Voices From the Front Lines of Our Nation's True Bathroom Panic

Direction to the bathrooms in a public building
Direction to the bathrooms in a public building

The recent news that Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the Department of Justice are suing North Carolina over its anti-trans "bathroom bill" HB 2 -- and that North Carolina and its governor Pat McCrory are responding by suing right back -- has only intensified the discourse about this sociopolitical topic.

As a country, we're seemingly fixated on a singular question: Where are trans people allowed to pee? Or more specifically: Should trans people be able to use the bathroom corresponding with their gender identities?

In Mississippi, private citizens and public officials are now legally able to deny service to trans people on a religious whim and dictate who uses which public restroom. We've seen the governors of South Dakota and Georgia veto similar so-called bathroom bills, while several towns in the south have debated local ordinances dictating who pees where. Conservative politicians from everywhere from Maine (my home state, where trans people already have legal public accommodations protections) to Texas, and many places in between, are telling their constituents to be on the lookout for "men in dresses" trying to enter women's bathrooms. These politicians would have us believe that our nation's women and girls are at risk, in palpable danger from this grave and pervasive threat.

The sudden conservative interest in where trans people do their business has several roots, from a religious conviction that "God doesn't make mistakes," to viewing trans rights as the Alamo of the culture wars. Many people on the cultural right believe that accepting and allowing trans people to exist freely in society would be the final victory in the liberal battle against "family values." Already there have been incidences of men following women (whether they are trans or cis) into women's rooms because the men thought the women "looked like a man." So, painfully ironically, to keep "men out of women's bathrooms," conservative politicians and the American Family Association have encouraged an environment where men are emboldened to enter women's bathrooms to police gender norms.

The national discourse isn't entirely wrong in its focus: We are, as a country, facing an insidious issue involving access to bathrooms. The issue is well covered politically by media outlets, with plenty of seasoned reporters giving reports on "both sides" of the argument. However, for those most affected -- trans, non-binary, and genderqueer people -- there is no argument, and there are no sides. We either have rights equal to everyone else or we don't.

And amidst the bigotry and fear-mongering of conservative politicians and their like-minded constituents, the voices and stories of those of us facing the real ongoing bathroom panic, are drowned out while facing harassment, violence, and at times legal discrimination just for existing and seeking to fulfill a basic biological need.


As someone who has only been on Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) for a month, it's cruelly ironic that I seemed to have timed my own coming out as a trans woman to coincide with the moment that many Americans are most on alert for gender incongruence in the most private of public spaces. For many trans and non-binary people -- especially those of us like me who are early on in our transitions and thus are more likely to have difficulty "passing" as our true genders to society -- there are few things more fraught than the prospect of using a public gendered restroom.

My biggest test came a few weeks ago when I finally built up the courage to use the women's restroom at the local mall for the first time in my life.

At 6'2" tall and 220 pounds, my frame was most likely to give me away -- but also keep people from coming after me. My beard shadow can be covered by makeup, my thinning hair by a (fabulous looking) wig. But still, would all of that be enough? Would my makeup be well done enough to "convince" others of my gender?

I was most afraid of a verbal confrontation with a woman inside the bathroom, but the possibility of a physical altercation with a cis man outside the bathroom also loomed in my mind. I hadn't planned on getting stuck at the mall needing to go pee. Like many other trans people, I often research in advance where gender-neutral single-stall family restrooms are located and make sure I'm always within general proximity, in case of emergency. Poignantly, for trans women on HRT like me, one of the most commonly prescribed medications is a testosterone blocker called Spironolactone, a diuretic, which causes me to have to pee at least once every hour. On previous trips out in girl mode, I had been able to plan around using gender-neutral family bathrooms; a private, single-stall restroom to just get in, do my business, wash my hands, and get out without threat or fuss will always be my preference.

Planning your entire day around constantly being close to one of these facilities is a limiting and exhausting exercise. And despite my diligent efforts, the day I used the mall bathroom, I learned that the family bathroom is actually located inside the ladies room.

I hadn't set out to make a statement. I just needed to pee.

I tried to appear calm and natural as I approached the restroom, but on the inside, my stomach was doing backflips. My stress level hit maximum when I jerked the family restroom door handle and it didn't budge, locked. I was so nervous that I'd pulled it more violently than I should have, and most of the heads at the sink turned and looked in my direction. If I didn't have to pee so badly, I would have run away screaming in terror. Much to my surprise, no one said anything, although I did see one teenage girl give me a double take as I passed by her into the stall to do my business. I waited until everyone left before casually leaving the facility, wanting to get out of there so badly that I didn't even stop to wash my hands. I had survived without incident.

Despite this stress, discomfort, and anxiety, I was lucky. According to a recent study, 68 percent of trans people have experienced harassment or abuse in a public restroom.

