Transgender People Need Safe Restrooms

Transgender people go to work, drive our kids to school, go to the movies, and go out to dinner, and yes, like everyone else, we even go to the restroom. Most folks don't think twice about using the restroom, but for transgender people, accessing the restroom that matches our gender identity too often results in ridicule or violence. Those of us who don't fit narrow gender stereotypes -- including transgender people transitioning from one gender to another -- are most likely to be targeted.

At Transgender Law Center, we've been explaining this harsh reality to policy makers for years. In fact, our 2005 publication Peeing in Peace is still wildly popular and has inspired the creation of a new mobile app to help trans folks find safe places to use the restroom. Our helpline receives more than 2,500 requests each year. Some of those callers include employees of major corporations who are not allowed to use the appropriate restroom at work, students who aren't allowed to use the appropriate restroom at school, and people who have been attacked in restrooms at malls and grocery stores.

Jody L. Herman, Williams Institute Manager of Transgender Research, recently released "Gendered Restrooms and Minority Stress: The Public Regulation of Gender and Its Impact on Transgender People's Lives." This scientific study found that 70 percent of transgender and gender-nonconforming respondents experienced problems in gender-specific restrooms in Washington, D.C., with people of color and people who have not medically transitioned often faring worse than others.

The data in "Gendered Restrooms and Minority Stress" demonstrate the severity and urgency of this issue. Among the transgender people who responded to Herman's study about restroom access, 54 percent reported adverse health effects from trying to avoid using public restrooms, such as dehydration, kidney infections, and urinary tract infections; 10 percent of respondents who attended school in D.C. reported a negative impact on their education, including having excessive absences and dropping out of school due to issues related to restroom access; and 58 percent reported that they have avoided going out in public due to a lack of safe public restroom facilities.

For many people, talking about restrooms is uncomfortable. Yet we must begin to address this issue head-on if we hope to prevent the health complications, negative experiences in the education system, and stress that many transgender people -- especially transgender people of color -- experience when attempting to meet a very basic need. I commend the Williams Institute and organizations like the DC Trans Coalition that are advocating for safe and accessible facilities for all.

By telling our stories, we have moved leaders to implement policies that ensure our human dignity. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have passed anti-discrimination laws that protect people based on gender identity or expression. Furthermore, laws that explicitly protect transgender and gender-nonconforming people in restrooms have already been passed in New Jersey and the cities of Oakland, Boston, Denver, San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C. We desperately need more cities and states to follow suit.

While times are changing, we still have a long way to go. Just this year, a prominent politician in Arizona introduced a bill that would allow small businesses to check a patron's birth certificate before they enter the restroom. (Thankfully, it was eventually withdrawn.) Recently, an Idaho grocery store filed trespassing charges against a transgender woman simply for using the restroom. All across the country, transgender and gender-nonconforming youth are struggling to make it through the day because their schools won't accommodate their needs.

It's time to ensure that transgender people, and anyone who might be more masculine or feminine than our outdated notions of gender would allow, can use the restroom just like anyone else.

For us at Transgender Law Center, it's frustrating to have to spend so much of our resources trying to achieve something so simple as the right to go to the restroom, especially when we need to focus on passing laws that ensure that trans people don't get fired from their jobs or kicked out of their homes. But being able to use the restroom means being able to go to work, school, the library, and all the places people frequent in everyday life.

There are simple measures everyone can take right now to make it better. Business owners can switch their existing single-stall restrooms to gender-neutral restrooms. Cities can incentivize the construction of new buildings that include gender-neutral restroom options. Schools can implement policies to respect transgender students' identity, similar to those the Los Angeles Unified School District has been utilizing for years. These changes will go a long way toward improving the lives, health and safety of transgender individuals.