For my first story as the new transgender issues correspondent for The Advocate last year, I covered the remarkable efforts of a trans teenager named Lila Perry to use the girls’ bathroom at her Missouri high school. This story was deeply important to me because I too had once asked to use the girls’ bathroom as a youth.
But my efforts unfolded in 1976 at my predominantly black inner-city public grade school in Washington, D.C. No one protested outside the school. No rallies were held in my favor. In fact, I doubt if anyone remembers the violent affair. But my small, innocent struggle for trans-inclusive access still stands as a watershed moment in my discovery of the incredible difficulty of being gender-variant.
In 1976, the country was celebrating its bicentennial year. Red, white, and blue flags were everywhere in the nation’s capital. In September, I joined the kazoo choir, along with a few other kindergarteners and first-graders at my run-down public school. We learned the melodies to “This Is My Country,” “America,” “The Negro National Anthem,” and a plethora of other patriotic American songs.
Then we performed the songs on our kazoos at a sparsely attended outdoor gathering on the mall by the Lincoln Memorial on a field trip. Between songs I remember whispering to one of the teachers, “Will more people come to see us?” and she replied, “Just keeping blowing!” So I blew the hell out of my kazoo, and my lips became puffy and red.
I suppose my lips were particularly red and puffy when I returned to the school later that day, because a few boys asked me, derisively, if I was wearing makeup.
Let me pause to explain that, while some people say “boy” to refer to their younger selves, I say “assigned male at birth.” Regardless of what I looked like then (or look like now), and regardless of the fact that my birth certificate says “Negro male,” I have never been male within the truest vision of myself.
After the boys began ribbing me, it dawned on me: I was the only child assigned “Negro male” at birth within the kazoo choir. All of the other kazoo choristers were conventional (nontrans, or cisgender) girls.
Brilliant yet cruel, my mother was not an accepting, doting parent. She was often monstrous, continually belittling me, and calling me her “sissy child.” Her mistreatment became so severe that I was eventually removed from my mother's care and placed in foster facilities. It seemed that I was being targeted from all sides, at home and at school — where the boys' hostilities only increased over the next five months.
Then on Tuesday, February 17 (I will never forget that day in 1976), I returned to school in the morning after the long Presidents’ Day holiday weekend. I slipped into my usual ritual: To avoid the boys in the halls, I hid in a far stall of the boys’ bathroom before the first bell rang.
But I was not hidden for long. Yelling and laughing, the boys barged in and grabbed my ankles from under the stall door and dragged me out of the stall mid-relief. Then they pushed me from side to side. Mind you, this was grade school and most of these denizens probably did not yet know how to deliver a more advanced “beat-down.”
I retreated to a corner of the bathroom by the radiator and curled up into a ball with my arms around my knees. Yet still I could not escape the boys. They pelted me with balled-up wet toilet paper until a teacher came into the bathroom and hauled me off to the administrator's office.
The assistant principal — or someone with a similar title that at the time escaped my young, terrified brain — asked me what I had done to provoke the boys’ attack. I did not feel that I had done anything. In fact, I had tried to assiduously avoid the boys for five months.
When they would corral together at the urinals to show off to one another, I never joined them. If I had to go to the bathroom, I looked around to make sure no one was in the facilities, and then rushed quietly into a stall. I was in grade school, yet, without even thinking that the issue mattered, I had never even peed standing up.
“Can I just use the girls’ bathroom?” I asked the assistant principal, explaining that, since I felt like a girl, it seemed entirely appropriate for me to use the girls’ bathroom to escape the abuse of the boys. I even asked why bathrooms had to be divided into girls-only and boys-only spaces.
I thought I had a great connection with this school official. This person smiled more than some of the other uncommonly foul-tempered administrators and teachers. During the previous summer, I saw this individual at the Petworth Library on one of my many jaunts, and this individual marveled at my advanced reading skills. I later discovered that this person was just a substitute administrator in an ever-revolving door of high employee turnover and persistent neglect at that public school.
When I finally stopped talking, the assistant principal asked me if I knew what a “faggot” was. Before I could reply, this person telephoned my mother.
Within an hour, my mother arrived at the school. She beat me in full view of the assistant principal in the office, and she kept beating me in the halls of the school in front of the students as she marched me back home.
Forty years ago, I had far more reason to fear my peers and adults than they had to fear me.
Since then, violence has continually followed me as I struggle every day to be my true self.
For the last twenty-five years (whether I look feminine, masculine, or ambiguous—I have no control over how others perceive me) my goal has been to be safe, comfortable, and healthy when using public bathrooms. I tend to gravitate to single occupancy or unisex public restrooms. Or, I try to avoid using all bathrooms in public, and if I must do so, I try to use public restrooms that have as few occupants as possible so no one sees me, or makes comments about what I look like on any level. It is worth noting that there are serious health hazards related to avoiding going to the bathroom.
What I endured in 1976 was a genuine bathroom panic.
What trans folks are asking for when we demand inclusive, gender-appropriate access to bathrooms is simply equality.
CLEIS ABENI is the transgender issues correspondent for The Advocate.