You may have heard a thing or two about controversial “anti-transgender bathroom bills” and confusing messages about what it means to be transgender. Although most of the proposed and existing bathroom legislation includes trans men and trans women, I’m going to focus primarily on trans women because we’re the main target of misleading political propaganda and fearmongering tactics. So, what’s all the fuss about transgender bathroom use and how come no one seemed to care until about a year ago? I’ll attempt to explain that and reveal dangerous implications that may affect all women transgender or not.
Transgender women have been using women’s bathrooms since the advent of gender segregated public restrooms. If you’re a cisgender (meaning not-transgender) woman who’s used multi-stall public bathrooms more than a handful of times, chances are you’ve encountered a trans woman also using the facilities, or perhaps just checking her appearance in the mirror, completely unaware she was assigned a different gender at birth. The increased public visibility of transgender people, and slow cultural shift to acceptance in recent years, has been upsetting to a relatively small but significant number of people who are uncomfortable with certain physical differences and wish we (trans folk) would just disappear. It’s more complex than that, but there’s limited space and much to examine. Politicians of this ilk are proposing (and passing) laws that make it illegal for transgender women to use the women’s bathroom.
November, 2015, Houston, Texas: Proposition 1 was a referendum on an anti-discrimination ordinance called the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). The measure would have banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy, genetic information, family, marital, and military status. Although HERO included a diverse array of protections, opponents of Prop 1 focused on the legal protection for transgender women to use women’s public restrooms and swiftly responded with manipulative, negative propaganda campaigns of misinformation. They insisted it opened the door for men to legally enter women’s bathrooms and cause trouble. The slogan, “No men in women’s bathrooms”, appeared on posters and TV ads along with images of a creepy man sneaking up on a young girl in the bathroom.
March, 2016: legislators in North Carolina passed HB2. Similar to Houston’s Prop 1, this mandates people use public bathrooms that coincide with the gender they were assigned at birth. This overturned a Charlotte ordinance that banned discrimination of LGBTQ people and prevented any other local governments from passing their own non-discrimination ordinances. As of writing this, seven more states are proposing bills that also make it illegal for trans women to use women’s bathrooms.
Misleading, manipulative political propaganda helped these laws get passed by playing upon people’s fears. TV ads suggested, “Any man at any time can enter a women’s bathroom simply by claiming to be a woman that day.” Excuse me, but no! That’s not even close to transgender reality. Last month’s column entry offers insight about how self-realization as transgender really works, including terrifying social challenges that kept me in the closet most of my life.
For people who didn’t know what to think one way or another, these shady, fearmongering tactics hit close to home. Who wouldn’t want to protect their kids from disgusting child predators? The thing is, there were already laws in place that make sexual assault a crime. How exactly does banning trans women from using women’s bathrooms prevent creepy men who intend to break the law and cause harm, from doing so?
On the flip side, some states have laws protecting the rights of transgender people, including the right to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. This started in 1993 with Minnesota and now includes California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia. Additionally, more than 200 cities and counties (including Rochester, NY) have banned discrimination based on gender identity.
With transgender protections on the books for so many years, law enforcement does indeed have data to offer on the number of trans women arrested for misconduct in women’s bathrooms and locker rooms. In fact, there have been exactly ZERO arrests. Not a single trans woman has been arrested for sexual misconduct in women’s bathrooms or locker rooms in the United States. Conversely, trans women are the ones being targeted, falling victim to harassment and assault.
Statistically, only 1 out of every 200 people is transgender. So, when there’s a trans woman in the bathroom, she’s going to be outnumbered by cisgender women (women who are not trans). According to a 2013 Williams Institute study conducted in Washington, DC, 70% of transgender people have reported being denied entrance, assaulted or harassed while trying to use the bathroom. This is in spite of the fact that DC’s enforcement regulations contain “the strongest language in the country in regard to gender-segregated public facilities” to protect trans people from these very problems.
