Lots of people have insecurities about public toilets and locker rooms. If you combine that with a lack of understanding of trans people, they may be afraid of using a bathroom with someone who is trans.
The fear comes from lots of places. A lot of it is simple ignorance. Most of us were taught:
- Men have penises, women have vaginas (Thanks, Kindergarten Cop!)
- XX Chromosomes = Female, XY Chromosomes = Male
- Male = man, Female = woman – that is, sex and gender are 1 to 1 associations (see Terminology to learn the difference)
- Determining the sex and gender of a person is simple. Look at their parts or examine their chromosomes.
None of these are true, unfortunately. But a lot of people truly don’t know that. It’s ignorance. There is no shame in not knowing something. Nor is it evil or bad to not know something.
The solution to ignorance is education. It’s pretty easy to spot whether someone was merely ignorant (I.E. not morally bad or evil) or if they may also hold prejudice and ego – which can be negative moral positions. A lot of people, when educated, respond out of anger that they were corrected – this is often ego. People don’t like being wrong, unfortunately. Maybe they’ll get over that, and it’s one reason education should, when possible, be done gently without moral judgement (at least until the person shows that it’s not simple lack of exposure to the topic at fault). Of course that’s a lot easier if you’re not the trans person who is being invalidated by these defensive reactions – hence the need for us allies. Others are prejudiced or “willfully ignorant.” They don’t want to listen to alternative evidence, this is “common sense” to them. These people can’t be educated until they get past their refusal to participate in education.
This brings us back to bathrooms (this is a North-Americanism – elsewhere the word would be toilet). There are a few more assumptions people have regarding bathroom users:
- Women are at risk of attack in spaces shared with men
- Women are particularly vulnerable in a bathroom
- Transwomen are really men because they have a penis and/or XY chromosomes
We talked about the third bullet. I’m not going to explain why that is false, but it is. You can Google it yourself easily enough.
The first bullet point is based on a truth, but isn’t itself true. Most sex crime victims are women and most perpetrators are men. But it’s not shared spaces – it’s private spaces. And, generally, it’s not random men. It’s known men, not strangers, doing it (now I’m not saying that women don’t get assaulted by strangers – that clearly happens too, but it’s not as common).
There’s no actual crime evidence that women are more at risk in a bathroom, but I can understand that many people feel vulnerable when in the bathroom – you’re not likely to be as able to easily fight people off while sitting on a toilet with your pants down! Plus, bathrooms are typically relatively quiet, secluded places – so people might not know you’re being attacked in there (one could argue that making one bathroom instead of two – and thus increasing traffic in it – would make many bathrooms safer because most criminals wouldn’t want to commit crime with witnesses or potential defenders around). It’s important to recognize however that this is a feeling, however, not necessarily supported by evidence (for rape and sex crimes, statistics show that a private residence is far more dangerous than a bathroom).
There simply isn’t any evidence for thinking transwomen in a women’s room is dangerous. But these views persist. What else might be keeping women from seeing transwomen as safe? There’s a few things:
- They might believe being trans is a choice
- They might believe transwomen to be immoral
- They might associate trans with mental illness
- They might associate mental illness with dangerous people
- They might associate poverty with dangerous people
- Unfamiliarity is felt as danger in humans
The first two bullets are related – some people, despite medical evidence clearly to the contrary, insist that trans people are choosing to be trans. Further, this group is typically the same group that believes making this “choice” is immoral. If you believe someone is going against God’s laws in one area, you might fear them in another. I think this is why some people associate gay men with pedophiles – it’s not based on facts, but based on moral beliefs (for what it’s worth, most pedophiles are married to an opposite-sex spouse and even pedophiles that molest boys are, similar to non-pedophiles, mostly heterosexual with similar percentages identifying as gay in both the pedophile and non-pedophile groups [source]).
The third and forth bullets are also related. While there is a diagnosis for gender identity disorder, and clearly the mind plays an important part in determining who we are, there is an assumption behind the scenes: “trans people are mentally ill in a way others are not.” Nobody would dream of telling a depressed woman (depression is clearly a significant and life-altering mental illness) that she shouldn’t use the bathroom. In fact, according to the NIMH, 46% of the US adult population will experience a mental illness during our lifetime. Nearly 1 of 2. Someone in your family, in other words. Someone you love. Someone you hang out with. In a given year, 26% of the US adult population experience a mental illness. Of that, 6% of the US adult population will experience a severe mental illness, which it turns out to be pretty hard to define. You’re using the bathroom with some of these people, trust me
Further, mentally ill people are not more likely to attack you. They are more likely to be victims. They are even more vulnerable than the typical women or child in general. I’ve written about this regarding autism in particular, but it applies to gender identity disorder and other illnesses as well. There’s a lot of bias against mental illness. So, linking this back up to choice, you can see yet one more reason why nobody is “choosing” to be trans – in our society, that’s linked to mental illness and mental illness is linked to moral failure and danger.
