By Kerry Eleveld / Daily Kos
Last week’s defeat of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which would have provided nondiscrimination protections to people based on 15 different characteristics , seems to have come down to one question: Where will people pee?
The anti-equality crowd hitched their star to one deceptively simple slogan that won the day: “no men in women’s bathrooms.” It’s a conversation involving which restrooms queer and transgender Americans are allowed to use that establishment gays seem to shrink from like Kryptonite, which frankly makes it the perfect topic to delve into.
Truth be told, I too am a bit hesitant to take it on because I’m not transgender, so I don’t pretend to speak for the trans community in any way other than to shed some light on the bathroom conversation. But based on my personal experience as a self-identified woman who has short hair and dresses in rather boxy or otherwise “boyish” clothing, my sense is that people’s obsession with who uses which bathroom has little to do with people’s genders but rather whether someone challenges their idea of what people should look like.
I, for example, supposedly have all the right plumbing to be considered a woman by other people. I say “supposedly” because I’m not suggesting that plumbing alone is the sole characteristic that makes someone male or female. But for the purposes of this piece, I’m trying to work within the bounds of conventional wisdom because that’s apparently the deciding factor of which bathroom I should relieve myself in.
In any case, I was born this way, I identify as a woman, so using a women’s bathroom shouldn’t be a problem, right? Wrong. If I had a nickel for every rude or awkward stare I’ve gotten, I could’ve started investing in the stock market long ago and would be writing a column about early retirement right now.
Instead, here I am. Using public restrooms is almost always a moment in which I brace myself for something unexpected. Like the time I was in a rush to use a restroom before getting to my next destination and followed another woman into the bathroom at a healthy pace. She abruptly turned around, put her fists up in my face, and barked, “If you touch me I’ll scream bloody murder!” I instinctively responded, “But I’m a girl, I’m a girl!” She stared at me in shock, uttering, “Yes, yes, you are,” then dropped her fists and apologized profusely.
In fact, the pitch of my voice usually serves as a helpful clue for people. So I often try to talk to my partner or a friend or even simply clear my throat as I enter a bathroom in order to save myself and others from an awkward moment.
I’m not relaying this for a round of sympathy. What I am suggesting, based on personal experience, is that people are at least as concerned with your appearance when you enter a bathroom as they are with your genitalia. In fact, since we don’t strip down before we go into a bathroom in order to gain entry—and I’m certainly not suggesting we should—I tend to think people’s fears or aversions have far more to do with someone simply not fitting into an easily identifiable gender stereotype. Their actual gender often seems to be a secondary consideration.
None of this is to suggest that I have a solution to the problem posed by the anti-LGBT activists in Houston and elsewhere. They clearly don’t want anyone using the bathroom who doesn’t absolutely conform to their standards of appearance. But here’s the basic fact we’re contending with: We all have to go to the bathroom somewhere.
The bigots pretend that if everyone just stuck with using the bathroom that correlates to their gender at birth, everyone would be fine. That’s nonsense. I am barely more welcome in a women’s bathroom than I would be if I were a man.
The bigots also pretend that the only thing they are worried about is men who might prey on women or little girls. Pinning that concern on who can enter which bathroom is ridiculous. Predators are predators. They will use any opening they can get to prey on the vulnerable. If that means entering a bathroom when no one else is around, they’ll do it regardless of an equal rights ordinance. But the fact is that 82 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim—not a stranger. Women are at much greater risk of being the victim of a sexual assault on a date than they are in a bathroom, regardless of who is in there with them.
I’m not claiming that I know what it’s like to be transgender or that I experience a similar level of discrimination, as I’m quite certain that I don’t. What I am doing is calling B.S. on the idea that rejecting an equal rights ordinance was somehow about protecting women from men, when it was clearly about using societal bias to play on people’s unfounded fears. We are all invested in protecting women and especially little girls, in addition to any person who might be at risk for predation.
The bathroom issue isn’t about transgender people. It’s about people not liking the way someone looks or who they are and punishing them for that. If that were not the case, then someone like me would never think twice before entering a public restroom.