s. 

After the city of Charlotte, North Carolina passed an anti-discrimination measure protecting trans people last year, the ACLU expected North Carolina’s governor to try and strike it down this spring. But they didn’t expect the Republican machinery to move so fast; the state legislature called a “special session” a month early and over the course of just 24 hours, passed this massive bill, HB2, and then immediately signed it into law. 

A few days later, the ACLU filed a lawsuit saying that HB2 violates peoples’ constitutional rights to privacy and also violates Title IX, which bans sex-based discrimination.

They have to fight the law in courts, says Chase, because it’s very unlikely that the legislature will vote to repeal it, despite the bad press they’re getting nationwide and boycotts of the state by everyone from rock stars to a coalition of mayors.

CHASE: I mean, of course, they could repeal this thing tomorrow, and the timeline would be short. I think we’re not seeing that level of, a) there’s no real political investment in that, given the super majority, in both chambers, of the Republican party in North Carolina. And as a separate matter of the fact is that North Carolina has some of the most restrictive voting laws that have been upheld in court. So the ability of people to vote in North Carolina is restricted, which of course, completely affects the makeup of the legislature.

SARAH: Federal courts have ruled several times that transgender people have the right to use the bathroom matching their gender identity. Just last month, a federal appeals court ruled that a transgender teenage boy in Virginia had to the right to use the boys’ bathroom at school. The US Department of Education’s official policy agrees with the ACLU on this, that banning transgender students from the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity is a violation of Title IX. So it’s likely that federal courts will side with Chase’s team and reverse North Carolina’s law…at some point.

CHASE: So unfortunately, litigation is a really slow way to bring about change in some respects. Because this law was passed and is in effect, we know that people are being harmed every single day, and it’s frustrating to have to wait for the courts to resolve such a critical question in people’s lives.

SARAH: And that’s what’s unusual about the current wave of anti-trans bathroom bills. Not only is there already federal precedent making pretty clear that these laws are illegal, but states have been passing anti-discrimination measures protecting transgender peoples’ right to use the bathroom since 1993. That’s when Minnesota banned discrimination in public accommodation. Several other states have followed suit over the past 23 years. Oregon, New Mexico, Nevada, Maine, Iowa and other states have all passed laws specifically allowing trans people to use the correct bathroom. In no state has law enforcement ever reported a problem with trans people using that legal protection to attack and assault cisgender women in the bathroom, a fear that right-wing advocates say is the basis of these new bills.

So why, after 23 years, is there suddenly this wave of transphobic bathroom bills? Discrimination against trans people is not new, but there’s suddenly a right-wing fervor around bathroom.

Chase, of the ACLU, says there are a couple things going on here. 

CHASE: I do think in the wake of the marriage equality decision from the Supreme Court in June, there’s an escalation in opposition from the forces that opposed marriage and other aspects of LGBT equality and justice. They’re doubling down on the bathroom rhetoric with respect to trans people because, in part, it was sort of like another tactic to undermine the same set of equality and justice goals that they saw in the marriage movement. And then, they had a big success in Houston defeating at the ballot, or repealing at the ballot, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance in November. So I think that really propelled opponents of trans people and LGB people to really push forward with the strategy during these state legislative sessions. So that’s one aspect of what’s driving this. I think the other main one is just the increase in visibility of trans people resulting in a backlash. So the more that we talk about trans people and situate trans people in the public discourse, the more we’re seeing this extreme backlash that’s very much grounded in investment and maintaining traditional gender roles and investment in regulating and surveilling bodies that are seen as different or deviant. And then just I think we see a general strategy of trying to push people out of public life who are seen as different or as deviant.

SARAH: So this isn’t a debate about safety; it’s a debate over bodies. People who are backing bathroom bills want to police people whose gender presentation unsettles them in some way.

CHASE: So this type of legislation really just heightens and escalates all the forms of policing and violence that trans people experience. And there is definitely that feeling. Not to mention that people are just like straight up not going to the bathroom, particularly people who are in school. That’s just a bad thing all around.

SARAH: Mara, of the National Center for Transgender Equality, agrees that these bathroom bills are a political tactic that’s gotten more force after anti-LGBT folks lost the national fight to stop marriage equality.

MARA: They’re trying to be relevant. They’re trying to show their hardcore membership that they haven’t given up the fight against these presumably evil queer people. They thought they found, in us, an easy target:  Some folks without any political power, without any big numbers, and without any friends. And I think it’s a whacking them back in the face.

