May 17, 2016

Preachable Moment: Someone's ability to "pass" shouldn't define where they use the restroom

A lot of well-meaning people are pushing back against transdiscriminatory bathroom laws, and I think that's great. I'm one of them. I'm sure we're all making mistakes, and I hope that those we are allying with feel comfortable pointing them out when we do.

Recently, there's been a trend of sharing selfies taken by trans individuals in an effort to show the ridiculousness of these legislative monstrosities, but as much as I've appreciated and even shared them, I think we're kind of missing the point. Not the individuals taking and presenting the pictures, mind--they're sharing their truth and they should--but in how we as allied are framing the conversation around this media.

To box it up before I unpack it: Someone's ability to pass should never define where they can use the restroom, and we as allies are making a huge misstep when we create an environment that seems like it should.


There are some arguments that you have to make. A few years ago, I blogged about the importance of talking about the economic impacts of marriage discrimination. Yes, the idea, the values, the principles, they transcend the economics, but the truth is, people only care when it impacts them. We are a myopic species, and we will nearly always put our own desires first.

The argument around trans rights is no different. The ability to use the bathroom in a comfortable way is a basic facet of our society, something those of us who never have to worry about it don't even think about. Currently, this huge ideological debate is being boiled down into: "You're trying to put men in the women's restroom...no, you're trying to put men in the women's restroom..." It's a volley back and forth as to who is forcing whom to use what.

And it's not entirely helpful. For a variety of reasons, there are many nonbinary or trans individuals who can't pass. There are many that don't want to, and that choice is also their right.

I was recently considering this as a friend of mine shared how HB2 impacted her. I won't share many details, because I don't want to identify her, but while in North Carolina, she had to reconsider her usual mode of operation (using the men's room) because she's not a traditionally gender conforming individual. While it wasn't a legal issue--no one hassled her--it caused her unnecessary stress to have to put so much thought into where she would use the restroom. And that's unacceptable to me.

A recent Buzzfeed piece written by Meredeth Talusanmade the point that people who can "pass" aren't those most impacted by these laws:

The reality is that anti-trans bathroom laws cannot be adequately captured by our presence in any bathroom — rather, it can be captured most fully by our absence. The biggest impact of the law is not on cis-passing trans men or women, but on non-passing trans people, especially women of color; gender-nonconforming people who feel uncomfortable in either bathroom; and other trans people who avoid using public restrooms entirely. When these selfies showing hyper-feminine or hyper-masculine gender presentations float to the top of social media timelines as they go viral, the images present narratives that have little bearing on the lives of trans people who are most affected. At best, bathroom selfies by cis-passing trans people open up discussion about the pitfalls of anti-trans bathroom legislation. But at worst, they perpetuate the myth that the issue of trans bathroom use can be solved by simply allowing only the people who “look” like the right gender to safely use the bathroom of their choice.

It's inarguable. We're consistently making the argument that there's no way to verify, short of checking someone's genitalia or birth certificate, what their biological sex or sex at birth even is. This means that individuals who can "pass" are going to be able to continue using their bathroom of choice. No one is going to stop them. No one is going to double check. No one is going to give them a second glance.

It's those individuals who can't pass that are going to have trouble, and they need support too.

Ashe Mcgovern, writing for the Advocate, points out what a tenuous position these individuals are in, even compared to other members of the LGBTQ community:

According to a report published by the LGBTQ Policy Journal at the Harvard Kennedy School, nonbinary or genderqueer people in particular experience higher rates of some types of violence and discrimination than even their binary (male- or female-identified) transgender peers, who already face appallingly high rates of violence and discrimination, whether in schools, at home, at work, at the hands of law enforcement, or, yes, in bathrooms.
Mcgovern points out several problems with this technique, including this one:

These tactics do not say: All gender policing is wrong, and trans people feel unsafe in bathrooms because of it. Instead, they say: Gender policing that results in some of us being in the “wrong” bathroom is problematic. They fail to see that for many of us, all bathrooms that require us to claim a binary gender identity upon entrance are inherently the “wrong” bathrooms. They miss an opportunity to explain that the bathroom is only one of many sites where this dangerous, unnecessary policing takes place. Ironically, this tactic also ignores the fact that trans men and masculine-presenting trans people also face violence in bathrooms — and are not just potential predators. 

I searched and searched, but could not find a recent article that I read which talked about the real consequence of these bills: they erase trans people from our society. If any of the following reasoning sounds familiar and you can point me to the source, please do, as I'd love to credit.

If you have to consider every move in light of where you will use the bathroom, how do you leave your house? How do you go to work or school? How do you participate in politics? How do you do ANYTHING AT ALL? You're effectively socially quarantined.

We've seen time and again that social conservatism rebrands itself as it loses battles in the culture wars. Once upon a time, they were on the wrong side of segregation and integration, and they lost. Then the emphasis on human sexuality born in the middle of the twentieth century gave them two pivot points, two new evils to focus on: gay rights and abortion. While the two had been legally sanctioned long before, it was during this time that organized opposition crept up. It focused social conservatism.

On one of those battlefields--abortion--the fight continues, but on the other, we're on the side of wrapping it up. While that entails constant vigilance, we're essentially negotiating the treaty now. Once you have marriage equality, it's time to push and remind people that you also shouldn't discriminate in providing services, housing, employment, or any other area.

And they (social conservatives) know how this fight is going to go for them. They're going to lose. We're not going to back down, and the terms of the treaty are ours, and they are clear: Unabridged access and protection from discrimination.

The time, then, has come for another pivot, and now, suddenly, we're beset by legislation aimed at trans individuals.

We can't allow this pivot. We can't allow social conservatives to set the tone of the conversation. We must continue to reiterate that bathrooms are no more dangerous for cis-citizens than they have ever been, and they are considerably safer for trans-citizens when we allow people to use the bathroom that they identify with. The net benefit is good.

I could go through and list every argument and counter-argument, but I'm not. I don't have the answers, and I'm not the person that should give them. We (allies) should be listening and broadcasting the message that the trans community needs.

And that, my friends, can't be summed up in a meme, no matter how right it is.

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