If you’ve not yet heard, discourse surrounding trans equality has been reduced to arguing about whether or not men should have access to the women’s restroom. Trans equality measures have been dubbed “bathroom bills” by radical right propaganda mills and the media has, of course, picked up their meme. Here are some quotes:
+ “Bathroom Bill Sparks Transgender Rights Debate in AZ” - SouthFloridaGayNews.com
+ “Arizona Transgender Bathroom Bill OK’d by State House Panel” - Huffington Post
+ “Arizona considers anti-transgender bathroom bill” - Telegraph.co.uk
+ “Critics denounce Bill C-279 as “The Bathroom Bill,” claiming it will allow “sexual predators” to commit “violent and sexual attacks” in public washrooms.” – Toronto Star
+ ”A resolution offered by Penta referred to the law officially titled An Act Relative to Gender Identity, which was passed by the state Legislature in 2011 and took effect last July, as the “Massachusetts Stealth Bathroom Bill.”"– Boston Globe
The RadRight has enjoyed a long and successful history of standing in the way of equality through deploying what I call the Bathroom Meme. Whether it was standing in the way of desegregation, the Equal Rights Amendment or Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the RadRight always deploys this particular meme.
The above story is worth a read. It’s a glimpse into the very playbook the RadRight is currently using against trans equality. (NOTE: When this article uses the term “integrate,” it is talking about allowing men access to the women’s restrooms under the cover of an equality law.)
Here’s just a few quotes:
“Listening to the opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment, you would think it was designed to… integrate public toilets, legalize rape, outlaw heterosexual marriage… Law professor Paul Freund objected in 1973 to being ‘quoted erroneously and out of context by certain opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment’ and commented flatly, ‘I have not staled, and I do not believe, that the Amendment would require the sharing of restroom and prison cells by both sexes.’ Yet in 1975 a huge anti-ERA advertisement in Baton Rouge papers credited him with the allegation that the ERA would integrate bathrooms. “ - Ruston Daily Leader, Thursday, June 16, 1977
This 40 year old newspaper article succinctly exposes the reason the RadRight injects the Bathroom Meme into public discourse:
“The hubbub over the implementation of the Amendment is designed to elicit a knee-jerk reaction…”
Remember this because I’ll revisit the notion of a “knee-jerk reaction” a bit later. Contrast the RadRight’s 40 year old rhetorical MO to the way they frame trans equality today:
Even if you weren’t around back in the 1970s, the RadRight’s arguments should sound familiar to you because they used it against repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell:
“Most concerns we heard about showers and bathrooms were based on stereotype— that gay men and lesbians will behave as predators in these situations, or that permitting homosexual and heterosexual people of the same sex to shower together is tantamount to allowing men and women to shower together.” - Pentagon’s report on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, page 13
It’s worth noting that the Pentagon’s report goes on to pick apart the various arguments from tradition (page 94) that so frequently accompanies the Bathroom Meme. Consider the way this fallacy accompanied the Bathroom Meme when the RadRight rolled it out against racial equality half a century ago:
“Angry white CIO steelworkers today sought a national union order ending racial segregation on union property… CIO officials several days ago issued instructions to all local unions to do away with separate toilet, fountain and locker room facilities for whites and negroes. Some… told him they would not stand for “Southern traditions being torn down.” - The Tuscaloosa News – May 26, 1950
While we’re talking about the Restroom Meme and racial inequality, nowadays the RadRight is quick to assert that gender equality and civil rights are completely different issues. However, the historical reality is that the Bathroom Meme was deployed in support of both race and gender inequality:
“If they can integrate restrooms on the basis of race, why not on the basis of sex?”
For a more in-depth review of the way the Bathroom Meme was used against equality, check out Justice and Gender: Sex Discrimination and the Law.
What are the forces of anti-equality hoping to communicate with their propaganda? Are they claiming that because a rapist puts on a snappy wig they might get away with it due to equality laws? Are they suggesting that equality protections somehow condones abhorrent behaviors like rape? Well, yes… that’s the basic argument anti-equality forces are making.
