The Bathroom Bogeyman: Policing Trans* Bodies and Protecting Women

Restroom Unisex
Restroom Unisex

Outing the true culprits hiding in the stall: transmisogyny and gender-based violence.

The great American bathroom controversy continues to plague the political wasteland as bathroom bills and other discrimination-based proposals accumulate in courtrooms nationwide like flies on fresh manure. North Carolina's recently approved Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act House Bill 2 (HB2) banning transgender people from using the public restroom that corresponds with their gender identity is but one example of how gender matters can fan the fires of American ignorance and bigotry, leaving nothing but noxious fumes in its wake.

The recent state anti-LGBT measures (many introduced following the legalization of same-sex marriage) are but veiled attempts at maintaining the primacy of patriarchy and the heterosexual status quo -- at considerable cost to the public. To some, investing millions, if not billions, of dollars into policing bathrooms appears to be a worthwhile investment, even if it means that cuts to education, health care and other social services remain in place or deepen. Clearly, we don't need a Trump to prove that at bottom we are a nation that panders to our lowest common denominator: crap.

Last week, officials in 11 states filed a lawsuit challenging the Obama administration's May 20th action aimed at protecting the rights of transgender students in public schools. The lawsuit states that the Obama administration "had no authority to direct the nation's public school districts to permit students to use the restrooms that correspond with their gender identity." It also claims that the administration "conspired to turn workplaces and educational settings across the country into laboratories for a massive social experiment, flouting the democratic process, and running roughshod over common sense policies protecting children and basic privacy rights."

Common sense should absolutely play a role in this debate, first by putting an end to the absurd notion that states should have the right to force some public school students into environments that are detrimental to their health and wellbeing. Similarly, common sense should prevail over fantasy, or the invention of "a problem that doesn't exist as a pretext for discrimination and harassment, " as Attorney General Loretta Lynch warned in her recent public statement expressing support for the transgender community. Lynch is referring to the fabrication of theories like the now debunked bathroom predatory myth as justification for crafting b.s. infused legislation. Flush away the scum and the root problem floats to the surface.

Under the guise of protectionism (i.e., keeping women's bathrooms and locker rooms "safe"), NC Governor Pat McCrory and his cronies have said that allowing transgender women to use the women's bathroom "defies common sense and basic community norms by allowing...a man to use a woman's bathroom, shower or locker room." This statement first reveals the governor's ignorance about gender identity and then makes explicit that the impetus behind the state's latrine lockdown is in fact to protect women from men in bathrooms. Citing religious beliefs, McCrory and friends stake the transphobic claim that trans women are in fact men. This well-established fallacy then segues into underlying supposition of their argument: men are dangerous and women must be protected from them (by other men, presumably, in bathrooms). Yes, the Governor is talking about predatory cisgender men disguised in women's clothing. The bill does not include provisions for just how this penis patrol would be enforced .

Without a doubt bias against the LGBT community drives the steady increase in bills targeting basic human rights and bodily integrity. In addition to restricting bathroom use, HB2 is drafted specifically to exclude protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people by prohibiting local governments from implementing nondiscriminatory policies that go beyond those established by the state. Yet, the proliferation of toilet talk cluttering the landscape obscures what the commode crusaders have revealed is the root cause pushing the bathroom bills: the threat of gender-based violence. (The term gender-based violence, more commonly referred to as male violence or violence against women, allows for a broader recognition and understanding of the connections between violence and gender to also include lgbt people and children.)

By attempting to transfer responsibility for the hypothetical threat of violence onto the shoulders of transgender women, moral outrage has trumped rational thinking effectively outing cisgender men like McCrory as the hypothetical perpetrators in the bathroom violence scenario. What about the vast majority of men implicated in McCrory's villianization of his brethren who are not in fact sexual predators? They join the growing ranks of collateral damage along with the rest of us.

The manner in which restrooms are organized reflect social and political priorities, so it comes as no surprise that gender segregated bathrooms are a relic of paternalist practices, constructed by men for the women they sought to protect. Through patriarchal practices, men have dictated the moral landscape under which (their) women and (their) progeny can be kept safe and pure (think miscegenation) -- and then devised the means to accomplish this end. When women joined the workforce in factories outfitted with newly constructed indoor plumbing, it "triggered a paternalistic impulse to "protect" women from the full force of the world outside their homes." Enter the "ladies" or "powder" room.

The conservative led quest to retain sovereignty over the nation's physical and moral landscape has already resulted in the steady erosion of reproductive rights, a campaign aimed at overriding women's physical autonomy under the guise of protecting the unborn child (along with the wayward mother). The restriction of trans* access to toilets is a natural extension of such body politics, by exercising control through body shaming and fear tactics. To satisfy their insatiable appetite for dominance, state lawmakers have elected to sink millions of wasted dollars into the cesspool of hate and intolerance instead of exploring more economical, common sense approaches like creating more gender-neutral bathroom facilities and implementing gender and diversity education programs.

Returning to the nexus of bathroom ban, gender-based violence poses a significant threat to the health and well-being of all women. Not violence carried out in women's restrooms, but in parking lots, dorm rooms, private homes, in marital beds, etc. etc., etc. In fact restrooms remain one of the safer environments (presumably because most people use these spaces for their intended purpose). According to the nation's largest anti-sexual assault organization RAINN, "Approximately 50 percent of all rape/sexual assault incidents were reported by victims to have occurred within 1 mile of their home or at their home; 7 percent take place in a school, 13 percent take place at the home of a friend, neighbor, or relative, and 18 percent take place in a public area, such as a commercial venue, parking lot, or park." Trans women are especially vulnerable to sexual violence with nearly 70 percent experiencing verbal harassment in a situation involving gender-segregated bathrooms and 10 percent suffering a physical assault.

Eliminating gender-based violence would ensure a more humane world for all, and the potty wars illustrate that the time has never been more ripe for change. This could mean imposing stiffer penalties or the implementation of innovative mentoring programs and public information campaigns (if we can do it to reduce cigarette smoking and drunk driving, why not gender-based violence?). And as the bathroom bills make all too clear, a comprehensive nationwide investment in gender education is in order. How to fund these programs? Easy, divert the millions lost to HB2 and the other discriminatory measures clogging local, state and national processes to the programs that will serve the greatest public benefit.