Conservative Rhetoric and Transgender Bathroom Battles

Conservative Rhetoric and Transgender Bathroom Battles March 2, 2016

Interesting, the debate over allowing trans people to use bathrooms that match their gender identity seems to have moved beyond the argument that trans people are perverts to settle on a new objection—that perverted cisgender men will take advantage of transgender bathroom bills to gain access to women’s bathrooms. Oh, I’m not saying there aren’t still people who believe transgender people are perverts—there are—but if you look at most conservative news articles denouncing trans bathroom access, the argument looks more like this:

Here is a quote from an article on Young Conservatives that posted this image:

This is what conservatives know will happen if the LGBT agenda wins out.

Perverted men will enter women’s restrooms under the guise of being transgender just so they can feed off their ridiculous fantasies.

To all the Democrats shaking their heads who think this won’t happen, why take the chance in the first place?

Here is a quote from a well-read article written by a rape survivor:

I read these reports, and my heart starts to race. They can’t be serious. Let me be clear: I am not saying that transgender people are predators. Not by a long shot. What I am saying is that there are countless deviant men in this world who will pretend to be transgender as a means of gaining access to the people they want to exploit, namely women and children. It already happens. Just Google Jason Pomares, Norwood Smith Burnes, or Taylor Buehler, for starters.

I googled Jason Pomares, Norwood Smith Burnes, and Taylor Buehler, just as Triller suggests, and do you know what I found? Not a single one of them pretended to be transgender or claimed to be transgender. In actual fact, all three were cisgender men who donned women’s clothing and went into women’s restrooms pretending to be cisgender women. While there they engaged in illegal activity—in one case, public exposure, in another, voyeurism, and in the third, videotaping. In fact, it turns out that there is a long history of cisgender men dressing as women and going into women’s bathrooms to ogle women—and worse.

You know what’s ironic? I’m guessing these same conservatives would be quite upset if someone suggested banning guns altogether because criminals misuse guns. But isn’t that the same argument they’re making here? They’re arguing that we should not give transgender individuals the right to use the bathrooms that match their gender presentation because that might make it easier for cisgender individuals to engage in illegal activity. Here’s an idea—how about punish cisgender individuals who engage in illegal activity rather than using their wrongdoing as an excuse to deny an entire group of people their rights and safety?

The argument that transgender bathroom bills make it legal for cisgender men to use the women’s restroom is false, by the way. Several weeks ago a cisgender man undressed in a public locker room in Seattle in protest of the state’s newly passed transgender bathroom bill, presumably trying to argue that what he was doing was now legal. Guess what? The state’s Human Rights Commission has made it manifestly clear that the man’s actions were not in fact legal. “If a business has a reasonable belief that a person is in the wrong place, there is no rule that states that the person cannot be questioned and required to leave,” read the commission’s news release.

It’s true that transgender and nonbinary gender presentation varies. I don’t want a situation where trans people who don’t successfully “pass” as cis are automatically questioned and then thrown out of a bathroom. It’s also true that the man who undressed in the public locker room mentioned above never claimed to be transgender. But what if he had? Could these ordinances create a situation where cisgender men can enter women’s locker rooms by claiming to be transgender, leaving the authorities to either accept that or set up some sort of tribunal for determining who is in fact transgender? (I would not be in favor of such a tribunal, in case it’s not clear.)

The biggest the problem with focusing this discussion on hypothetical abuses by cisgender men is that it de-centers the experiences and needs of trans people. We have a problem in the here and now. That problem looks roughly like this:

And frankly, that’s probably an overly positive version. Transgender and nonbinary people face this problem every time they have to use the restroom while in public. A 2013 study of a sample of transgender people in the Washington, D.C., area found that:

The primary experience trans people reported was verbal harassment, with 68 percent reporting they were told they were in the wrong facility, told to leave the facility, questioned about their gender, ridiculed or made fun of, verbally threatened, or stared at and given strange looks. . . . For 9 percent of respondents, actual physical assault has also occurred, including being forcibly removed from the restroom, hit or kicked, intimidated or cornered, or slapped; one respondent reported being sexually assaulted.

. . .

There were health consequences for respondents as well, with 54 percent reporting physical complications like dehydration, urinary tract infections, kidney infections, and other kidney problems simply because of the tactics they used to avoid going to the restroom during the day. . . . As many as 58 percent have avoided going out in public at times because of bathroom concerns.

These are not hypotheticals. This is reality. Bathroom access affects trans people’s ability to work, to go to school, and to go in public. If you think this sounds overly dramatic, imagine going to work every day and not being allowed to use the bathroom. We talk about the importance of public bathroom access for women in India because the predominance of male-only restrooms in urban areas of that country impede women’s ability to work, earn a wage, and exist in public. The same thing is going on here.

But let’s turn to that hypothetical. Is there any evidence that non-discrimination ordinances increase the risk to cisgender women using public bathrooms? No, there is not. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary. It should be noted that a number of states have had non-discrimination ordinances that extend to transgender individuals for years now, and these states have reported very few (if any) problems. You can read the reports yourself. This isn’t truly a hypothetical threat, because we already know what happens when trans people are granted bathroom access. It’s a made-up bullshit threat.

Let’s talk about actual bathroom safety. It remains illegal under these bathroom ordinances for any individual to engage in public exposure, videotaping, or the like. You know what? If we want to promote bathroom safety—and we should—we should provide people with more information on what activities are illegal and what actions are considered suspicious! Focusing on transgender individuals without talking about actual signs of a sexual predator is like trying to protect children from child sexual abuse by focusing on gay men as a potential threat without talking about the actual warning signs of sexual abuse. I am all for safety in bathrooms. So let’s actually talk about safety. Let’s talk about what actual suspicious behavior looks like and what to do about it. Instead of scapegoating one group for another group’s potential threat, let’s empower women with information and tools for keeping themselves (and those around them) safe.

Let me finish by noting that I’m a bit skeptical of conservatives’ claim that they simply want to protect the safety of women and children. Many conservative pastors even today choose to deal with child sexual abuse “in house” rather than reporting it. Conservative news sites and politicians frequently victim blame rape survivors and make light of abuse. Several years ago, Republicans blocked the passage of the Violence Against Women Act. It is not uncommon for conservatives to support gun rights for domestic violence offenders. Color me highly suspicious that so many conservatives wait to jump in with their concerns about women’s safety unless they can hurt trans people while doing so.

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