If transgender women do not pose a threat to cisgender women or girls, and there has never been evidence that suggests otherwise, then why are some politicians trying so hard to “protect” their localities from a problem that does not exist? What purpose is served by inciting fear, raising anxiety, creating drama and causing even more hardship for a segment of the population that is already marginalized, frequently disparaged and discriminated against?
The short answer to that question is political muckery (replace the m with an f). Irresponsible politicians are playing politics and attempting to push destructive, community-dividing agendas (masquerading as “protection”) regardless of the lives it ruins along the way. There are numerous things to unpack here – too many to feasibly cover in this article. We’ll focus on just a few key aspects.
The first is an old trick and political sleight of hand. It involves inventing an enemy to “protect” people from. The perception of danger created by manipulative campaigns of misinformation, can influence people to come together, united against a “common threat”. It’s an atrocious way of “community building” that excludes the “undesirables”. It can be quite effective and result in mobs of angry people filled with fear, all riled up and thirsty for blood. Here’s one of countless examples of such:
April, 2016, Tracy Murphree, while running for Denton County, Texas, sheriff, posted on Facebook, “All I can say is this: If my little girl is in a public women’s restroom and a man, regardless of how he may identify, goes into the bathroom, he will then identify as a John Doe until he wakes up in whatever hospital he may be taken to…” The Facebook post received over 500 likes the day it was posted, and more than 100 comments expressing agreement. Murphree has since been elected sheriff.
Anti-trans propaganda almost always refers to trans women incorrectly as “men”. It’s a known psychological fact that a repeated lie creates the illusion of “truth”, and anti-trans propaganda was (and still is) in heavy circulation, depending on region. Repeating a lie is a potent ingredient in any recipe for manipulation. Even after public circulation of deceptive propaganda has been discontinued, public perception remains and people continue repeating the lies to one another and teaching it to the next generation as “common knowledge”. This helps ensure continuation of the fear-culture necessary to maintain social control and rally the troops against the undesirables again as needed.
When it works, the political tactic of inventing a phantom enemy that people need to be “protected” from results in an easy win and elevation of power and status for the parties behind it. In this case, they can claim, “Since we’ve passed law to protect our wives and daughters by making it illegal for trans women to use the women’s bathroom, there have been no related cases of misconduct by trans women.” Of course, there haven’t. There weren’t any such problems before these laws were even a consideration. Brilliant.
Another key aspect is political retaliation. Although some states had already passed marriage equality laws (legalizing same-sex marriage), in June of 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of extending marriage equality rights nationwide. This was seen as a significant loss by factions within the Republican party. Demonizing and inciting fear of transgender people under the guise of “protecting women and children” offered an avenue for retaliation and an opportunity to return things back to the “good old days” when discrimination against perceived undesirables was legally enforceable.
The third key aspect is that these laws help to enforce rigid, old school social rules about gender, gender expression and gender roles through the law. On the surface, this may sound almost harmless if you’re a cisgender woman… or maybe not so harmless. What could possibly go wrong for women and children who are not transgender as a result of anti-trans legislation and misleading propaganda that specifically targets and demonizes trans women?
Since passing these laws there have been several reports of cisgender women being harassed for using women’s bathrooms. Some of these women have been brutally beaten. The deceptive propaganda comparing trans women to “creepy men” has resulted in a heightened state of fear, causing what amounts to a modern-day witch hunt. Cisgender women with short hair, no makeup and otherwise deemed to be lacking a sufficiently feminine appearance, are getting accused of being transgender by other women and security guards at shopping centers, restaurants, concert halls, and other business establishments.
So, when using the women’s bathroom, it’s not enough to be a cisgender woman – it is also necessary to have a more traditional and idealistic appearance of a “feminine woman”. Either that, or risk an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous confrontation. These confrontations aren’t just happening in North Carolina or Houston, nor are they restricted to southern states.
Centuries ago, when situations arose that could not be explained because scientific and medical knowledge was lacking, scapegoats were sought out to help ease the fear of the masses and explain the unexplainable. A common method was to blame the demonic powers of witches – women who had made a pact with evil spirits. There was a lot of hysteria about witches and witchcraft. Estimates range in the tens of thousands of European women who were executed over the years for being witches or practicing witchcraft.
