Wave of restroom laws hearken back to Jim Crow



Remember when our people were highly restricted in the use of public restaurants, restrooms, and water fountains? We had to plan ahead. We carried our own food and beverages, arranged to stop at someone’s house to use the bathroom, kept an emergency mason jar for road trips. Even today, we’re still monitoring our safety in public and out-of-view places.

These same safety concerns haunt a considerable segment of our community. Deciding whether, when, and where to use a restroom may affect their ability to work, interact in their community, travel for work or leisure, and generally participate in society.

AJ GenderQueer "he" #1 by NikiaWe’re talking about laws that several states have introduced or already enacted — laws that would jail people whose “birth sex” doesn’t match the restrooms they’re using. Some of these bills provide for a “bounty” of up to $4,000 to be paid to anyone who turns into the authorities someone they believe is using the “wrong” restroom. Other laws have proposed fines or criminal charges against schools and business owners if they allow a transgender person to use the restroom.

Discriminatory laws make a bad situation worse.

Transgender people—as well as people who are not transgender but who don’t appear to others to look “masculine” or “feminine” enough for the bathroom they’re in—frequently experience discrimination and harassment. They’re questioned or challenged about whether they’re in the “correct” bathroom; they’re verbally or physically harassed or threatened; they’re told to leave, physically removed, or even arrested.

For all these reasons, whenever they venture outside their homes, many transgender people, as well as people with non-binary genders and those who are perceived as gender non-conforming, must think every single day about whether they have access to a safe restroom—whether at work, in school, in restaurants and coffee shops, at bus and train terminals, in airports, or any other time they are out in the community or traveling elsewhere.

Requiring transgender people to use only a specific restroom —whether a single-person, gender-neutral, or other restroom that is not required for other members of the public or establishment—is disrespectful and an invasion of privacy. Worse, it may reveal someone’s transgender status to others and thereby place them at risk for violence.

What about the safety of non-transgender people?

There are no recorded instances of people being assaulted by transgender people in restrooms. Seventeen of the largest school districts in the country allow transgender students to use the restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity, and none of these schools has experienced instances of harassment or inappropriate behavior by their transgender students.

Of course, it’s possible with any multiple-person restroom for people to enter who wish to harass others. Please note that harassment anywhere, including restrooms, is already illegal.

So how do transgender people protect themselves?  

Transgender people are using the same methods we used in the past.

They may avoid public bathrooms altogether.  Many transgender people use a lot of time and energy trying to structure their work or school day to avoid having to use a public bathroom. Imagine the effect on their school or work performance when they leave early, arrive late, or take breaks to travel home to another safe location in order to use the restroom.

They may restrict their fluid intake. Restricted intake can have a significant negative impact on physical health (including dehydration and urinary tract infections) and mental health (including anxiety, depression, and isolation).

They may avoid making plans. First, they’d avoid being away from safe or private bathrooms for extended periods of time, and then, when such plans are unavoidable, go out of their way to find restrooms that are gender-neutral or private and try to set up a “buddy system” to ensure their safety.

What would make bathrooms safe for everyone?

At its root, much of the fear and anger that others harbor about restrooms is a reflection of two unfortunate dynamics: (1) anti-transgender prejudice and (2) the assumption that people who have penises (whether transgender or not) will use them to harm women, if given the opportunity.

Clearly, reducing anti-transgender prejudice is essential so that no one has to be fearful about someone entering a bathroom based on their own understanding of what’s appropriate for them.

In the meantime, we can also provide more single-user restrooms. Single user restrooms not only provide more options for transgender people and those whose gender expression differs from what others expect. Such restrooms also meet the needs of other people, such as
·      Parents assisting a small child or a person of another gender
·      Family members accompanying an elderly relative of another gender who requires assistance
·      People who have personal care attendants of another gender than themselves
·      People who are very shy and find it difficult to use a public restroom if others are present
·      Anyone seeking additional privacy or security while using a restroom.

Remember, most people—no matter what their gender—simply wish to use the restroom in peace, and leave.

For basic information about gender differences, please also see Made in God’s Image: A Black Church Guide to Gender Differences.

This post was adapted with permission from The Teaching Transgender Toolkit: A Facilitator’s Guide to Increasing Knowledge, Decreasing Prejudice & Building Skills by E.R. Green & L.M. Maurer, published in 2015 by Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes: Out for Health. The full toolkit is available at www.teachingtransgender.com. The lesson in the toolkit,  “Everybody’s Gotta Go: The Importance of Restroom Access,”  is free and available to everyone.


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