Surviving The Waves Of History: Bathroom Bills Can Be Deadly


Usually my organization, FORGE, hears the stories of pain, trauma, and outrage directly from transgender and non-binary victims themselves -- in person at meetings and workshops, by phone or by email, or via social media.

This one came not from the victim, but from his survivors. It wasn't even told to us directly; we overheard it at the counter of a local Jewish deli.

Three guys were sitting nearby, looking stereotypically Wisconsin: jeans, black biker boots, visible tattoos, and three Harleys lined up outside. They were discussing the funeral of a co-worker, a fellow biker, and friend who had recently killed himself. They were all clearly grieving, trying to make sense of the loss. We overheard them saying:

• "There was absolutely no problem at work"
• "Everyone who rode with him loved him"
• "I don' t understand what he was worried about"
• "No one even knew unless he told them"
• "...and, anyway, we had his back, like he had ours."

It turned out that their friend was a man of trans history, someone who had been successfully living as a man among other men for 10 or 15 years without any substantial problems. These men, his friends, knew what was happening to transgender people politically, but their response was to keep stressing to him how much progress had been made. They told him that the bill that was passed in North Carolina and the bill that was pending in Wisconsin's legislature that demonized trans people -- were just "blips", speedbumps on the way to equality and justice. The tide, they all insisted, would turn and all would be well.

But their friend was afraid. It isn't just the legislation. Transgender and non-binary folks are currently facing a level of public bullying and hazing that is unprecedented. We used to go largely under the radar, known mostly to a few close friends, if we've been known at all. Now the news is filled with people's uninformed and incredibly painful opinions about who we are. The misgenderings are constant. Legislators are debating giving bounties for outing trans people just trying to use a public restroom. Lawyers boast on social media that they are arming themselves lest a trans person be in a bathroom they enter. School officials are making it legal for kids to carry mace to protect their "privacy" from trans peers. Newscasters are suggesting trans people should just "pee in the bushes" or stay out of public altogether.

Barely a month after North Carolina passed HB2, Oxford, Alabama decided they would fine trans people $500 or jail them for up to 6 months for using the "wrong" bathroom. A day later, worn down by people all across the country telling him that who he was wasn't valid, that he didn't matter, that he didn't deserve equal rights, this trio's friend took his own life.

His action meant he wasn't around less than two weeks later to hear the most pro-transgender statement ever uttered by a top U.S. elected official. On May 9, Attorney General Loretta Lynch looked directly into the camera and said:

"Let me also speak directly to the transgender community itself. Some of you have lived freely for decades. Others of you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives you were born to lead. But no matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward. Please know that history is on your side. This country was founded on a promise of equal rights for all, and we have always managed to move closer to that promise, little by little, one day at a time. It may not be easy -- but we'll get there together."

It was a remarkable statement that sparked tears of joy for countless transgender people. Unfortunately, even though many of us have taped those words to our walls or printed them on our t-shirts, they are not enough of a bulwark against the ongoing torrent of hatred and ignorance. Yes, history is on our side, and yes, the tide will turn. But right at this moment we're in the middle of the clashing waves, fighting to keep our heads above water. We can use whatever life preservers others can toss our way.

These life preservers don't have to be costly, or time consuming, or even public. If you know a trans or non-binary person, invite them out for coffee or a summer concert. Direct discussion of issues is unnecessary; your friendly presence and caring acceptance is what's most needed. If you don't know someone who is trans, consider wearing a pro-trans button or google, print, and tape up a trans-inclusive message in the public bathrooms you frequent. If you can afford to be public, attend a rally or hearing or sign a petition to protest those who want to hurt or limit transgender people. If your business or organization doesn't explicitly prohibit discrimination against or overtly welcome transgender people, arrange for the necessary update. No matter who you are, introduce yourself to people with "and my pronoun is ...," and invite them to do the same. Volunteer for your local transgender and/or LGBT organizations, or donate funds. Purchase and donate pro-trans books to your local library. Re-post pro-trans articles and statements on your social media. Most of all, be kind.

The world right now can use some more kind.