Staying Silent on Trans Bathroom Scare Tactics Is a Problem

I'll never forget the first time I was harassed for being in the "wrong" bathroom.

I was 21 years old and waiting at Newark Airport for a flight that seemed like it would never come. Sighing in regret as I looked at my mostly-empty drink, I looked around for the nearest restroom... and to see who might be nearby to object to my use of it.

I was in luck. Our flight was the only one leaving from the small terminal that late. I gathered my luggage and strode to the men's room.

Look like you belong, I reminded myself, a mantra that trans people old enough to be my parents had instilled in me at the local support group. Don't look nervous. You have a right to be in there. Just walk in, do your business, and get out. Be casual, be confident.

The bathroom was completely empty, and I sighed in relief as I rushed to the furthest stall. I had barely had time to lock the door when I heard it.

"Ma'am!"

I froze. What was I supposed to do? Who had seen me come in? More importantly, who objected so fervently to my presence that they were trying to call me out of there?

"Ma'am!" the voice called again. My heart beat in my throat.

They hadn't covered this in the group; what did I do now? Did I try to play it off as some silly mistake, the product of sleep deprivation and fictitious alcohol that let me wander right past the urinals without noticing? Did I throw my voice as low as it could go and shout back, "No ma'ams in here"?

"Ma'am, it's the men's room!" I said nothing, did nothing, didn't even breathe, trying not to panic. What could he do to me? Did New Jersey have protection laws? I could have sworn they did -- I knew New York did. D.C. was in the process of getting them. New Jersey considered me whatever I considered myself, right? Or was that the version of the law that hadn't actually passed? Why couldn't I remember?

By the fourth "Ma'am!", I found myself wondering what this guy's deal was. Clearly I wasn't answering. Shouldn't he know by now that he'd either made a mistake or I was incapable of responding? Shouldn't he at least feel a little silly as he shouted at a mostly-empty men's room to try to... what, exactly? Kick me out? Protect me? Warn me? Who was there to be either bothered by my presence or a threat to me?

In retrospect, I know he was only in there for a few seconds, surely less than a minute, but it felt like hours. It was only after I could calm myself down, breathe again, that I could finally do what I had come in to do and leave.

Even then, I worried that he would be standing outside the door waiting -- maybe alone, maybe with security, maybe with a posse who would exact their own kind of justice. I practically peeked out the door like a cartoon character before scurrying out of the bathroom and over to the waiting area.

I was lucky compared to friends of mine.

More than a few had security called on them. One was threatened with arrest -- unsurprisingly, it was in Texas. A few years ago, attendees at a trans convention in Seattle were arrested when they tried to use the restrooms at a mall that adjoined the hotel where they were staying.

When I came out at school and asked for the administration to enforce the D.C. law that required professors to call transgender students by the pronoun they requested, the Dean's first response was "Thank god it's not about bathrooms."

When I had problems at work with a few transphobic employees, they claimed I was using the wrong bathroom and making them uncomfortable years after the fact. When my father and I finally had our long-overdue conversation about my transition, one of the few questions he asked me was, "So what do you do about the bathroom?"

For some reason, that's the main thing people seem to worry about with a transgender person. It was even enough to derail ENDA back in 2007. Faced with fear-mongering that employers would have to let men use the women's restroom, the House stripped out protections for transgender employees because the bathroom question was too difficult to fix. Time after time, conservatives claim it's a threat to women, and everyone -- liberals, LGB people, even trans people -- let the preposterous argument go unanswered.

We can't keep doing that. We have to fight back.

We have to point out that there has been not a single actual case of a man claiming to be transgender entering the women's room for nefarious purposes. Not one. We have to point out that, even if someone did that, they would be arrested for assault regardless of their supposed identity.

We have to remind people that, if we transgender people have to use the restroom that matches their birth certificate, not only does it place trans women at risk, but it means men will actually be forced to use the women's room. We should point out that no one actually carries their birth certificate around with them to verify which restroom they're allowed to use and that no one has proposed any means for checking them at the bathroom door.

And we have to point out that trans people are at a much higher risk from cis people than cis people have ever been from us. Because while there are no cases of a shadowy man in a dress and wig creeping in the women's room to spy on unsuspecting ladies, there are numerous cases of transgender people being harassed, fined, arrested or attacked for the simple act of relieving themselves.

Instead we stay silent.

We concede the argument. At best, we try to divert attention away from the scare tactics, but that doesn't work; it looks like we're agreeing but trying to duck the issue, which leaves people who don't know a trans person (or at least, people who think they don't know a trans person) with the impression that it's a legitimate fear instead of an imaginary threat.

The next time a law like Houston's comes up -- and it will come up -- we owe transgender people better than tacit agreement. We owe the truth. It may not fix the problem, it may not ensure protection, but it's a lot better than staying silent.