They hope that the revulsion you naturally feel about sexual violence will shut down your critical thinking abilities. Their rhetoric is specifically designed to elicit a knee-jerk reaction in you. They hope that instead of thinking of rapists as being the threat, you’ll instead see trans people (or gay people) as being the threat. Because, if they can get you to do that, the process of vilification and dehumanization will begin and trans people as a whole will naturally seem like a group who should be treated with suspicion. If they can get you to do this mental gymnastic, there will never be any need for them to produce objective evidence which explains exactly how equality laws nullify existing laws prohibiting rape, assault, stalking and/or public indecency/disturbance. No, with the anti-equality blinders on, the risk trans people pose will seem self-evident just as being gay was a risk that seemed self-evident at one time.
(Note the way homosexuality is framed in this news piece. How similar does this propaganda sound to the way trans issues are framed by the RadRight today?)
When dealing with those who are appealing to the Bathroom Meme, I respond by simply asking, “In what way does gender equality nullify laws prohibiting rape, assault, stalking and/or public indecency/disturbance?” They never seem to have a reasoned response. While they’ll rhetorically tap dance all over the place, the one thing they’re never able to do is explain precisely how gender equality nullifies laws prohibiting rape, assault, stalking and/or public indecency/disturbance. When pressed, they’ll even resort to lying:
“Since Montgomery County passed a similar bill, there have been 4 rapes by men, dressing as women lying in wait for their victims in ladies rooms.”
Really? Four rapes you say? Well, let’s see what law enforcement has to say about that testable assertion of fact:
“Since this law has been in effect, we have had no reported rapes committed in restrooms by men dressed as women.”
They are even willing to exploit the very real trauma of rape and twist it to their own sick purpose in the hope that they will dupe you into doing the same:
What kind of mind gladly takes up the bloody mantle of this type of intellectual hucksterism? The poor woman in this RadRight call-to-action was raped by a cisgender man and not a transwoman. The mere fact that I — a transwoman who’s dealt with being raped by a cisman — had to point this out was repugnant.
The idea the various anti-equality forces seek to set loose within your mind is always the same: separatist bigotry. The forces of anti-equality are all too happy to pick up the very same rhetorical tools that everyone from those who would seek to bar Muslims from holding office to the likes of Dr. Ruth Jacobs would use in their anti-equality efforts and it’s as perverse as it is sickening. Whether it’s a racist separatist, a homophobic separatist or a transphobic separatist, they all trade in the same rhetorical mind games. They all seek to vilify an entire group to specifically encourage you to view that group with intuitive suspicion. Separatists (whatever their flavor) have the blood of very real suffering on their hands.
Bigots will tell you all about how some white people don’t like being in the same space as black people, that some Christians don’t like being in the same space as Muslims or how some ciswomen don’t like being in the same space as transwomen. They’ll tell you that their discomfort is really, really important. In fact, they’ll look you in the eye and tell you that their discomfort is more important than your access to the 14th amendment. But that’s not how things as supposed to work here in America, is it?
Yes, a heterosexual soldier might feel uncomfortable in the same locker room as a homosexual soldier, but that’s tough shit. The soldier who views homosexuals as a whole with a wary eye has the problem, not the homosexual soldier. If a gay person behaves inappropriately after lifting DADT, then the law will deal with their bad behavior instead of reinstating DADT… no matter how much various anti-queer hate groups tie themselves into knots.
Yes, a white racist might feel uncomfortable in the locker room with a person of color, but that’s tough shit… right? We don’t segregate people by race because some white people have bigoted ideas which cause them to feel uncomfortable. No, the white bigot has the issue and they need to just fucking deal with it. If a black person behaves inappropriately after the victories of the civil rights movement, then the law will deal with their behavior instead of repealing the civil rights act… no matter how much the Klan ties themselves into knots.
If a ciswoman feels uncomfortable knowing that a transwoman might use the same restroom, then likewise, it’s tough shit. A ciswoman’s right to believe the Bathroom Meme does not trump the rights of transwomen as a whole. No, the nation shouldn’t set up a system of cis/trans segregation because some ciswomen choose to hold bigoted views which make them feel uncomfortable. If a transperson behaves inappropriately, then the law will deal with their bad behavior instead of repealing all gender equality laws… no matter how much the RadRight might tie themselves into knots.
