A group protesting North Carolina’s transphobic bathroom bill earlier this year. Photo by Joe Longobardi.
In our increasingly polarized country, transgender individuals’ access to basic public facilities has, sadly, become a front-and-center political battleground. In states such as North Carolina, the HB2 bill barring bathroom access has created an environment where bigotry has threatened our human right to pee in peace. From the school locker rooms of Minnesota to the halls of the Supreme Court, everyone in the United States seems to have a strong opinion on whether trans students should or shouldn’t be allowed to enter the gendered spaces they identify with.
Yuki Izumi is a nonbinary femme who works for GitHub as a software engineer. She lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her partner. For her, restroom usage is a major problem in everyday life. Especially when visiting the United States.
“I felt particularly scared in the U.S, because I was there around the time the stupid trans bathroom stuff was happening in North Carolina,” she explained over email. “I don’t believe I once used a bathroom that wasn’t in my hotel room or inside the office where I was working (which is an explicitly trans-friendly space) the entire time I’ve been in the U.S. (three weeks)!”
While there has been high-profile pushback against North Carolina’s law, many Americans quietly agree with its premise. According to a report the Pew Research Center published this October, 46 percent of Americans feel that trans people should be required to use the bathrooms of the gender they were assigned at birth. People who identify as Christian, male, or older than 50 are even more likely to think trans people should have to use their “assigned at birth” bathroom. Conservatives have recently stalled the passage of LGBT nondiscrimination laws by specifically refusing to support any bill that protects the right to public accommodation, like bathroom access. Clearly, our nation is divided on this issue. But for the 1.4 million trans people in the United States, this is not an abstract political issue. It’s a daily problem.
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One of the many people who rallied to protest North Carolina’s bathroom bill. Photo by Joe Longobardi.
Surveys tell us a lot about the battlegrounds that trans people are forced into every day. But they don’t tell us much about the physical and emotional toll that trans people experience whenever they need to go into a restroom. In order to change the way our society approaches trans discrimination, we need to change the voices behind that discussion. That means putting trans people back into the center of the conversation and making sure our voices are heard first before cisgender observers get to speak.
So to get a more accurate picture of the problems we experience, I created a short questionnaire about bathroom use and discrimination and asked transgender people to fill it out on social media. Of the 20 respondents, 16 were North Americans, two live in the United Kingdom, and two live in Australia. This is not a big enough data set to base broader statistics on, but their stories about the physical and emotional stress caused by transphobia help illuminate the daily realities created by our political policies.
While few of the people who filled out the survey had ever personally been stopped from using the bathroom because they’re trans, nearly every single person said they felt “emotional or physical discomfort” around bathroom access. This fear and worry affects their behavior: 16 of the 20 people purposefully avoid using a restroom so they won’t face any hassle. And while many respondents said they live in areas that are relatively accepting of trans people, like New York and Vermont, 90 percent of interviewees felt unsafe approaching a police officer if they felt threatened.
“In public I almost always struggle when using the bathroom,” Izumi told me. “Unless I’m feeling particularly confident about my appearance on a given day, or I’m in an explicitly trans-friendly space, I always think hard about what kind of experience I’m likely to have. What if I run into a particularly TERF-y cis woman? Is someone going to call the police, or scream about an intruder, or what?”
These fears are common among trans people. In some cases, they become realities. According to a 2013 study by The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, 18 percent of respondents reported being denied access to a public restroom, 68 percent experienced some form of verbal harassment in a restroom, and nine percent reported some kind of physical altercation (most of which involved physical intimidation or forced removal from a bathroom).
While Izumi hasn’t faced physical discrimination in the bathroom, she certainly has in another major public space: airports. Between the TSA scrutinizing your ID to the vulnerability of traveling to an unfamiliar places, she sees airports as “the ultimate unsafe space.”
“When I last travelled via China and had to clear border security, my passport said ‘F,’ but border staff thought I looked like a dude,” Izumi explained. “Thus followed a humiliating experience where I ended up having to tell them, ‘Yes, I’m a girl,’ to be pat down by the woman officer while the man just stood there openly snickering at me.”