SARAH: Looking back at the protest of thousands of people who took over downtown Raleigh last week, Mara says the best thing about the protest was how diverse it was. The streets were filled not just with LGBT groups, but with people of all ages and races who clearly see the problems with discrimination. 

MARA: These were all people who cared about all of these issues. We really all were caring about the lack of a living wage for so many people and the stripping of enforcement from race discrimination laws and sex discrimination laws. That was by far the thing that was most interesting and heartening for me.

SARAH: Mara says Republicans picked transgender people as targets to pass these bills because they thought it would be an easy group to attack. But across the state, from the courthouses to the streets of Chapel Hill, thousands of people are proving them wrong.


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You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today, we’re exploring bathroom panic.

Transphobic bathroom bills have been debated in legislatures across the country this spring. And even though most of them have not become law, the rhetoric around the debates have spread really hostile and toxic ideas about transgender people. The transmisogynyistic slogan “no men in women’s bathrooms” has become front page news across the country.

Luckily, we have writer Sam Reidel to spell out and debunk these talking points one by one. Sam is a Bitch contributor and transfeminine Brooklynite. In this essay she goes through right-wing myths that are being used to back these bills and explains, one by one, why they’re wrong.


SAM: To borrow a snippet of Star Wars, “It is a dark time for the Republic.” Despite the tireless efforts of transgender activists across the United States, “bathroom bills”—legislation limiting access to restrooms, locker rooms, etc. only to those whose assigned birth gender matches the label on the door—barrel forward. At last count, 14 such bills were pending in nine states, and more seem to be sponsored every day, emboldened by North Carolina’s House Bill 2 and Mississippi’s HB 1523. With them come slates of blanket anti-LGBTQIA bills, seeking to ride the bathroom bills’ coattails. If cisgender people thought “transtrenders” were bad, this particular trend is far, far worse.

Still, proponents of these bills claim their work is necessary, and that without their efforts to codify gender discrimination, innocent citizens will be placed at risk of assault and worse. It’s unfortunate that the discussion around trans rights has pivoted so swiftly to center the views of political and religious zealots on the far right, but their discourse has become so widespread that it must be addressed. Here, then, are the most popular objections to letting transgender Americans use the bathrooms of their choice—and why they’re transparently nonsense.

1. Allowing trans women in women’s facilities will allow men to indulge peeping-tom fantasies.

First, let’s acknowledge that this argument necessitates the erasure of transgender men in order to hold water. Not only will anti-trans bathroom bills fail to prevent men from sneaking into the women’s room, it will force thousands of trans men to do so under the guise of “protecting women.” And make no mistake, this isn’t about what trans men look like; you’ve probably seen the (misguided) memes featuring burly, bearded trans men posing in bathroom mirrors while uncomfortable cis women look on, but this isn’t about presentation. If men don’t belong in women’s bathrooms, why do right-wing activists seem so hell-bent on forcing men in there just because they have vaginas?

That said, the argument is completely false in other ways, too. Let’s assume that even half of one percent of people who are attracted to women are compelled to loiter in the bathroom and attempt to peep on them. That would account for thousands of harassment cases a year. Why, then, are there not “no lesbians allowed” signs on bathroom doors? If it’s a problem that’s exclusive to men, why is this problem not endemic in the gay male community? Simple: this sort of behavior is already socially inexcusable and legally actionable. There are already laws on the books to discourage and punish this behavior, regardless of gender.

2. Allowing trans women in women’s facilities will allow men to sexually abuse women and girls.

This is the more frequent corollary to the first point: the insinuation that trans women, by their very presence, open the door for cis men to prey upon cis women. That’s insulting on a ridiculous number of levels, but let’s break this down carefully. Content warning for graphic discussion of sexual assault.

Transgender identities are not a new development. Though trans people have been more visible in the last decade than in many years previous, trans women and trans men alike have been using facilities consistent with their gender identities and presentations for ages. If cis men were waiting for their chance to pretend to be trans, bad news: they already had that ability. So why would they start now? And if one truly wanted to commit sexual assault in a public place, why would they be concerned about a new bathroom access statute?

