Transphobia and the Bathroom Question:
Or, What’s Really Lurking in Your Public Washroom
I am writing this piece because lately a few self-identified progressive folks I know have brought up the bathroom question with me. I suppose it is because I’m doing a project at work with a strong LGBTQ-inclusivity component. This project makes me really, really happy. It fills my heart. And so I talk about these issues a lot when I’m out with friends.
The notorious bathroom question, if you don’t know of it, asks whether trans folks should get to use the bathroom that fits their gender identity. In other words, should a trans man be entitled to use the men’s washroom? And should a trans woman be entitled to use the women’s washroom?
The answer I always want to give is this:
“Who are we to question someone’s gender? They’ve undoubtedly spent years thinking about it, feeling it, and, regardless of to what extent they’ve felt comfortable expressing it, living it as well. And so they probably know a hell of a lot more about it than we do.”
But I don’t say these words. Because honestly, I am still consistently surprised when the bathroom question comes up among my peer group. It shocks me, and this shock silences me. And, much as I love all-encompassing moments of silence, these are not the silences I want to curl up inside.
I want to note that I’m writing this piece from a position of privilege. I’m a cisgender woman. What this means, if you’re not familiar with the language, is that the sex I was assigned at birth matches the gender with which I identify. In addition to being a cisgender woman, I’m also quite feminine-presenting. And so I’ve never had anyone question my choice of bathroom. I’ve never been threatened with hateful words or subject to violence because someone in a public washroom is uncomfortable with my gender expression. But this violence and these threats happen.
The bathroom question is often brought up by opponents of trans rights who claim that allowing trans women to use women’s washrooms would create danger for cisgender women. One example of the many iterations of this logic was in 2012 when Calgary Member of Parliament Rob Anders adamantly opposed Bill C279, a private member’s bill which would add gender identity and gender expression as protected grounds in the Canadian Human Rights Act and hate crime section of the Canadian Criminal Code. Anders described the bill as the “bathroom bill” and suggested that its purpose was to give trans women (whom he purposely misgendered as men) access to women’s washrooms.
I am quite familiar with the bathroom question as raised by people like Anders. In reality, in such a context it tends to be posited as more of a statement or as a moral truth rather than as a question.
But of late, the bathroom question has been expressed to me by friends over casual coffee through this sort of sentiment: “I don’t mind trans women. In fact, I support their right to express themselves and dress as they like. But I wouldn’t want one in a bathroom with me.” Or, “Trans rights are great, but won’t this mean that a man could sneak into the ladies’ room?”
To which I want to reply:
Seriously, my friend? That logic has all of the beauty, strength, and resilience of that wad of toilet paper that got stuck to the heel of my shoe when I was out on a date that time. Please. Let’s step back and think this one over. If a creepy man really gets his kicks from creeping on women doing their private ladybusiness and is willing to dress himself as a woman just to sneak into the ladies’ loo to do so, one has to wonder about his sense of efficiency because he really hasn’t done a good cost-benefit analysis. There are far simpler, much less involved ways to be creepy to women, such as yelling at them from the comfort of one’s truck window. And there will always be conveniently placed dark alleyways and the shadowed corners in bars for him to make use of. Letting trans women use women’s restrooms is not going to suddenly unleash a deluge of creepers being creepers. They already do this quite well and in locations better suited to their convenience.
So instead let’s do a cost-benefit analysis of our own. If there really are men out there who are willing to go to the lengths of misrepresenting themselves and dressing in drag just to sneak into bathrooms and be menacing to women, is this vague possibility worth the cost of discarding the basic right of trans people to go out in public and feel safe when they need to pee?
Are we as a culture really going to let the spectre of a hypothetical boogeyman guide us? Are we really going to let it justify our fear of and cruelty toward a group of people who have been overwhelmingly marginalized, debased, degraded, and even murdered just for being who they are? Have you seen the stats about murder and suicide rates in the trans community? There are some here and here.
I will never understand why we as feminists, as progressives, and as supposed allies, would ever present the bathroom question as if it has any answer other than this answer:
“You know. You, whoever you are, you know your gender. You know, or maybe you are discovering it as you go, which is great too. But you – YOU – know who you are better than I do. So please use the bathroom that makes you comfortable and that best suits your needs. And I, for my part, will do whatever I should do to make that space comfortable for you. By which I mean this: I will not perpetuate transphobia. By which I mean, I will not ogle you while you’re just trying to do your business, I will not objectify you by judging your body, I will not inappropriately ponder the body parts you have under your clothes, I will not yell at you or say hurtful words, I will not act in such a way so as to make you feel small and vulnerable. In other words, I will not be that predator that we as a culture say we are so afraid of.”
Because maybe, just maybe, that predator has been living among us all along – we who are so averse to compassion, we who are so afraid of the Other, we who are so afraid of disrupting the status quo that, through both our actions and inaction, we participate in the suffering of other human beings.
Transphobia is the real predator that we should fear and that we should want out of our public restrooms. But let me tell you, it’s a serious goddamn lurker. Sometimes it hides in the shadows, and sometimes it presents itself in broad daylight. It’s at our windows, in our schools, in our laws, in our statements, in our silence, and also in the stall next to us. It’s in our minds and in our hearts. It’s in my heart. Because we are all immersed in a sea of transphobic tropes and assumptions that do not loosen their hold easily.
I dislike toilet paper on my shoe when I’m a date. I dislike human suffering even more.
I’ve seen the wounds of transphobia in the eyes of people I love and it makes me ache.
I try to be a good ally, but I have made presumptions that I regret. I have said things I never should have said. And I’ve been quiet at moments when there is so much that needs to be said.
So, this is my vow that I will speak up from now on in those moments of shocked silence when someone brings up the bathroom question. I promise I will do this. I will speak back to those who want to present transphobia as a safety measure instead of the injustice that it is. I will keeping writing things, making art, and fostering kindness in my own way. I will keep my heart and mind open, because I still have so much to learn from the world. And, because there is so much to learn, I will never stop asking questions.
But not that question. That one about the bathroom. I’m going to do my part to flush that one out to sea.
© Allison Ursula Smith
I’ve written about transphobia before in the context of Canadian law and prison policy. You can read my article “Stories of 0s: Transgender Women, Monstrous Bodies, and the Canadian Prison System” here.