The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance — a nondiscrimination law that protected LGBT people as well as others — was repealed late on Tuesday night, largely because of widespread panic that male sexual predators (whom opponents of the law often conflated with trans women) would have uninhibited access to women’s restrooms. LGBT advocates failed to drum up enough voter support for the law, despite there being no credible evidence that trans women are inclined to harass or sexually assault anyone, of any gender, while using the restroom.
There is both anecdotal and criminal evidence, however, that many trans and gender-nonconforming people have been killed — and thousands more harassed and insulted — by people who find out that they’re trans. Sometimes, that harassment happens in restrooms. Without an antidiscrimination law, trans people live with the constant threat of being ejected from public restrooms — or worse.
In New York, where I live, I can be ejected from any women’s restroom by someone who knows about my trans status, and I have no clear legal recourse. But going into the men’s room — my most legally safe option as someone assigned male at birth — would mean not just uncomfortable stares, but fear of harassment or violence in an enclosed space at the hands of people who might identify me as trans.
For many of us, using public restrooms is not only anxiety-inducing, but potentially dangerous. Here are some of our stories:
I'm a 32-year-old trans woman with bladder problems. While laws that aim at removing discrimination from bathrooms for trans people are being struck down, there are many suffering just to find a place to use the restroom in peace.
When I first started transitioning, I saw the horrible video of a trans woman being beaten at a McDonald's for trying to simply go to the bathroom in the city I live in.
Because of that, I learned to do my absolute best to not use the restroom in public (especially alone) for fear of a similar fate befalling me. I have held my bowels so long that I no longer know I need to go until it is an absolute emergency. I have dreams where I'm using the bathroom and wake up to it actually happening, because my fear has resulted in my body not functioning normally.
No person should have to suffer from these medical conditions because of the hatred others have for them. We are more scared of being in the bathroom with cisgender people (and for actual valid reasons backed up by fact) than cisgender people can ever be scared of us.
Johnny Jonte Boucher, schoolteacher
“People born men freely entering women’s bathrooms!” People born men? That evokes some comic dystopia of newborn bogeymen marching menacingly into stalls, since, of course, people are born babies. My wife and I are devastated about the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance being struck down based on fear of trans people, being both trans and genderqueer ourselves. [When] my 4-year-old asked what a man and a woman was, I told him, “Doctors take a look at your body when you’re born and make their best guess at who you’ll be, boys [or] girls. Most of the time they’re right at that first guess, but the rest of the time we have to wait for you to tell us more about who you are.”
What made immediate sense to a preschooler defies the imagination of Houstonians preoccupied with strangers’ genitals — [who are] making women less safe in doing so. Do you know who's bothered me in bathrooms before? It hasn’t been transgender people, and I probably know a few hundred at this point. It’s been typical cis, non-trans dudebros aggressively flirting in the bathroom. Seriously, one dude in nice loafers tried to pass me his number on a Band-Aid, through the stall. Another guy just waited outside the stall door at a bookstore, foot dangling in invitation. I can’t tell you how viscerally unsafe it can feel when a dude makes intense eye contact from the urinal. In some clubs they have to take the stalls off the doors just because the general male behavior is so out of control.
It’s easier to whip people into a frenzy about trans women, though, than it is to look at the faces of the actual trans people who are hurt by the loss of HERO. Imagine being a woman forced in a bathroom with those guys. [Cis men] are the real bogeymen, I think. It’s the folks who would rather see LGBT people in danger in the name of religious freedom. The shocking truth about trans people in “your” bathroom? Here to pee. Even more shocking? We're much more likely to be harassed than to harass. Loss of HERO, case in point.
Rebeka Refuse, sex worker
I’m a trans woman, and my former partner and I became homeless in New York City in 2010. We were living in her van, and it’s tough to find public restrooms in dense cities like New York without being a paying customer, which is impossible when one is in extreme poverty. Living in a car didn’t give me access to facilities like basic self-care — not just peeing but also bathing and grooming — and I wanted to drop in at a center for the city's homeless to take care of myself. I had proper women’s identification, but I did not know how private the restroom facilities would be and was anxious about the possibility of sharing a multiple-stall gender-segregated bathroom. So I just avoided drinking fluids as much as possible and waited until I was able to find temporary shelter from Trans Housing Network to take care of needs like bathing.
I’m lucky not to have experienced harassment in restrooms yet. However — and this is an important point — I avoid using multi-stall public bathrooms now as much as possible because the anxiety and self-consciousness about passing makes me extremely stressed out. While I was homeless, I often was in cities or states with gender identity protections enshrined in law, but the legal situation did not make me feel any more comfortable using gender-segregated bathrooms, even when I did not have any other choice.
Jack Gillard, filmmaker
When I first started transitioning as a trans man my junior year of college, I lived with three women. In typical college fashion, all the bathrooms were gendered. When I finally began to pass, I weirdly stuck out in the ladies' restroom and even more so in the men's. When I had to use the bathroom I sometimes had to walk across campus to find empty restrooms or forgo going to the bathroom altogether.
Even now, over two years later, I feel like every man in the restroom stares at me when I wait for a stall. More often than I care to admit, I'll walk out of the men's room if there are too many men in there. I can’t say that using the men's room scares me, but I will say that I wish something as easy as peeing wasn't so difficult. I wish there were more gender-neutral restrooms. I wish that people didn't feel a claim to porcelain pots based on gender in the way that they do, and, more than anything, I wish any gender is enough.
Zoe Dolan, lawyer and author
I miss two features of living in a male body: running outside shirtless, and being able to pee standing up.
I do not miss male bathrooms, however, in the slightest. As a recovering sex addict, I would grit my teeth to maintain my composure whenever sexual acting out abounded in a public facility. Even the odor of commercial cleaning solution on porcelain triggered memories. Nothing seems so close to any moment in the past as a smell from memory.
The last time I used a men’s bathroom was during my second year of law school. I had been on estrogen for five or six months at that point, so my facial features had softened and I had grown small breasts. A guy was entering as I was leaving: He looked at me, then up at the bathroom sign, then back at me, then up at the sign again — and then he went inside, shaking his head.
After transition but prior to surgery, bathrooms were an exercise in identity: I took care to aim just right so that my pee hitting the water in the toilet bowl would sound like any other woman’s. This reminder of what was wrong with my body was excruciating.
Bathrooms are safer places now that I can pee with the right body. And if I find myself wincing at the toilet seat and wishing I could pee standing up, at least I can inhale a sigh of relief — because unlike men, of course, women shit roses.
Pax Ahimsa Gethen, photographer
It was a warm day in San Francisco. I was at a park, doing volunteer work in food distribution and vegan education. I'd been on testosterone for a full year, and had been using men's restrooms exclusively that whole time, so far without incident. I was still nervous using the men's room in this park, however, as the lock on the single stall was broken.
Regardless, my bladder would not be denied. I headed toward the restroom. As I entered, I heard a man on his way out say to my back, "This is the men's room; the ladies' room is next door." I continued into the stall without turning around and shouted, "I'm not a lady." I heard some mumbling and a hesitant "OK..." as I fumbled with the stall door. I did my business with the door unavoidably cracked open, and got out as fast as possible.
Since my transition, whenever I've been misgendered, I've always reviewed what I was wearing. Was this incident my fault because I wore a light-colored T-shirt, making my breasts more obvious than usual? Do I deserve to be called out because I refuse to wear a binder or get top surgery? How long would it be before my beard filled in – maybe that would allow me more safety?
After I calmed down, I realized the man probably thought he was doing me a favor, but that didn't stop me from shaking. Trans women in this situation have it even worse. We all just need to pee.