Bathroom Bills: Dehumanization and Control (Gender Analysis 06)

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Hi, welcome to Gender Analysis. Ever since I transitioned, I’ve noticed something interesting: a lot of cis people really seem to care about where I go to the bathroom. Over the past few months, lawmakers in several states have proposed bills to ban people from using restrooms and other facilities that don’t match their sex assigned at birth. Practically speaking, this would have the effect of forcing trans women to use men’s restrooms and trans men to use women’s restrooms or face fines, jail time, or more.

This is an issue that’s been around forever and it makes life incredibly difficult for us. We’re painted as a threat to a cis population that in reality poses more of a threat to us. This much larger and more institutionally powerful group now seeks to enshrine their bathroom policing into law. And they’ve presented this as if it’s an actual controversy with genuine issues to be debated.

Well, it’s not.


Safety as a smokescreen

The proponents of these bills have advanced them under the banner of safety and the prevention of assault, battery, and rape, but in reality, safety is the last thing on their minds. Some lawmakers, such as Florida state representative Frank Artiles, claim they aren’t concerned about any supposed threat posed by trans people in bathrooms, but rather the possibility that criminals will falsely claim to be trans in order to use whichever restroom they want. Others, like Texas state representative Debbie Riddle, focus more specifically on trans people, and claim that these bills “will protect women & children from going into a ladies restroom & finding a man who feels like he is a woman that day.”

When I first addressed these arguments in 2013, I pointed out that a majority of trans people have been harassed by cis people in public restrooms, and questioned whether a similar number of cis people have faced harassment in bathrooms by trans people. I now believe that approach was a mistake. These people are not developing policies based on facts. None of their concerns are credible, and none of their proposals have anything to do with safety.

Those who support these bills haven’t presented any data showing that cis people are at an elevated risk in bathrooms due to trans people’s use of them, or due to cis people pretending to be trans. So if they think that cis men will pretend to be trans women to use the women’s restroom, and these new laws will allow trans men but not trans women to use the women’s restroom, how do they know that cis men won’t just pretend to be trans men to accomplish the same thing? They don’t. And if they think trans people are going to assault cis people in the restroom of our gender, how do they know we won’t just start assaulting people in the other restroom? They don’t.

They have no evidence, because they consider evidence to be irrelevant. Representative Artiles dismissed the testimony he’d heard from countless trans people, saying:

“What about my feelings? What about my wife’s feelings? What about the feelings of 99.7 percent of the population that are being endangered just to appease (you)?”

To him, our actual experiences mean nothing. His unfounded speculation means everything. Who needs facts when you’ve got your precious cis feelings?


Why safety is the wrong argument

Amidst this atmosphere of evidence-free argumentation, even some people who support us have taken this as a cue to fight ignorance with more ignorance. Many people have claimed that there are zero cases of trans people ever assaulting anyone in bathrooms, or of cis people pretending to be trans people to use restrooms. This is a terrible argument. There are millions of trans people on the planet, and billions of cis people – how likely is it that in any group that big, none of them have ever committed a particular crime in a restroom?

Putting this much significance on the magic number zero will just make opponents think their concerns have been validated when one of these cases does appear. But would that actually be a reason to bar trans people from the restrooms of their gender? No, it would not. Concerns about safety aren’t just a poorly-formed argument – they’re the wrong argument for any of us to be having here. This line of ill reasoning doesn’t reflect any sort of established decision-making process about restroom safety. When is the last time that policymakers ranked different demographics of cis women by their statistical likelihood of committing crimes in restrooms, and decided that a certain threshold was unacceptable?

In most cases, we understand that allowing any group of people into a given place means that some small fraction of them might commit crimes, and we accept that the benefits of their being able to access that place outweigh the potential risks. Cis women have assaulted cis women in restrooms, yet nobody takes this as a reason to ban all cis women from women’s restrooms. Imposing that kind of inconvenience on all cis women is obviously unacceptable, but imposing it on trans women is totally okay for some reason. (The reason is transphobia.)

