No.

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Ever since I was a small child, I have had the tendency to put the needs of others before my own. It has often been a struggle for me to say ‘no’ even when I want to. I spent much of today in a contemplation which slowly evolved into a vow. This vow is to nurture and strengthen my ‘no.’ To hold it tightly until it knows it is safe to reach out into the world.

‘No’ is a small bird that I hold in my hand. When released, it flies back to me, bringing sustenance. ‘No’ is the edges of the ocean that encircle my beautiful space of solitude. ‘No’ is the coils of the muscles of the braids in my hair. ‘No’ is a hidden strength that, if ever unraveled, may be woven again.

‘No’ is the crow with wings like torn black construction paper that hovers above me when I run along the waterfront. Despite the force of the wind and the way its body pauses tensely in the air, it is not pushed to the ground.

‘No’ is the quivering light on the forest path. ‘No’ is with me at some of the moments when I feel most free. And so I am learning to love my ‘no,’ to nurture it, and recognize its subtle warmth.

Transphobia and the Bathroom Question

Transphobia and the Bathroom Question:
Or, What’s Really Lurking in Your Public Washroom

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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.


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.

“Asking for It”: some thoughts on conquest, discipline, and girls’ bodies following the Steubenville rape verdict

I have been thinking a lot about the recent Steubenville rape decision and its coverage in the media. The one phrase that has been stuck in my mind all day today is this one: “asking for it.”

I have spent much of my life playing with words, sometimes building them, sometimes dismantling them. To study language and to love writing: both involve no less than this. So when I think about words and phrases, I want to break them down and look at them. And with some phrases, I want to break them apart, to crumble them into small pieces of sand. I want to look at the pieces in my hand, then scatter them into the wind.

If you don’t know the extent that the sentiment of “asking for it” has been invoked following the Steubenville verdict, you can visit here. Countless twitter users, not to mention the mainstream media, have articulated sympathy for the Steubenville rapists while simultaneously chastising the victim. The chief basis for this victim blaming is that the victim was drunk when she was raped. The logic of victim blaming will tell you that this young woman should have been aware of her surroundings. It will tell you that she invited dehumanization and violence on her body. That she implicitly requested to be raped. That she asked for it.

But, as a phrase, what does “asking for it” really mean? What has it come to mean? Through use and repetition in media and subcultures, words and phrases take on particular, honed meanings and connotations beyond their literal structure and origin. At this point in time, “asking for it” does not actually mean to ask. It does not mean to vocalize consent. It does not signify an articulation of desire. When you think about it, it is actually not used to suggest that a young, unconscious woman literally or implicitly said, “Do this to me.”

Instead, what it says is that she deserved it.

“Asking for it” has come to be used in reference to perceived weakness and the perceived necessity of punishment. This is clear in uses of the phrase outside the context of sexual assault.

“Asking for it” is used by the tired parent whose child won’t stop yelling in the middle of a busy mall. The parent slaps or spanks the child. The child cries even more. But that’s okay, right? She, the child, was asking for it. Her misbehaviour, the parent believes, warrants such stern reprimand.

“Asking for it” is used in military strategy games when your opponent is distracted and lets down his guard for that crucial moment. His defences are down. So you take action, because you are playing a game and the purpose of this game is to win. As a consequence, you make major ground. Your opponent is upset at your success, of course. But he let it happen. He displayed his own weakness. He let his guard down. He was asking for it.

I could think of many more similar scenarios, but I think these two are enough to make my point. “Asking for it” is used when someone has acted in a way that reveals a weakness. It is used in situations when someone is seen to deserve violence in order to discipline them for bad behaviour.

It does not really mean to ask. And yet, strangely enough, it is conflated with the concept of consent, as if consent could be implicitly given by being drunk or unconscious.

All day, I have asked myself how it could be that so many people have expressed the sentiment that a young woman who was unconscious was “asking for it”? But as I think more about it, I think my two examples above are oddly appropriate. We live in a culture that so often sees young women as small children who need steering and discipline so as to protect them from themselves. And we also see young women as military-esque targets that are the objects of battles and conquests. We tell women not to wear certain clothes because we believe men cannot help themselves. We tell them men only want to conquer. We tell them don’t walk in certain areas. Watch your drink. Don’t wear that skirt. And if you don’t behave as we say, you are responsible for the punishment that others allot to you. You should have better guarded your fortress.

But, as a culture, we don’t tell men not to rape.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate that I have never been raped. I know so many people, all across the gender spectrum, who have been subject to sexual violence. I am humbled by their strength and their resilience in overcoming what they have been through and speaking out about it.

Statistically speaking, you know these people too, whether or not you have heard their stories. This kind of violence is all too common.

I haven’t been raped, but I have been beaten up. I think of the Steubenville victim, who was only sixteen when she was raped. When I was sixteen, one night I was at my then-boyfriend’s apartment. He and I were drinking wine. He picked a fight with me. I told him that I wanted to go home. It was after midnight, and I was tired of being called names. I told him I wanted to see my dad. I reached toward the doorknob of his room. This was the first time he hit me. It didn’t leave a visible bruise, but for a week after, I had a small red blot that seemed to hover just on the surface of my left eyeball. Like a tiny red planet in motionless orbit around my iris. No one else noticed.

When I started to be vocal about him hitting me, I was keenly aware of how many people within my group of friends (who were also his group of friends) started to change in how they acted toward me. I knew what was said behind my back. I knew that some people sympathized with me. But I knew that others expressed in so many words behind my back that I had asked for what had been happening to me, because I was a strange, awkward girl who wore particular clothes and flirted too much and should have been more sensible about where she went and who she spent time with.

I have no idea what it is like to be raped. I have no idea what it is like to know that there are images of your rape around the internet. I have no idea what it is like to be revictimized at trial and then once again in the trial of public opinion. But I do remember a little bit about what it is like to be a drunk sixteen year old girl, even though I’m almost twice that age now. And what I know about that is that no matter how drunk you were, you did not ask to be mistreated. More likely than not, you believed in the goodness of other people. You did not ask to be treated as a thing. You did not ask to be someone’s object of conquest. You did not ask to be punished, dehumanized, and humiliated. Your body did not ask for discipline.

I know that you were never asking for it.

Because asking for it, if you really, really take a moment and think about what that phrase should mean, would involve a girl opening her mouth and speaking consent. Or writing it down. Or making some kind of meaningful communication. It would involve an action: to ask. Not lying down limp and unconscious or saying nothing. We all deserve, and we must demand, a better world than the one that exists now. And part of demanding this better world is refusing to accept the idea that others have some kind of implicit right to articulate their rage on girls’ bodies.

No one ever asks for this.

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