Karine Jean-Pierre
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On the Public's Obsession With Showers and Toilets


There will be many things written about the transgender bathroom wars, particularly about the first federal appeals court — the Fourth Circuit — to side with a trans youth seeking to access facilities that match his gender identity.

Years ago when I was executive director of GenderPAC, I'd gotten a meeting with Rep. Barney Frank — then unquestionably the leading voice on gay issues in Congress — to discuss trans rights on the Hill, primarily the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which the Human Rights Campaign was then promoting without gender-inclusive language.

My managing director and I had barely sat down to discuss employment discrimination when Barney unloaded a full-throated barrage about how transgender people were wrong pushing for any legislation that would involve access to bathrooms of what was then called "the opposite sex."

He seemed to have a special thing about showers. He couldn't see how the public would ever agree to allowing pre- or non-op trans people access to gender-congruent locker-rooms or shower facilities.

To be fair, I couldn't either. Especially where kids were involved.

The American right has always had a field day when it can whip up hysteria and panic around anything connecting sexuality with kids in the public mind. I didn't have an answer for him.

Bathrooms were, in fact, too often the fulcrum of GenderPAC's access to national news media. We could work year-round on bullying, employment discrimination, or the murder of trans women of color and get only cursory coverage, if that.

But any time we got dragged into commenting on trans people and bathrooms, it instantly showed up in mainstream newspapers. Apparently the cisgender public couldn't get enough of that particular (manufactured) controversy.

And not just in the mainstream either. One of the biggest attacks on Camp Trans at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival was that one of our members, a longtime activist in the lesbian rights movement but now proudly out and post-op as a trans man, had used the shower (with permission of the one festivalgoer in it, of course).

The cry went up everywhere: "Penises on the Land!" I kept pointing out that considering his surgical site, it should have been "Forearms on the Land!"

Which gets to the crux of the issue. The case of brave teenager Gavin Grimm in Virginia aside, most of the hysteria about trans people and bathrooms has been devoted to trans women accessing females' restrooms.

That's why when Houston's right-wing activists were able to make the conversation about the city's broadly based human rights act — the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance — about "no men in women's restrooms," they knew they had a winner, and it went down to defeat.

As if, like everyone else, we're not trying to get in and get our business done and get out as quickly as possible. I once saw a cartoon showing a gender-nonconforming person trying to decide between women's and men's restrooms — on one side it said "Get Harassed" and on the other it said "Get Beaten Up." That about sums it up.

Here in Florida, a proudly transphobic state, I make sure to pull on something femmy every damn time I go out if there's a chance I might have to access a public women's restroom. Because I know I can still get busted for doing it, and I want to at least look like I'm trying to placate those cisgender women who will be eyeballing me every moment I'm in there.

It sounds small, but it sucks. It means I have to plan my wardrobe for joining friends at a restaurant, taking my daughter to the movies, and everything else around the prospect of getting hassled and/or arrested in the women's room.

Luckily, I think some trans men are finally starting to realize they need to get in the game too. There's a small but growing campaign by trans men to show what the effects of these transphobic bills really are. For instance, check out what activist Charlie Comero is doing in in North Carolina to protest its recent transphobic bathroom law.

Those legislators who think they're afraid of me peeing in the same places as their wives should contemplate the notion of a big, bearded lumberjack trans dude being forced to use the ladies' room with their daughters because somewhere 40 years ago a doctor wrote F on his birth certificate.

Lately I've been thinking that if we could stage this as a media event — have a half-dozen big trans men publicly use the women's room at some legislative building where one of these laws is being passed with the cameras rolling — we could end this "controversy" once and for all.

To that end. I had a few dozen Transexual Menace — Men T-shirts printed up, so there would be good visuals.

Perhaps I needn't have bothered. The main sponsor of Tennessee's transphobic bathroom bill has "temporarily" withdrawn the measure from consideration, PayPal has canceled a planned expansion that would have created 400 jobs in North Carolina because of its new Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act (Apple, Microsoft, and Coca-Cola also condemned it), the Obama administration has begun warning states that transphobic laws covering public schools may lead to the forfeiture of huge amounts of federal education funding, and now in Virginia, a federal court has just sided with Gavin by allowing his lawsuit to go forward.

OK, he hasn't won yet — the appeals court ruling asks a lower court to reevaulate its decision to not let Grimm use the facilities of his choosing — but kids have turned out not to be the Achilles' heel of the bathroom issue but its most effective shock troops.

You can say all the nasty things you want about a middle-aged tranny like me being deluded, choosing a "lifestyle," etc. But it seems almost impossible to say the same about some earnest, fresh-faced trans youth who just wants the right to use public facilities without being stigmatized or taunted.

We're a long way from Barney's tirade and my non-answer on bathrooms. Perhaps those Menace T-shirts won't be needed after all. Even on this once-intractable issue, the country is finally coming around. Who would have thought my right to use the ladies' room after four decades of living as a woman would actually attract the support of PayPal, Apple, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, the federal court system, and — oh, yeah — the president of the United States. I might even wear something butch to go out tonight. 

RIKI WILCHINS is an author and advocate.

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