Recently, I watched a TEDx talk by Panti Bliss (AKA Rory O’Neill) that I deeply related to (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIhsv18lrqY). Panti talked about the difficulties that gay people faced in public and that a simple gesture such as holding hands with a partner outside of his home was something that he was unable to do without fear and second guessing himself. Accessing public space is not a given for him or other LGBTQ people… it’s a constant risk assessment. For Panti, it invoked feelings of (rational) fear, jealously, and anger at being denied a basic part of being human.
I relate to Panti because I also find a human right dangerous for myself to exercise.
For most people, using a bathroom comes as second nature. Little conscious thought goes into picking one beyond reputation for cleanliness and convenience. This was my experience, at least, until I came to terms with the fact that I am a trans woman. After that revelation, bathrooms and an array of other public spaces took on entirely other connotations for myself.
A space is not simply defined by its physical nature. It is also a product of time, zeitgeist, personal experience, and identity. Panti’s TEDx talk highlights this perfectly: for sexual minorities public spaces have vastly different connotations and levels of danger/exclusion. This is true for racial minorities (as well as other minorities) too. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, has helped bring to light that people of color do not enjoy the same freedom of movement as other groups. Areas must be avoided, clothing altered, and culture masked every day in order to navigate through the public sphere. A “transgression” can result in harassment or death. This situation has not been ameliorated by the election of Donald Trump. On the contrary, Trump’s election led to a spike in hate crimes directed towards religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities. White nationalism and alternative conservatism have also been empowered by his stances. This has been clearly illustrated by the evil manifested in Charlottesville.
Institutional endorsement of discrimination condones bigoted acts by private individuals while destroying the self worth of those marginalized. It sends a powerful message, that should not be underestimated, by helping normalize hate and ignorance. Recently, transgender bathroom and employment rights have come under fire again by Texan politicians and the Trump administration… putting trans persons in both the limelight of social discourse and cross-hairs. As an American trans woman, I hope to give both academic and personal insights into why this issue is so vital.
If you were to ask me if I access a female assigned bathroom… I used to respond with “it’s complicated.” Although I currently study in Europe (which is not universally progressive), the American debate of trans rights has affected me deeply and continues to impact how I perceive this space. Facets of American culture (Exhibit A: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PIvCh3EQv1Q) and political attack ads (Exhibit B: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYpko86x6GU ) have caused me to view myself as an intruder or deviant. I was faced with constant fear that I will be branded a sex offender or screamed at. There is a sad irony to this. On a personal level, because I volunteer for sexual violence recovery organizations and value consent in every part of my life. On an institutional level, because Trinity College Dublin and my colleagues have been very supporting. Nevertheless, bathrooms remain a source of fear and discomfort for me:
Will someone call the police or security on me?
Will I be physically harmed?
Will I cause another person to feel uncomfortable?
Do I appear female enough to enter this bathroom?
So how does this fear manifest physically? How do I access public spaces? If I am presenting as a female, I used to and still plan my day around bathroom access and safety. I’ve made note of facilities and establishments with unisex and single occupant bathrooms available. I would avoid most forms of nightlife, side-streets, and loitering (if I linger for too long at one location I face unwanted solicitation for prostitution). When I do participate in nightlife, the range of places that I can safely access is limited. Even within this narrow window, I would always be cautious of my makeup and clothing holding up unless it’s a LGBTQ establishment. As a result, I would waste hours of productivity, my mental health was impacted, and businesses that deserve my money are avoided. I would often isolate myself at home rather than confront the stresses of… just being me. Imagine just walking home and a man pulling over with his car asking you how much your “services” are?
I am still new to being an open trans woman, and as time passes I find myself becoming more confident and open. In the preceding text, I used the past tense because I am evolving. One of my turning points was when I discussed my journey with a friend from South Africa. As a man of colour, he could also relate to me about issues of accessing space in the shadow of apartheid and being treated differently as a student in Europe. He also left me with a piece of advice: “Be militant.”
Social injustices and destructive social norms are not broken down by complacency… these barriers are sundered by resisting, ignoring, and actively taking the offensive against them. The boundaries in my life, those I self-impose and find imposed on myself, are breaking down because I am actively re-evaluating how I view them. Rather than view them as obstacles, I have come to see them as opportunities to challenge the status quo and make the future easier for trans people that come after me. I am sorry if using a female assigned bathroom makes some people feel uncomfortable, but how inane is it for me to use a men’s bathroom when I have on a dress, half a pound of makeup, and a two foot long wig?
Although life as a trans person is stressful at times, it is who I am… and coming to terms with my inner self has brought me great joy. There is no going back. I am who I am, and there is no changing the truth… the nature of things. I am a human being. I shall be.
I am writing this post not to invoke pity. I am an empowered and successful person… I do not need pity. I am writing this text to illustrate the difficulties that trans people face every day. We already face a high suicide and murder rate… on top of a myriad of other social issues. What will taking away our employment and bathroom rights do beyond compounding these issues and forcing us into the closet? Nothing beyond furthering the political careers of demagogues that have little substance to offer their constituents. As I have discussed in my personal experience, even if this political posturing is not acted on, the mere discussion of and discourse around it is harmful and inspires those that would do us harm. The public space is already needlessly dangerous and stressful for us. Bathroom bills will take trans lives… they will not prevent sexual deviance (there are no cases of transgender people using their identities to commit sexual crimes).
Space is subjective, but the indomitable will of trans people is not. Trans people will tip “the transgender tipping point” in their favour. We are willing to fight, sacrifice, and lay down our lives for our right to be normalized. Are the politicians and those who advocates against us willing to do the same? Are they willing to be remembered for being on the wrong side of history (something that must eventually acknowledge)? I think not, and for that I wish them luck… because they are outmatched by trans people and their allies… and without righteousness on their side.