There are so many more factors a trans person grapples with when choosing which restroom to use than most cis people have ever once had to take into consideration. On the day that I'd used the women's room, my makeup had been freshly applied -- but what if it had been later in the day and my beard was starting to show again? Would I have still been able to "pass" and pee without any problems? Am I suddenly not welcome in the ladies' room if that physical sex marker, my stubble, had suddenly broken through my foundation?

The problem with these "bathroom" bills is that the only way to enforce them is by closely examining gender norms and policing anyone else who doesn't appear to fall within their narrow confines -- including cis people. This sets mythical standards for people, especially women, to meet in order to receive equal treatment. Perceived "failure" to adhere to society's rigid gender norms can have devastating consequences.


My experiences represent but one human data point on these issues. The fears, anxieties, and social dynamics that trans women, trans men, and non-binary people grapple with when they decide to use a restroom in public are as varied and wide-ranging as the individuals themselves -- and far too rarely discussed, or heard, in the mainstream discourse.

To zero in on and highlight these complex and crucial issues, I reached out to a trans man, Max, from Colorado, and a non-binary person, V. Tanner, who recently moved to Washington state.

Max shared with me a story from early on in his transition:

When I was still unsure which bathroom to choose for greatest safety, I went into the women's since my partner was with me, and we both got jumped by a woman who was angry because she read me as a man. My ID was still legally female then, which partially influenced my choice of restroom, thinking it would help me avoid trouble.

Max touches here on a recurring theme that comes up throughout my discussions with other trans people: the concept of passing as one gender or the other. Frequently it's not the overtly feminine-dressing trans women who are verbally challenged in women's spaces -- it's cis butch lesbians and trans men who are very early on in transition who are picked out and targeted for harassment.

For non-binary people like V. Tanner, however, bathroom bills are not only a matter of safety, but also a source of anxiety through misgendering:

Oh I think they're terrible. They specifically target trans women in the age-old 'queer scare' rhetoric. It's disgusting and could very easily cause a lot of harm to many people. For me, if [bathroom bills] existed where I lived, it would mean I would always have to use a women's room no matter what; it would be a legal reinforcement of the fact that the government sees me as female even though I am not.

When I asked Max if there was a specific type of threat that worried him, as a trans man, more than others, his answer was potent: "I keep absolutely hyper-vigilant in men's rooms, especially if I'm at an event with any alcohol on premises. I'm generally more afraid of rape in men's rooms than physical violence."

Comparing society's perception of trans men to trans women, he added:

I'm fascinated by the way the script flips. It's like there's this cultural belief that penises, the people who possess them are inherently violent and dangerous, so when trans men are discussed in men's bathrooms, it's usually with affected concern for OUR safety. I've never seen any hand-wringing that we are a danger to children or adults or otherwise.

Both Max and V. agreed that bathroom bills specifically target trans women as threats, but were also frustrated by the way that cis-passing trans men are often used as props in the political argument over these laws. They agreed that the feelings of trans men are often overlooked within the trans discourse. Says Max:

I always hesitate to know how to participate in the conversation. This seems to come up in our community on other topics, too -- the narrative is focused on trans women and for whatever reason we kind of fall by the wayside. Sometimes I hesitate to speak up because I worry about derailing or dominating the discourse, other times it doesn't feel like my voice is even appropriate or helpful. At the same time, these issues do affect us too, in different ways and degrees. I wish I had answers or better insights on what an inclusive discourse should look like.

He adds:

What bothers me is when people say trans men won't face any issues with this law, or that all trans men pass, because that's 100 percent untrue. I'm very tired of some people [taking it out] on trans men. Trans men are very much affected by these sorts of laws, and some of them do genuinely also face physical danger. Hopefully, however, these aren't questions we have to entertain for much longer; we can shut down these laws before they spread.

It's important to remember that these bathroom laws affect all trans people to varying degrees, as well as cis women and men who don't meet society's traditional definition of gender norms. Every trans person has specific anxieties and dangers using public restrooms, especially non-binary people and those who are just starting their transitions.

For most people, the biggest risk they take is how clean the toilet seat is, or whether or not there's enough toilet paper left. But for trans and non-binary people, every time we pee in public it is a risk, and the uproar over bathroom laws has made it even riskier for us.

Why aren't we allowed to figure out for ourselves the safest place for us to relieve ourselves? The lawmakers and family groups currently pushing these laws want to make you question trans people, implying that there's something wrong with trans people -- with me. They think they know who I am better than I know myself. In this particular fight over transgender rights and bathroom bills, we need to remember who the enemy is here: It isn't trans people, it's the patriarchy.

This piece by Katelyn Burns originally appeared on The Establishment, a new multimedia site funded and run by women.