Bathroom predators stalking our wives. Cross-dressing perverts out for our daughters. Shoes and ships and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings.
The absurd, mendacious claims made by proponents of legal segregation of transgender people, most recently in the vicious laws enacted in North Carolina and Mississippi, bring to mind the Walrus — the Lewis Carroll character who wished to talk of many things, such as whether pigs have wings. With his nonsensical words, theatrically uttered as he sets the table, he distracts his attentive audience of oysters from their impending doom on his plate.
How does one reason with the Walrus when he speaks gibberish to draw attention from away from his knives? That is the dilemma facing transgender rights advocates.
In engaging the obfuscations of those seeking to legislate transgender Americans out of existence, whose motives have nothing to do with safety or privacy and everything to do with brutalizing people who don’t conform to their fanatical worldview, we risk signing on to the fate of the oysters. The political apparatus designed to implement the transgender suppression agenda of hate groups such as the Family Research Council cannot be up front about their true objectives. When we take their stated concerns at face value, we strengthen their diversionary tactics.
Just glance at the debates over the “bathroom bills” that would force people to use facilities not according to their internal gender identity but according to the sex written on their birth certificate. Proponents of these laws, so reminiscent of the segregation measures of the Jim Crow era, claim they are just looking out for women’s safety. When it is pointed out that there is zero evidence of a safety issue when trans women use women’s rooms and extensive evidence of the violence they face if they use men’s rooms, proponents instead invoke people’s right to privacy. Privacy from what — from the presence of those who may be sexually drawn to them? Do they then want gay men using women’s rooms and lesbians using men’s rooms? The arguments are so transparently contradictory that it quickly becomes clear that the issue is not one of safety or privacy; it is simply about the way trans people look — especially those who do not conform to the gender binary.
As the voices of reason rise to defend trans Americans against these laws, an important question trans people and their allies should be posing themselves, is whether a community as vulnerable and targeted as transgender Americans can withstand such an all-out identity assault. Whether or not they are written into law, these attempts at demonization have very real consequences, including violent threats being issued against trans women on political podiums and in social media, and catastrophically high rates of suicide, assault, and murder. We cannot let the purveyors of hate continue to dominate discussion and public perceptions — the toll on trans people living through this ordeal will be intolerably heavy.
Our proposal is simple: The transgender rights movement needs to acquire agency and move trans identities and bodies out of the target zone and into the mainstream. First and foremost, this means pushing for greater visibility, and not just of trans people whose outward appearance “passes” for their internal gender. One of the strongest rebuttals highlighting the ridiculousness of the bathroom bills have been viral photo memes of trans people who pass looking out of place in bathrooms corresponding to their assigned sex at birth. These images, while compelling in their own right, also do a grave disservice to the many trans people who do not “pass” or do not wish to. They also do a disservice to those in the trans community who are gender-fluid and present in a variety of gendered ways.
The people who occupy this socially tenuous space are the ones most at risk of violence, assault, and intimidation while using gendered spaces. Unfortunately, many even in the trans community are turning their backs on these individuals, suggesting that they undermine the cause by riling the public accustomed to neat gender binary presentation. Well, we say the public needs to be riled into accepting people no matter how they present and appear, and no matter what their anatomy may be. As a certain civil rights figure once said, people should be judged not by their outward appearance but by the content of their character.
Not since the days of whites-only facilities has this country seen bigotry implemented by means of physical segregation as is done in the transphobic bathroom bills. One of the most potent ways in which black activists challenged racial segregation was by visibly and openly refusing to adhere to its strictures — for example, by sitting at forbidden lunch counters. The cruelty and backwardness of the segregationists was exposed for all to see, in stark contrast to the quiet dignity of the activists who refused to be dehumanized. Taking a page from history, trans activists and advocates should likewise destroy the veil of shame and invisibility being imposed on trans Americans.
Collectively and openly, in their rainbow of appearances, they should enter gendered spaces in defiance of the segregationists. The movement needs a ground campaign, a peaceful series of “pee-ins” across the nation that will bring a face and an image to this struggle. Americans need to know that trans people exist and use facilities like any other person, and should not be intimidated or threatened for the way they look. The nation needs to see the diversity of transgender identities safely and peacefully using gendered facilities and standing up to threats to their humanity. They should understand that existence and acceptance of people born with nonconforming bodies is not what threatens the peace and safety of our society, but the violent threats and actions of those who cannot tolerate human difference.
Without such a public campaign that will raise awareness, even laws granting legal protections to trans individuals will do little to change the daily intimidation and violence that trans people face in gendered facilities. Organizations fighting to stem the tide of transphobic legislation should also work to inform the public about the rights of and the risks facing gender-nonconforming people using gendered facilities. Everyone would be well served if signs were posted explicitly stating that intimidation, violence, or threats will not be tolerated against any person in those facilities, regardless of how they look, and that anyone who experiences or witnesses such aggression should report it. Additionally, men who make murderous threats against trans individuals for entering bathrooms with their “wives and daughters” need to be held accountable.
Of course, we must all fight transphobic laws in the legislatures and in courts, tooth and nail. However, we will gain most by pushing hard for acceptance and equality at the same time as fighting off oppression. States like North Carolina are a lightning rod, for their blatant and outrageous legal segregation, but let us remember that even in Massachusetts, a bill granting trans individuals protections in public accommodations is languishing on the governor’s desk. Trans activists and advocates need to show our politicians that the cause for justice will not wait, and that we mean it when we say that the incitements to murder, assault, and suicide must stop now. A broad grassroots ground campaign bringing transgender Americans from across the spectrum openly and peacefully into the gendered spaces where they are comfortable, in front of the nation and the world, will show just that.
Let us resolve to be more visible. All of us, transgender and cisgender, in every shade and stripe of presentation. Transgender and gender-nonconforming people should determine for themselves who they are and which facility they use, and not be governed by the bigotries of the segregationist who, like the Walrus, conceals his violence with nonsense syllables.
MISCHA HAIDER is a trans activist, mother, and researcher at Harvard University. BRUCE HAY is a professor of law at Harvard University.