Passing as a woman or man plays a huge role in the anxiety trans people feel around bathroom usage. Passing, of course, refers to a trans person’s ability to be seen and acknowledged as the gender they identify with. Trans people who do not pass are “clocked” as transgender, which can lead to verbal abuse, sexual harassment, and physical violence.
Lindsay Leedham is a writer living in New York. Leedham, who is intersex and goes by sie/hir pronouns, has traditionally felt very uncomfortable accessing bathrooms. This is partly because of the complications introduced by hir body’s physical functioning. As a result, Leedham has to plan public bathroom usage carefully.
“Even just using the toilet once I’m in a stall can be nerve-racking,” Leedham explained. “Due to the makeup of my genitalia, I’m unable to sit down to pee like every other woman (cis or trans) I know. I’m constantly afraid that someone will notice that I’m standing up to use the toilet, so I try to find stalls that are as far away from the sinks and the door as possible, which isn’t always possible. This has resulted in me sometimes just sitting in a stall and waiting for others to leave, or just a general inability for me to use the toilet, regardless of how badly I have to.”
Leedham doesn’t necessarily care about passing on the street—but in a bathroom, that social dynamic changes.
“If someone clocks me as trans when I’m walking down the street, fine, as long as they don’t see me as masculine in any way,” sie said. “Walking into a bathroom, though, I’m always afraid that I’m not femme enough, or that someone is gonna say something about how I don’t belong there because I’m not trying to look like a cis woman.”
Like Izumi, Leedham strikes at the heart of the social anxiety that trans people face while using public restrooms. When a trans person attempts to use a multi-stall bathroom, their presence in a gender-segregated space heightens the chance they’ll be verbally or physically harassed. That’s exactly why Leedham plans hir bathroom usage so carefully, and why Izumi would avoid using any public restroom outside of a trans-friendly space. It’s also why respondents largely preferred to use single-person bathrooms over multi-stall ones—they’re just so much safer.
Passing also varies from trans person to person. Some trans people see passing as the long-term “goal” within their transitioning and therefore invest a significant amount of time and energy into presenting a specific way. This can be the case for trans people who fall within the gender binary. But not every trans person feels that way, as gender presentation is an extremely personal process. And not every trans person is simply a man or a woman. For someone like Izumi, the “passing” dynamic becomes more complicated because she is nonbinary.
“If I felt confident in passing, then I’d be no more subject to random scrutiny than any cis woman in the bathroom,” she said. “But this in itself is half the problem; I don’t even aim for ‘passing’ half the time, being fairly genderfluid and definitely nonbinary.”
Yet the risks that come with getting clocked as trans occasionally force Izumi to present in a way that she feels uncomfortable with. Passing is simply safer. “You can bet I aim to pass more on any day I expect I might need to use a public restroom, though, so in this way the passing thing is affecting my own ability to present authentically,” she told me.
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A show of LGBT solidarity outside the Supreme Court in April 2015. Photo by Ted Eytan (Creative Commons).
Clearly, there’s a problem here. While the trans bathroom issue is widely reported in mainstream media reports, most stories don’t focus on how trans people feel. Instead, we get to hear the cisgender populace’s perspective over and over again: Like North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, who has doubled down on HB2 by refusing to allow trans people to “identify gender based on what you think you are,” as he put it. Or an attorney for the Women’s Liberation Front, a radical feminist group that has filed a lawsuit arguing that trans rights could “take advantage of anything that the law reserves exclusively for women,” defending a cisgender-centric view of gender to protect cis women’s privileges in gender-segregated spaces. These opinions not only shut out trans voices, they prevent people such as Izumi and Leedham from entering the conversation because their identities do not fit into the gender binary. That’s a problem replicated within the queer and trans community, too. While trans discourses on bathroom usage focus heavily on binary experiences, nonbinary and intersex identities are totally left out. This was a fundamental point that both Leedham and Izumi stressed when I interviewed them.