The people of the time probably weren’t a bunch of crazies just looking for an excuse to have another witch-burning. They were generally sensible people doing their best, given the knowledge of the time (or lack thereof), trying to survive, raise families, etc.
Today we have instant access to a wealth of knowledge. Despite the existence of misinformation, scientific studies, well documented research and reputable sources are plentiful and can be identified with a little extra effort. People in positions of power and influence should know better than using fearmongering tactics, picking on minorities, and intentionally spreading manipulative, false information. Unfortunately, the ones using these tactics do so because they’re effective.
Tracy Murphree, the Denton County sheriff who threatened physical violence toward trans women on Facebook, later apologized for his comments. I don’t know the man, but I’d like to think he’s a well-meaning person who ran for sheriff to protect and serve his community. Do you think maybe it’s possible his rage and online threats were fueled by propaganda crafted to get people all fired up with fearmongering that equated trans women to creepy, predatory men? Is it possible it’s causing the increase in violence against transgender women (in general, not just around the bathroom)? How about the harassment and attack of cisgender women who don’t look “feminine” enough to be in the women’s bathroom?
Dividing communities causes drama, friction, pain, suffering and wastes resources that might have been allocated in ways that provided greater collective prosperity rather than disparity. Living in fear and mistrust diminishes one’s sense of peace and happiness. It causes anxiety, increases stress and can lead to poor health and a shorter life expectancy. Those who are actively discriminated against are at greater risk of depression and more likely to underperform at work. People who lose their employment because of discrimination won’t be contributing to the local economy, paying taxes or otherwise adding to the success of their communities.
Responsible leaders find ways to build inclusive, supportive communities. They bring people together. They understand that the success of a community depends on everyone in it having fair opportunities to be successful themselves and contribute. Good leaders take the initiative to educate themselves about issues they don’t understand. Good leaders don’t put belief or dogma above learning, growth opportunities and mutually empowering cultural evolution. Good leaders inspire and create more leaders.
Question the motives of influential people who use fear and divide communities rather than bring them together. By this, I don’t mean bringing some people together in their fear and hatred of others, I mean finding ways to bring everyone in a community together. I’m not suggesting it’s an easy thing to do, but rather a very important thing to figure out, and worth the effort. It’s something everyone can benefit from.
Is it smart to follow people who incite fear and paranoia? We are divine human beings capable of becoming leaders of our own lives and discovering the many gifts in diversity. It can feel scary at first, especially if we’ve been raised to believe certain differences are taboo, wrong, bad or undesirable. Differences don’t have to be scary, though. Knowledge is power. We can empower ourselves by looking at differences as opportunities to learn about things we don’t understand, replace fear with fact and strengthen our humanity.
Even in a factually educated society, dangerous people will still seek opportunities to do terrible things. However, we will be smarter and focused on finding ways to minimize real threats rather than increasing the odds of troublemakers slipping through the cracks while everyone is distracted by the illusion of false enemies.
There’s going to be bumps in the road ahead. Sometimes people don’t want to believe they’ve been misled by elected political officials they’ve looked up to for years. People don’t want to think of their political party, for which belonging to has become an integral part of their identity, may have some bad actors moving things in unhealthy and destructive directions. People don’t want to believe they’ve been conned by those they respect and admire. This can cause cognitive dissonance, an extraordinarily uncomfortable feeling that most people will avoid at any cost, including choosing to believe a lie and aggressively defending their belief in such.
Anti-transgender bathroom bills have never been about bathroom safety. It’s just another devious tool used to restrict and control who people are allowed to be, and about making life painful for anyone who differs from the desired ideals of conformity as spelled out by a certain faction of the ruling elite. Whatever your opinions, I hope you’ll take the initiative to educate and empower yourself, acknowledge your greatness, inspire others, and find ways to build strong, collaborative, inclusive, supportive communities. We’re all in this world together, so let’s find ways work, learn, grow and thrive together. All boats are lifted by a rising tide. Humanity wins. And I’m all about the H… Humanity.