The disgusting, fatuous and contemptible ideology embedded in the Bathroom Meme is a bigot’s favorite tool. Before you can hate, you must first learn how to vilify and dehumanize your target, so segregation can seem reasonable. The Bathroom Meme is a poison chalice wrapped in tradition and obtuse hubris; it’s an invitation to have you become the co-architect of a system which the American Psychiatric Association describes thusly:
“Discrimination and lack of equal civil rights is damaging to the mental health of transgender and gender variant individuals. For example, gender-based discrimination and victimization were found to be independently associated with attempted suicide in a population of transgender individuals, 32% of whom had histories of trying to kill themselves, and in the largest survey to date of gender variant and transgender people 41% reported attempting suicide.”
Now, let’s step away from the memes and examine the reality for trans folk who are trying to navigate the bias the RadRight is all too happy to both create and inflame:
“I have spent so many hours avoiding public multi-stall bathrooms that I have damaged my bladder and put pressure on my kidneys. The problem was a daily one. I’d think about where I was going what bathrooms I’d have access to, how much I drank during the day, whether I’d be with people who could help stand guard…” – Response to a 2002 survey conducted by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission which found that nearly 50% of transgender respondents reported harassment or assault in a public bathroom.
“We live under the constant threat of horrifying violence. We have to worry about what bathroom to use when our bladders are aching. We are forced to consider whether we’ll be dragged out of a bathroom and arrested or face a fist fight while our bladders are still aching. It’s an everyday reality for us. Human beings must use toilets… If I go into the women’s bathroom, am I prepared for the shouting and shaming? Will someone call security or the cops? If I use the men’s room, am I willing to fight my way out? Am I really ready for the violence that could ensue?” - Leslie Feinberg, Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue, p 68 – 69
”Police officers often harass or abuse transgender and gender nonconforming people regardless of which sex-segregated bathroom they use. This harassment intensifies when coupled with the stereotyping of trans people as sexual predators. As such, the use of the ‘wrong’ bathroom . . . often results in arrests for crimes such as public lewdness, public obscenity, or public indecency. Refusing to comply with or simply questioning a police officer’s direction as to which bathroom the individual must use can often lead to charges such as resisting arrest or disorderly conduct.” – Pooja Gehi, Struggles from the Margins: Anti-Immigrant Legislation and the Impact on Low-Income Transgender People of Color, 30 WOMEN’S RTS. L. REP. 315, 326 (2009)
And it doesn’t stop with bathrooms. This level of stigma and violence is something trans folk must consider when buying clothes, too. Here’s what State Rep. Richard Floyd (R) said he’d do to a trans person if they dared to buy clothes like anyone else might:
“I believe if I was standing at a dressing room and my wife or one of my daughters was in the dressing room and a man tried to go in there — I don’t care if he thinks he’s a woman and tries on clothes with them in there — I’d just try to stomp a mudhole in him and then stomp him dry.”
To be graphically explicit about the reality trans folk face, consider this incident from Boston:
And isn’t it just awesome how transwomen are arrested for emptying their bladder? Consider this incident from Houston:
When we talk about the things Rosanne Barr said, we need to clearly address the underlying bigotry. We need to be clear when the RadRight deploys the Bathroom Meme and we need to fearlessly identify the bigot’s game when it’s being played. There is a real difference between a transwomen going into a private area to change, pee, etc. and some abuser of any flavor (cis or trans) walking into a room to parade their genitalia around. If a cisgender woman goes into the locker room and exposes herself to everyone, then there are laws to deal with her behavior. Claiming that those laws somehow magically evaporate if the person is trans instead of cis is a bigoted lie and those who propagate that lie should be called out at every turn.
About the author: Cristan Williams is a trans historian and pioneer in addressing the practical needs of the transgender community. She started the first trans homeless shelter and co-founded the first federally funded trans-only homeless program, pioneered affordable health care for trans people in the Houston area, won the right for trans people to change their gender on Texas ID prior to surgery, started numerous trans social service programs and founded the Transgender Center as well as the Transgender Archives. Cristan chairs the City of Houston HIV Prevention Planning Group, serves on the Board of Directors for the Bee Busy Wellness Center, is the jurisdictional representative to the Urban Coalition for HIV/AIDS Prevention Services (UCHAPS), serves on the national steering body for UCHAPS and is the Executive Director of the Transgender Foundation of America.
Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.