Bathroom bill advocates protest that, all assertions to the contrary, abusive men have been caught pretending to be trans before. The case of Christopher Hambrook is often cited, but erroneously. Hambrook is a Canadian man who plead guilty to sexual assault and criminal harassment in 2013 after pretending to be a trans woman and gaining access to a women’s shelter. But he also served time for child rape in 2002, and was determined to have multiple mental illnesses and rated as a high re-offense risk during psychiatric assessments, during which he admitted he was not transgender. Hambrook’s is one of the only cases of its kind, and yet it barely lends any credence to bathroom bill arguments. If anything, it proves that vigilance in mental health and transitional housing facilities can never be too high, and that solutions are desperately needed to address violent sufferers of mental illness.

All that being said, there are still more reasons why bathroom bills are not appropriate to address the problem of sexual assault in public facilities. Even though there are already sexual assault laws on the books in every state, rapes regularly take place in women’s bathrooms regardless of equal rights laws; preventing those before they happen would require massive nationwide security upgrades, destroying the privacy bathroom bill advocates claim to protect.

3. Trans people are just “deluded” anyway, and we shouldn’t allow men to invade women’s spaces

It’s troubling to even acknowledge that this argument exists. But when people like South Carolina Sheriff Chuck Wright say things like “if you are a guy and you go into the bathroom with my wife…I’m gonna whip your tail,” something must be said—because this rhetoric actively leads to the assault and murder of trans people, which we’ll discuss in a second.

Gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia are mental diagnoses which have been recognized by the psychiatric community for decades. What is less known, however, is that it’s not a disorder—a misconception perpetuated by the outdated term “gender identity disorder,” which was phased out years ago. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists dysphoria in a category separate from sexual disorders, and while trans people with dysphoria (some do not experience it) are at risk for anxiety, depression, and self-harm, studies have shown that social and familial affirmation can be mitigating factors. Most importantly, however, neuroscience is beginning to show that transgender brains operate differently than cisgender ones, pointing toward a biological basis for trans identities. Gender identity isn’t “just a feeling,” it’s fact.

4. Allowing assigned-male-at-birth students into girls’ facilities will encourage bullying and sexual assault.

Again, this is an assertion that posits that trans girls are really boys, and that boys are irresistibly drawn to bullying girls. Setting aside the fact that schools must take steps to prevent bullying in bathrooms, full stop, this argument is woefully out of touch with reality.

Like adult trans people, trans children are far less safe when coerced into using facilities which match their assigned birth gender. Twelve percent of respondents to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey (PDF) reported that they had been sexually assaulted in K-12 school. Forcing trans children to use facilities designed for a gender not their own puts them at great risk for this sort of abuse; allowing them access to correct facilities will lessen that risk and help prevent some of the worst kinds of bullying.

5. Trans people should just use unisex/single-stall restrooms.

Tell that to the trans woman who was assaulted in Stonewall’s unisex, single-stall bathroom in March.

It’s tempting just to drop the mic there, but look: unisex bathrooms are relatively rare. Telling trans people that they need to find one whenever they need to use a bathroom in public is incredibly difficult. Just like the security issue before, making unisex bathrooms the norm would require a massive national infrastructure upgrade, which is wholly unrealistic when you consider that we generally have enough bathrooms already. Can’t we just start using them as needed?

So go ahead, print this article out and keep it in your pocket. And the next time you hear someone spout off about men in dresses who are endangering millions of women because of their feelings, haul it out set them straight with plenty of facts and a skeptical eyebrow—just the way your Auntie Bitch taught you.


SARAH: That was Sam Riedel. You can follow her on Twitter @sammusmcqueen.

We’re at the end of our show, but the debates over bathroom bills continue. It’s easy to focus only on the transphobic people pushing these bills. But what we should also see is the beautiful resistance happening here, how people in communities across the country are coming out to support LGBT rights and to push for trans equality in creative and effective ways.

There are a bunch of groups organizing against these bills, if you want more information or to get involved. In North Carolina, you can look up Southerners on New Ground. Nationally, check out the National Center for Transgender Equality, which works for all kinds of trans rights issues. And you can follow and support the legal battles of Chase and the other civil rights lawyers at the ACLU.

Meanwhile, professor Sheila Cavanagh wrote a play based on her research about queer identities and bathrooms. It’s called Queer Bathroom Stories, and it’s been performed at several colleges. She said that anyone who’s listening to Popaganda and wants to stage the play should just reach out to her, and she’ll provide the script. You can find her info by Googling “queer bathroom stories,” and I’ll also put a link to her email as part of this podcast on BitchMedia.org.

Thanks for listening, and thanks to everyone out there who’s working hard to end this discrimination.

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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