Bathrooms and locker rooms: the transgender witch hunt

Previously: Bathroom bills: dehumanization and control

We’re barely two months into 2016, and this year, there have already been 29 bills filed in state legislatures to prevent trans people from using the restroom or locker room of their gender. If these bills pass, trans women would be forced to use men’s bathrooms and locker rooms, and vice versa for trans men. This is a subject I’ve dealt with before in 2015, 2013, and 2010. Yes, this issue has been going on for so long that I was addressing it before I even transitioned. And for the past six years, one feature of this manufactured debate has remained constant: the complete lack of evidence for any alleged threat posed by allowing trans people to use the facilities of their gender.

So far this year, in a country of 313 million people, there have been zero news reports of trans people engaging in any sort of provocative or harassing behavior in restrooms or locker rooms. There has been one case of a man in Washington who attempted to use a women’s locker room before being asked to leave. He was apparently doing so in protest of laws allowing trans people to use the facilities of their gender, and in the process demonstrating that the specter of “men in women’s restrooms” is quite literally an invented threat.

Even if we did blame this on policies allowing trans people to use the proper facilities, then there’s currently one anti-trans bill being proposed for every 0.034 relevant incidents. At this rate, and given an extremely generous projection, there might be a total of six incidents across the country this year. In comparison, 11 people caught the plague last year. So watch out – this locker room invasion could happen in your state (but most likely will not).

I am beyond finished with pretending that this is some kind of serious issue to be debated. Transphobes are filming trans people in restrooms, dragging trans youth out of bathrooms and into international headlines, and legislatively harassing us with no provocation whatsoever. This is a modern-day witch hunt: trans people are being targeted as the source of problems that existed long before our so-called “tipping point”. Public anxiety about privacy in shared spaces such as restrooms and locker rooms is due to far more substantial factors – this was an issue long before we walked through the door.


Multi-user restrooms: shortcomings and solutions

Consider the design of most multi-user public restrooms. Even in stalls, the level of privacy afforded to someone who’s going to the bathroom is minimal. A closed door typically still has gaps large enough for anyone to look through. None of the walls extend to the floor, leaving plenty of room for U.S. senators to harass people for sex. These partial enclosures are something we would never accept in our home bathrooms – you might as well leave the door half-open. What should be your space at this private moment instead feels incredibly vulnerable and porous, with others constantly intruding into what feels like your personal area. Is it any wonder that so many people feel uncomfortable going to the bathroom in public behind what’s basically a glorified curtain?

It’s easy to understand why somebody would feel on guard, protective of their privacy, and justified in acting as “bathroom police” when most restrooms have so thoroughly failed to respect their privacy on a structural level. Some people might be willing to swing their fists just to reestablish a sense of personal space that they feel has been stripped from them. Prior to transitioning, I was often afraid of using men’s restrooms – a fear that was more than justified when a stranger in a men’s room demanded to know if I was a man or a woman, before trying to rob me. Such experiences in restrooms are not at all out of the norm for trans people, and easily could have escalated to something much worse.

Restrooms don’t have to be this way, but many just aren’t aware that there are alternatives. This was one of the best surprises when I went to the Women in Secularism conference: restrooms with floor-to-ceiling walls and actual doors like you’d find in a house, providing a complete enclosure for every stall. In this space, everyone’s privacy was so fully protected that myself and another trans woman could be comfortable openly having a conversation, knowing this wouldn’t be an issue.

To be clear: anywhere else, in any typical restroom, that would be an absolutely terrifying prospect. But the intentional planning by the conference served to enhance everyone’s sense of security. This solid separation, psychological distance, and assurance of privacy helped to mitigate many of the concerns about trans people in restrooms – and more than that, it afforded every person the respect they deserve. There’s so much less reason to act as the bathroom police when the bathroom itself has designed away the need for that.


Locker rooms: difficult, but not impossible

Locker rooms present a situation that could easily be mistaken for a hypothetical worst-case scenario argument about bathrooms: What if there weren’t any doors, or any stalls? Also, what if everyone had to get undressed in front of each other? Transphobic political groups with names like “Privacy For All” were never concerned about protecting everyone’s privacy until now. They assume that this is only a problem when trans people are present: someone might see genitals that aren’t like theirs, and the world will end. This extremely narrow focus neglects to consider the many issues that are already inherent to this arrangement.

Think about a time when you felt uncomfortable being in a locker room, but were still expected to be okay with it just because everyone around you was the same gender. At school, I had skipped a couple grades, which meant I was always younger than my classmates. Even in freshman year of high school, I was still very small for my age and years away from starting puberty. Our swimming unit was the first time we were required to completely undress in the locker room. Twice a day for six weeks, I had to get changed with students who were more than a foot taller than me and resembled men more than boys. The locker room had a single enclosed bathroom stall that I had to wait to get changed in every day.

To me, this was a necessity, not a choice. At the time, I had no awareness that this had anything to do with gender, even as I constantly tried to cover up my chest at the pool to keep from feeling so exposed in front of these boys. I just knew that the thought of them seeing me undressed was so profoundly uncomfortable that I would rather get changed next to a toilet. The assumption that our superficial anatomical similarities somehow made everything okay could not have been more wrong – there was nothing okay about this situation.

There’s no reason why pursuing personal fitness should come with the requirement of literally being stripped naked in front of strangers, particularly for youth who are especially insecure about their changing bodies and can be disastrously judgmental toward each other. The presence of trans people has only served to highlight how uncomfortable and anxious many people already feel about using locker rooms.

Transphobia causes further complications by introducing disagreements over the basic organization of these spaces. About 36% of Americans don’t believe we should be using the restroom or locker room of our gender. Certainly this is outdated, disrespectful, and invalidating, but we’re still going to have to find ways of safely coexisting with these individuals. Not all locker rooms consist of only open spaces – I’ve been to gyms with several dedicated stalls for changing and showering. High School District 211 in Illinois recently reached a settlement and agreed to allow a trans girl to use the girls’ locker room, while also installing privacy curtains for anyone to use.

The availability of partitions means that anyone who doesn’t want to be seen, regardless of the reason, can still comfortably exercise their right to use the space. It also undermines the argument that the rights of trans people must specifically be limited to ensure the comfort of others. We don’t have to convince 36% of the population to welcome us into these spaces when we can instead change the nature of the space so that this no longer matters.


Political transphobia: baseless at every level

Trans people appear to be responsible for extremely few incidents in public restrooms and locker rooms, so this outpouring of political transphobia is not a response to any sort of actual threat. More than that, the alleged concerns about privacy raised by public officials and transphobic organizations can be handled with meaningful structural solutions, and without infringing on anyone’s freedoms. So what excuse do these opportunists have for continuing to stir up hate and depict us as a threat? Cis people have broadly failed to design public spaces that are respectful of everyone’s dignity. This would continue to be a real problem even if every trans person disappeared tomorrow, and transphobic legislation would solve nothing but the imaginary problems that transphobes have invented.

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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.
This entry was posted in Bathrooms and public accommodations, Health care, Politics and law, Sociological research, Statistics and demographics, Transphobia and prejudice and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Bathrooms and locker rooms: the transgender witch hunt

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