I don’t give a great deal of thought to which bathroom I’m going to use when I’m out in public. I look for the word “men” or a male symbol on the door and head on in to do my business. Like everyone else, I’ve got plenty in my life that I could better spend my time thinking about than bathroom selection. And I don’t need to think about it, because I fit neatly into the binary system our society has created to describe gender; I was born anatomically male, and that’s my gender identity, too.
But many transgender people spend a lot of time thinking about bathrooms and give serious consideration to which set of toilets they are going to use each time they need one. It’s a game of bathroom calculus: Should they go in the room designated for the gender they know themselves to be, or should they go in the one designated for the gender that other people say they are? Either decision risks harassment and violence.
Transgender bathroom selection has been a big part of our national consciousness in recent years. In March 2016, North Carolina passed the first state law in the U.S. explicitly limiting transgender bathroom access. The law required that people use the public bathroom corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificate. The law was finally repealed a year later, a small piece of progress in the shadow of a larger setback ― the Trump administration’s rescindment of federal rules allowing transgender people to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity. More recently, a transgender girl named Maddie Rose in Oklahoma was the target of threats from parents and adults on Facebook after using a girl’s bathroom on the first day of school. She and her family are now planning to move with the help of a GoFundMe campaign that has already raised more than $50,000.
Several states continue to consider bills restricting bathroom access based on biological sex, though none have yet passed. In the meantime, transgender people are still having to waste time and lose sleep over which bathroom they’ll spend at most a couple of minutes in. The impact this worry has on their lives is profound. A survey of nearly 28,000 transgender participants revealed 59 percent avoided using a public restroom at least once in the previous year due to confrontation concerns.
“Undisguised cisgender men are by far the primary perpetrators of bathroom sex crimes in the U.S.”
Ignorance and fear of the transgender community repeatedly interfere with people’s ability to simply choose and use the bathroom that best suits their needs. And those in opposition are quick to defend their ignorance by arguing that transgender individuals are at high risk of committing sex crimes ― or that opportunistic men will take advantage of any expansion of transgender bathroom access by claiming to be transgender and sneaking into women’s bathrooms to commit sex crimes.
I’m a fellow in forensic psychiatry, so I spend a good deal of time navigating the spots where our legal system meets our cultural beliefs. I began to wonder if there were any data to actually support or refute these societal concerns. CNN and Media Matters have previously asked law enforcement agencies in states with anti-discrimination policies regarding gender identity whether they’ve observed increased rates of sex crimes in bathrooms, and none have. Other than that, there wasn’t much else out there in terms of empirical data.
So I, along with two other forensic psychiatrists (Renee Sorrentino and Ariana Nesbit) decided to figure out just how many times a transgender person has been accused of committing a sex crime in a public facility (bathroom, locker room, changing room, etc.) and how many cases there were of men dressing up as women in order to sneak into these facilities.
For several weeks, we scoured Pubmed (a medical research database), Nexis Uni (a legal database) and, of course, Google results, with the goal of locating any psychiatric, legal or media documentation of alleged episodes. We recently published our findings in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.
We assumed the number of cases for either situation would be low, but we had no idea how low. Their rarity was noteworthy. We found only one instance ― one! ― of a transgender perpetrator in an alleged sex crime in a changing room. Likewise, we found just one case where a man (who, frankly, sounds like a provocateur) allegedly entered a women’s locker room without disguising his gender in any way and stated that a new local law expanding transgender bathroom access allowed him to be there.
And what about cases where cisgender men dressed up as women to enter bathrooms or changing rooms and commit crimes? We found a grand total of 13 alleged cases in the U.S since 2004 ― approximately one per year. When we included international crimes, five more cases were added to the tally going back to 2003.
“There is simply no reason to be concerned about sharing bathrooms with the country’s 1.4 million transgender citizens.”
All told, that’s 20 cases of alleged bathroom sex crimes involving either a transgender individual, cisgender men intentionally taking advantage of a law protecting transgender bathroom access, or cisgender men disguising themselves as women to gain access to women’s bathrooms.
In comparison (though we were not specifically looking at this issue for the purposes of our study), during our research we found 154 cases in the U.S. since 2004 of cisgender men who allegedly committed bathroom sex crimes and did not attempt to disguise themselves as women or claim to be protected by laws expanding transgender bathroom access. Since we weren’t searching for these cases in a systematic manner, it’s likely the actual number is higher, but if not, this observation on its own establishes that undisguised cisgender men are by far the primary perpetrators of bathroom sex crimes in the U.S.
The safety concerns of those opposing the expansion of transgender bathroom access aren’t based in reality. With millions of Americans using public facilities daily, there is simply no reason to be concerned about sharing bathrooms with the country’s 1.4 million transgender citizens or worry about what might happen if they are legally permitted to use the bathroom of their choice.
Fear is an extremely powerful force, but so is truth. As evidence continues to demonstrate that protecting the rights of transgender people poses no threat to our society, hopefully we can move closer to doing what’s right. Transgender men and women shouldn’t have to worry about violence or harassment when deciding where to relieve themselves, and they shouldn’t have to spend more than a millisecond figuring out which bathroom to use. It’s time for them, like everyone else, to be able to get in and out quickly and safely, so they can get back to focusing on life’s many demands outside the confines of a bathroom stall.
Brian Barnett is a psychiatrist in Cleveland, Ohio. He is sub-specialty trained in addiction psychiatry and is currently completing a fellowship in forensic psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University. Follow him on Twitter @BrianBarnettMD.