“Intersex people or people with nonstandard genitalia might do things slightly differently when they go to the bathroom, and that isn’t talked about a lot, if at all,” Leedham said. “It makes me feel invisible and weird, but I guess I’m kinda used to that by now. I don’t expect any discourse to really include disabled asexual trans femmes much at all.”
So, how to go about tackling the physical and emotional discomfort that trans people experience in the bathroom? The first step seems simple. If activists want to come up with a proper solution, then they need to make sure they don’t simplify the problem. This means educators, journalists, organizers, and policy makers must accept the fact that trans people are segmented across identities, like race and class, that dictate who can access a bathroom and who cannot. This means there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” solution to fighting trans discrimination. And in many cases, those segmentations come down to regional differences.
Monika Hawkinson is a plant engineer living in Seattle. Although she’s experienced some emotional discomfort while accessing bathrooms, she’s largely found a “general atmosphere of acceptance” within the city. Part of the reason? Seattle takes gender discrimination laws seriously. Over email, she told me about the Seattle Office for Civil Rights’ approach to gender discrimination, which, like New York City’s Human Rights Law, makes discrimination illegal.
“Scrolling down the page, I’ll point out that gender identity is a protected class,” she said, with Seattle having “an office in city government that actively enforces complaints of gender identity discrimination.”
Having a strong legal precedent in a given city, county, or state certainly helps. It also protects trans social networks, too. After all, Seattle has traditionally featured a thriving trans community, not unlike New York City or Toronto. In Hawkinson’s case, the city’s environment allowed her to join a trans support group.
“I think that’s actually my most important social resource right now. I cannot describe how much they have helped me and enabled my emotional growth through my transition,” she explained. “I believe that Seattle has a more accepting atmosphere towards trans folks. Which is not the same as totally accepting. There are still bullies here too.”
Thanks to Seattle’s laws protecting transgender people’s access to public facilities, the city’s fight against bathroom discrimination is a little different than it is in other areas. Because basic civil rights have been granted by the local government, trans citizens fight back against a much more social and cultural form of discrimination in the city. Their fight is very different than, say, the experiences of many people living in the South, who still need basic legal protections under local and state laws.
Political protection (or lack thereof) affects the way trans people think and feel, too. For instance, respondents to my little survey in states such as Florida and Georgia said they felt particularly unsafe accessing bathrooms while out in public. They also tended to have little confidence in their local governments to protect their rights. So for someone living below the Mason-Dixon line, simply having antidiscrimination laws on the books is a major first step to ending discrimination.
Challenging social norms is another key part of ending discrimination; many participants argued that our society’s cisgender-centric view of gender identity needs to be challenged in order to include and accept trans people. So even if a local government or school system explicitly protects transgender people, they must go one step further and create a trans-supportive environment that dispels transphobic myths. For respondent Alex Zandra Van Chestein, that means society must “normalize being trans as much as possible” and make sure locations “enforce access if possible.”
“When the bathroom is in a frequently accessed place like work or school, having the local authority or management publicly offer support is extremely important to set the example and make it that much harder for harassers to get a foot in the door,” she wrote.
But in the end, trans people realize that bigots will constantly get in the way and fight back against our basic civil rights. No amount of visibility will change a hardened transphobe’s ways. So instead of simply educating people, we also need to be prepared to tackle systemic oppression head-on and address our society’s ongoing struggle with cissexism. Sometimes that means researching and discussing problems, but other times, it means looking for a plan of action to shut down discrimination.
“The reality is, not everyone will educate themselves, despite how nice that’d be, and I’m more for realism in improving our world than hoping for magic wokeness among the general population,” Izumi told me. By changing the conversation on trans bathrooms from a cisgender perspective to a transgender-centered one, that desire for a realistic solution may be more attainable. Until then, the best thing that trans people can do is share their stories and make their struggles visible to their support networks. Only by fighting back will we be able to change the way society treats transgender people.