When Brae Carnes, a trans woman from British Columbia, decided to post a selfie of herself in the men's bathroom earlier this month as a protest against transphobic legislation proposed in her Canadian province, she couldn't have known that she would start a powerful social media response to increasingly invasive laws around the country.
In the now-infamous selfie, Carnes can be seen standing in front of a line of urinals, carrying a sign reading "Plett put me here." The Plett she's referring to is Sen. David Plett, who authored an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code proposed that would basically gut the trans-inclusive provisions of that act, known as C-279. In other words, Plett's legislation sought to overturn existing Canadian law that promised trans people equal protection and accommodation.
That simple selfie turned into a campaign that has spread deep into the U.S., where similar transphobic bills are being introduced at an unprecedented rate. With bills looming in Minnesota, Kentucky, Texas, and Florida, people who are transgender are following Carnes's lead to illustrate the ridiculousness of legislation that would require those pictured to use facilities that do not match their gender.
It was Michael Hughes, a 45-year-old trans man in Rochester, Minn., who added the hashtag #WeJustNeedtoPee to explain the true motivation behind trans people's entrance into public facilities. Like Carnes, Hughes has been shocked by the response he's received since his initial photo — showing a scowling, bearded man in a cowboy hat in a bathroom with a blond-haired woman in the background — went viral.
"You wouldn't believe the messages I'm getting, asking for me to give exclusive photos … from people who can't even tell me who they work for," Hughes tells The Advocate. "I'm disturbed by people making memes now using my pictures."
"It was a bit of a tough decision, I knew I was forever outing myself," but "I knew I could get at some of these conservatives by showing them a tall bearded man in a women's bathroom," Hughes says, taking a break from preparing himself for a Wednesday interview on MSNBC about the selfie campaign. Hughes notes that before the unexpected publicity his photos have garnered, he primarily lived stealth — a term used in the trans community when a trans person is not open about their trans status.
While trans people are gaining unprecedented visibility in media — with Laverne Cox's Emmy-nominated role on Orange Is the New Black, the critical acclaim and Golden Globe victories surrounding straight, cisgender (non-trans) woman Jill Soloway's Amazon dramedy Transparent, and the rising star of trans teen Jazz Jennings — Republican lawmakers seem to have found a new bogeyman to drum up conservative support using provably false transphobic scare tactics.
Right-wing groups from the Minnesota Family Council, and the state's so-called Child Protection League, the American Family Association, the Pacific Justice Institute, and even the National Organization for Marriage are fundraising off the debunked fear of "boys using girls'" bathrooms. Misleading ads asking parents if they are comfortable with a male who "wants to shower beside your 14-year-old daughter" have become commonplace for these transphobic, fearmongering campaigns.
"Regardless of my genitalia — since they like to take it to that level — I don't think I'm quite what they pictured when they were thinking up this legislation," Hughes explains. "I decided right away to control the situation as much as possible — I didn't want to encounter women who didn't know me, and make anyone feel vulnerable. I was acutely aware of that."
Safety is a key issue for trans people seeking to use the restroom. A 2013 study found that despite scare tactics indicating the opposite, trans people are actually more likely than others to face physical and verbal harassment when using public facilities. A staggering 68 percent reported facing verbal harassment, including being told they were in the "wrong" restroom, with some bystanders even calling police, according to the Williams Institute, an LGBT policy think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law.
Indeed, blog PlanetTransgender reports that Carnes was followed out to her car and "propositioned" by a man pounding on her car windows after taking one of the bathroom selfies.
"I have carefully chosen each location," Hughes explains of his own bathroom photo shoots. "All the women in the photos are friends and or family, and we had one of the women check the bathroom first. Someone else guard[ed] the door. We've never encountered a woman. But I think we've chosen carefully. In all three viral selfies, the location was void of customers and we did it right at closing time."
If these laws were to come to fruition, "I know we'll see a rise in violence against trans women," Hughes predicts. "That's one of my main motivators — I'm not concerned for the safety of myself in a women's bathroom — but I keep thinking of them trying to force women into the men's room and how dangerous that is."
Hughes is fielding an onslaught of friend requests on social media, and local residents are offering to take selfies with him, so "overall, the feedback from this has been overwhelmingly positive," he says.
But the response has not been universally positive, particularly from others in the trans community. Hughes says he's been accused of appropriation and of diverting attention away from trans women to trans men. "I'm accused of wanting 'looks' used to determine who gets to go where," sighs Hughes. "And being called out by our own community is very hard to swallow."
Hughes is a father of four who has been married for 12 years and is currently attending a local university to earn his degree in sociology and women and gender studies.
Cooking dinner for his family, Hughes says they — and his whole hometown — seem to be handling the instant recognition well.
"Our youngest had to come out to her friends [about having a trans parent] when this broke," he says. "She's so brave and she was so proud to do it. She brought me cupcakes yesterday because she wanted to celebrate with me!
"It's sad that [legislators] imagine us to be these people that are so removed from normal," Hughes laments. "Yet we're as normal as the family next door."