If these lawmakers are concerned about the potential for assault when certain people use restrooms, let’s look at an extreme case: registered sex offenders. 100% of these people have previously been convicted of a sex offense, so how is their restroom usage regulated? Out of all the restrictions imposed on sex offenders, this actually isn’t one of them. Male sex offenders who committed crimes against men aren’t banned from the men’s restroom. Female sex offenders who committed crimes against women aren’t banned from the women’s restroom. And the most that anyone ever says about this is, “be careful, there might be sex offenders in restrooms”. It’s taken as a reality of life. But lawmakers want to exile trans people from the proper bathroom on the basis of nothing but hypothesized threats? That’s not good enough, and it’s a mistake for anyone to treat this argument as if it was ever legitimate.


Bathroom bills are meant to dehumanize us

If this movement isn’t about safety, and it isn’t about evidence, what is it about? It’s about treating trans people as less than human. Public restrooms exist because they’re necessary – they’re for dealing with daily, universal bodily functions. Everyone goes to the bathroom. This is a constant of humanity, so what does it mean when these fundamental needs are disregarded for a subset of the population?

Representative Artiles defended his bill, saying:

“People are not forced to go to the restroom. They choose to go to the restroom.”

Cis people’s bodily needs are taken as a given, while trans people are placed outside of one of the most basic aspects of life. Their needs are real and valid; ours are not. Debating our access to bathrooms deprioritizes our own human nature, treating it as something beside the point – something that people just don’t need to care about if they don’t feel like it. It implicitly removes us from the circle of humanity.

The issue of bathroom access may be especially well-suited to dehumanizing people. A 2008 study found that found that people who are highly aware of bodily sensations became more severely morally judgmental after recalling experiences of physical disgust. A later study showed that people who were made to feel disgusted more strongly associated themselves with humans and outsider groups with animals. Disgust helps kick moral judgment into overdrive, and encourages people to dehumanize those who aren’t like them. Why do these lawmakers use bathrooms to attack us? Because it works.


Bathroom bills codify regressive transphobia

Trans people have been using bathrooms for as long as there have been bathrooms. So why has this become such an issue now? Our access to bathrooms has been contested for decades – but these new bills are more far-reaching than ever. They go beyond simply imposing restrictions on trans people, and provide enormous incentives for private citizens to police our bathroom usage.

Some of these bills would allow people to sue school districts, government institutions, private business owners, or even trans people themselves for thousands of dollars in “damages”. Damages for what? For having seen a trans person in a public restroom. A proposed referendum in California even creates a “civil claim for violation of privacy” in the event that someone doesn’t use a restroom because a trans person was there. Such laws would effectively disallow any public institution or private business from deciding to allow trans people to use the proper restroom, and they promise a reward of thousands of dollars for anyone who spots a trans person using a restroom.

At a time when awareness of trans people is more widespread than ever, these bills are designed to stop progress in its tracks. They legally enshrine the idea that cis people are entitled to avoid ever seeing us in the proper restroom. They’re meant to force us to out ourselves every time we go to the bathroom – they’re meant to force trans women to walk into a room labeled “men”. They’re meant to encourage the whole of society to pick us out from a crowd, and they’re meant to make us know that we’re a target. They turn us into prey. All of this is designed to disrupt our integration into society at a basic level, fundamentally negating who we are at a moment of universal human need. The absence of women’s restrooms has historically been used to exclude women from participation in public life. And today, these lawmakers want to roll back history: they want to erase trans people.


Non-issues get non-solutions

Maybe this is the part where you think I’ll offer an elegant answer that obviates this entire problem, like making all bathrooms unisex, or building new gender-neutral bathrooms. But really, this isn’t my job and it isn’t my problem. We’re not the ones who broke things here. Cis people started this, and they can end it – by leaving us alone. Meanwhile, we’re going to keep doing what we’ve always done, which is to use whichever restroom we feel is safest for us. And that tends to rule out drawing attention to ourselves by assaulting people.

I’m Zinnia Jones. Thanks for watching, and tune in next time for more Gender Analysis.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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