Now we get to the meat of the issue – the issue of poverty. It’s combined with other things, like crime, drug use, and prostitution. But the root of the issue is poverty. People who aren’t poor are scared of the poor. They don’t associate with the poor. They don’t like being in the same neighborhood. Watch what happens when a public housing agency tries to build affordable housing in a typical suburban neighborhood – beyond the rhetoric about property values (which is essentially “Well, everyone else is biased”) is fear of the poor. Few look at the links between crime and poverty – why do people turn to prostitution or drug abuse? But it should be noted that the poor – even poor, prostitute, drug-users – aren’t walking into random bathrooms to rape women. In general, the rapist (over 90% of the time) is someone the woman knows, probably from her own social class. Rapists don’t know class boundaries. And plenty of “respectable,” non-mentally ill, non-poor, non-drug-using men are raping women. And that problem isn’t going to get solved while we focus on the risk that isn’t there (transwomen who are raping non-trans women in the bathroom).
Of course, if you are concerned about poverty, you would probably support a bill that would reduce poverty. Like ENDA. Which will never pass so long as the Republican party has breath left. Of course fear of the poor doesn’t actually translate into concrete action to deal with the problem of poverty faced by too many trans people.
That’s where we get to the last bullet: unfamiliarity. You probably do know someone who doesn’t hold a traditional gender view for their sex. They might not be expressing it, out of fear. It turns out that when others see unfamiliar things, and it challenges their way of viewing the world (or, worse, their view of themself), some people get violent. Not the unfamiliar person, but others. Yet, for some reason, the unfamiliar person is seen as a risk!
When we look at bathroom attacks, I know of none that involved someone taking advantage of non-discrimination laws. Yes, some women have been assulted in bathrooms. Here’s a the first few reports I found of women being assaulted in the bathroom (I have nothing but sympathy and sadness for the victims and anger and a desire of justice to be served for the attacker):
In no case was the man presenting as a woman. That’s important.
NYC has a good non-discrimination law that applies to a bathroom. Yet a man was still caught and held accountable. He doesn’t get a free pass to assault someone because of a non-discrimination law.
Lack of a non-discrimination law or policy applying to trans people at UNC and Taylor did not stop a man from entering the bathrooms to do wrong. After all, sexual assault is a far worse crime than being in the wrong bathroom (which is probably not against the law anywhere in the USA unless you are committing other crimes).
Again, none of the perps were presenting as women. It’s not the trans person you need to fear.
Yet, we can see horrible attacks against trans people using the bathroom. Search for “bathroom”, “trans”, and “attack”. Here’s two of them:
Both these attacks were particularly violent, even compared to the attacks against women by men I mentioned previously. If you can stomach it (the attacks were both very violent, which is the norm for attacks against trans people – it doesn’t seem like trans people get “sort of attacked” – it’s usually a rage-fueled attack that goes well beyond a mere assault), read a bit about the above. “IT” was literally carved into the man in the first one, for his crime of using the men’s room. No doubt someone who looked like a man wouldn’t have been treated better in the women’s room – and this shows that the attacks against trans people aren’t based on safety – clearly the transman was no threat to the attacker. In the second case, a transwoman was violently beaten – by women, not men – after using a bathroom in a McDonalds. Workers and customers not only watched – some filmed it. You can watch the video. Watch it and note how only few tried to stop it (an elderly woman did try – probably the least physically capable person of stopping the attack actually tried, while everyone else watched). If she was a non-trans woman or a child, do you think they would laugh at a non-trans woman or child getting beaten so badly (you can hear that on the video)?
I’ll note that in the McDonalds incident, it was women, not men, doing the assault. Trans people are at risk both from men and women.
You want to tell me about the safety of women? Go watch that video of two women attempting to kill Ms. Pollis while others watch and laugh. Don’t you dare fucking lecture people about safety until you actually give a shit about women like Ms. Pollis.
And before you lecture me for saying “fuck”, I hope you are at least just as angry that we have a society where trans people can have “IT” carved into them and attempted murder is filmed rather than stopped, if the victim is trans. If not, your priorities are quite fucked.
Did I mention that a few weeks prior to that attempted murder, a bill failed in the Maryland legislature that would have recognized transgender people as facing prejudice, and provided them similar protection as is provided to gays? It failed this year too. It should be noted that even in 2011 (it had failed at least 4 times previous), there was no provision for applying protections to trans people in public accommodations (that was an attempt to compromise and pass the bill – the previous attempts had that language). More proof that compromise is not something everyone is capable of doing. Of course why did people think removing that language would help? Because of the bathroom issue. Whenever public accommodation protections come up, so do bathrooms. And thus when these laws are debated, people start talking bathrooms. Could that have influenced the attackers in Maryland? Quite possibly, yes.
So, yes, we need to have the conversation about safety.
But that’s not the conversation we’re having. We’re talking not about making bathrooms safe for everyone, but instead about how to pander to people’s bigotry, bias, and ignorance. That’s how much society seems to hate trans people: rather than discussing how to stop attacks like the USC-LB and Maryland attacks, we’re talking about discriminating against the people who are getting attacked so that ignorance, bias, and bigotry can continue unchallenged.