Monday, February 22, 2016

Bathroom Panic and the Myth of Bathroom Predators

Public bathrooms are the worst. I’m positive that this statement would receive a nearly universal confirmation. Yet as living beings, almost all of us will regularly encounter public restrooms. It’s the natural consequence of eating and drinking. Luckily, I have never felt unsafe to enter a public restroom. This isn’t true for many gender non-conforming and transgender women.

Thirteen years ago the Sylvia Rivera Law Project produced a documentary entitled “Toilet Training” that chronicled the discrimination, harassment, and violence gender-nonconforming people face when using the bathroom in public. The documentary depicted stories of transwomen who had been beaten and killed simply trying to relieve themselves. Recently, a Williams Institute Study found that over 54% of transgender individuals experience dehydration, urinary tract infections, and kidney infections due to avoiding bathrooms in public. I believe this is a human rights issue that must be addressed. Despite the growing body of LGBT advocacy, little has changed on the restroom front.

In an effort to protect transgender residents, a select number of states have enacted anti-discrimination laws that allow transgender individuals to use the bathroom that most closely matches their gender identity. In Maryland, for instance, the Fairness for All Marylanders Act updated the state’s existing Civil Rights Law to include protections on the basis of gender identity. This law prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender identity in places of public accommodation. This law, like other similar anti-discrimination laws requires an individual to use the bathroom consistent with their “core identity.”

This past Tuesday, however, the South Dakota Senate voted to approve a bill that will require public school students to use the bathroom based on their “chromosomes and anatomy” at birth. This week, the city of Charlotte, North Carolina is set to vote on an ordinance that would allow transgender people to use the bathroom that reflects their gender identify. While the Charlotte ordinance is inclusive of transgender individuals, it has ignited a surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) hateful controversy. A website and Facebook group titled “Don’t Do it Charlotte” urges the city to reject the ordinance. The advertising campaign demands “No Men In Women’s Bathrooms.”

Let’s be clear. Transwomen are not men. Transgirls are not boys. This type of language is dangerous and needs to stop. It invalidates the existences of transgender individuals.

Beyond deceitful language, the ad campaign specifically suggests that women and girls need protection while using the bathroom. This type of fear mongering reminds me of the equally stunning advertisements during the Prop 8 campaign. The “let’s protect our kids” mantra worked so well that the liberal state of California voted to deny same sex couples the right to marry.

So are women and girls in danger? If so, then these men in power should undoubtedly swoop in and find some sort of legislative solution to end all predatory behavior. However, there is little evidence (I would argue—no evidence) that suggests that allowing people to choose the restroom that conforms to their gender identity. This lack of factual basis did not stop Fox News from airing a fake story about a transgender student harassing girls in the bathroom.

Beyond the fact that these transphobic smear campaigns are based on absolutely nothing factual, Equality Maryland pointed out that “If someone goes into a restroom to ogle or expose themselves or harass or assault someone, what they are doing is illegal and they will be prosecuted – regardless of how they are dressed or what their sex is or what their gender identity is.”

This post does not intend to undercut the very real dangers that many women and girls face. Allowing transwomen the basic human dignity to relieve themselves in a safe space is not correlated, connected to, or the cause of any predatory behavior. Further, criminal statutes remain intact and aim to protect women and girls from predatory behavior.

Transwomen are women. Transgirls are girls. They need protection too, and that starts with equal access to the bathroom.


Sonja said...

Thanks for writing this important and timely post. My former city, Seattle, recently changed its bathroom policies. Last week, a cis-man undressed in the woman's locker room and cited the city's new gender policies. I'm not sure if the man's actions were to test the new laws, if they were in protest, or if he was just a creep. I was impressed with how the city dealt with the incident, by not backing down on its new policies. The Washington State Human Rights Commission responded to the incident saying: "Men cannot go into the women's locker room, as this man claimed he had the right to do. Only women, including transgender women, can go into the women's locker room. Persons who enter the wrong gender-segregated facility for nefarious purposes can be asked to leave in no uncertain terms. And they would have no recourse."

Courtney Hatchett said...

It's hard to see all these tactics being employed after the success of the "Texan Values" campaign that defeated HERO (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance) last fall. HERO provided nondiscrimination protections for the city of Houston, including protections based on race, religion, sex, military status, pregnancy, genetic information, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity. However, almost immediately after HERO was introduced, opponents managed to redirect public discussion about the law out of the realm of civil rights and into "Texan Values" surrounding religious liberty and threats posed by sexual predators. The bill then became known as the bathroom bill. The campaign told Houston voters that the law encouraged male sexual predators disguised as women (or "troubled men") to enter into women's restroom to target victims. (Many people may think that this isn't so shocking, because, well, it's Texas. However, Houston tends to sway fairly liberally for the South. In fact, Houston was the first major US city to elect an openly LGBT mayor in 2009, Annise Parker.)

RC said...

It is unfortunate to see the headlines filled with so many cities turning down this kind of protective legislation. Furthermore, I’m still very concerned about how much work will be left to do even after these bills are passed. A concurrent, related issue is that of gender nonconforming individuals, or those who do not “pass” for a particular gender in the eyes of others. These individuals will undoubtedly continue to receive questioning looks (and likely even worse treatment than that) from fellow bathroom goers. However, I know that at least moving legal barriers to access is a huge step in the right direction.

Liz said...

Your post reminded me of a campaign that was taking place in Arkansas by the famous matriarch of a Christian family, Michelle Dugger. I have included the link to one article describing the robocall campaign in Arkansas she was involved in.

The fear mongering that some Christian groups produce in order to get voters from voting for more equitable laws that take into account LGBTQ people is pretty unsettling especially because they reproduce lies in describing queer people as "predators."The same can also be said for laws like the ones you discuss that reinforce binary gender stereotypes leaving trans men and women in more vulnerable positions than they would have been had the laws not been passed to begin with.

I think that the sexual violence that occurs in restrooms shouldn't be characterized as a woman's issue only. In order for trans people to obtain safer public restroom spaces, organizing among the community needs to take place to bring about more equitable positive changes in our public spaces.

Ari Asher said...

Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments. Liz, I remember reading about (and unfortunately listening to) Michelle Duggar's fear mongering robocall.

In case any of you saw, Charlotte rightfully passed protections for trans individuals. Just yesterday, North Carolina responded by passing HB2 -- a bill that essentially rescinds all LGBT anti-discrimination protections throughout the state.

Courtney Hatchett said...

I wanted to come back to this again after the NYT ran this piece today:

For me, in the midst of this "bathroom hysteria," one of the few glimmers of hope has been the public backlash to HB2 in North Carolina. After they passed the bill, numerous major companies either pulled plans for extensions into North Carolina or wrote letters to the governor urging that the law be repealed. If anything, I think that these executives at Paypal, Deutsche Bank, Google, Apple, and Facebook at least gave public and powerful opinions on the issue.

It's difficult to say these tech companies are or are not supportive of all folks and communities. (One can easily critique the lack of women and people of color within this community,the bizarre and problematic corporatization of pride parade, etc.). However, I think this might be one of those "take what you can get" moments. We have debated this idea a lot in class, and I know people have different feelings, but I think I'm still in the camp that acknowledges we aren't going to fix anything overnight, and although small victories bring up ample opportunities to criticize a process, they are worth celebrating.