In the wake of North Carolina’s HB2 bill, which bars transgender people from entering government-run restrooms that correspond with our self-determined gender, many trans folks have been fighting back against the policing of our basic bodily functions. One method of protest that’s being used to great effect lately: taking selfies. Often posing in public restrooms that correspond with their assigned gender, trans people are attempting to poke holes in the logic that spurred HB2 (and other similar bills across the country). One man, James Sheffield, posted a tweet that became the template for this strategy, though the tactic has been employed before and since. The shock factor of seeing a hyper-masculine man being legally compelled to use the women’s restroom has opened many cis people’s eyes to the absurdity of the law. And just last week, a new type of viral image emerged when transgender advocate Sarah McBride posted an Instagram selfie in the women’s room of a North Carolina government building, which took off on Facebook.
But for all the warranted attention these selfies are bringing to the plight of trans people in North Carolina, is it all the right kind of attention? Many of these posts were met with encouragement and approval from both trans people and cisgender allies, though there were a number of articles that noted how, in particular, images of cis-passing trans men in women’s rooms stoke the fears of cis men who don’t want men sharing restrooms with their wives and daughters — strikingly similar to the paternalistic fear mongering that’s perpetuated the bathroom predator myth to begin with.
Meanwhile, a selfie like McBride’s – showing a conventionally attractive white woman who is not visually identifiable as trans – inspired many people who shared it to express disdain that someone who looked exactly what one would expect a woman to look would be barred from entering a women’s room. But the fact that she looks indistinguishable from a cisgender woman renders that image unrepresentative of what many, if not most, trans people go through in public restrooms. Even as her attempt to humanize the struggle of trans people has proven convincing to a broader public, the way her image is being shared advances the idea that trans people are only deserving of bathroom safety if we present as normal, respectable, and indistinguishable from cis people.
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.
As BuzzFeed News reported, McBride posted a selfie on Instagram Tuesday from the women’s bathroom of a North Carolina government building, after spending several days in the state speaking to trans people about how the law has affected their lives. In the caption that accompanies her post, McBride talks about how trans women are portrayed as perverts and men dressed as women by people who support anti-trans bathroom laws. Then she wrote, “I'm just a person. We are all just people. Trying to pee in peace,” and concluded her message with: “Stop this. We are good people.” The Facebook post that accompanied her Instagram has been shared more than 40,000 times as of this writing.
Given McBride’s own desire to tell the stories of a range of trans people in North Carolina, it’s clear that she’s invested in combatting discrimination for all trans people. As she herself wrote in a comment to her post: “I also want to be mindful of the privilege that I have of being able to go back to a place where I'm not barred from govt restrooms. I want to be mindful of the fact that the impact of these laws disproportionately impacts young trans people, trans people of color, and trans people with disabilities.”
Yet as McBride’s image continues to be shared outside of her immediate control, it’s clear that a significant segment of the public her message has reached feels more comfortable welcoming trans women who look like her into the women’s room than those who do not. Among the hundreds of comments that have flooded McBride’s image on social media are dozens that commend her appearance. As a young, cis-passing, and feminine-presenting white trans woman, McBride serves as a non-confrontational model for the segment of trans people who live their lives being perceived as cisgender, able to frequently use public restrooms undisturbed and unnoticed.
More than simply commending her beauty, many of the reactions to McBride’s image either implicitly or explicitly exclude other trans people. “Sarah looks like a woman and should be able to go into the ladies room to pee,” wrote one commenter, and another gave this appraisal along with their support: “You don't look like a pervert and you don't look like a man either.”
These cis commenters are implying that they very well might not be as supportive of McBride if she looked less “like a woman” — and clearly they view themselves as the arbiters of this judgment. Transfeminine people who “look like men” remain unwelcome in the women’s room, as they have been even before the spate of anti-LGBT legislation targeting bathroom use.
In a study published in 2013 by Jody L. Herman from UCLA’s Williams Institute, the most recent and comprehensive to date, the author demonstrates the already significant existing impact of the lack of restroom accessibility on trans people’s lives. Through a survey of 93 transgender people in the Washington D.C. area, Herman found that more than two-thirds of her respondents reported experiencing verbal harassment, 18% had been denied access, and 9% had been physically assaulted in public restrooms. The study also shows that nonbinary or genderqueer-identified people were significantly more likely to experience problems in public restrooms, and that male-to-female trans people were more likely to be physically assaulted, with one reporting that she was sexually assaulted when she tried to use the men’s room.
According to Herman, these experiences have had far-reaching effects for trans people. Respondents reported having to miss school or quit jobs because they were denied access to restrooms, and more than half reported having avoided going out in public due to concerns about restroom accessibility. These are the actual, day-to-day impact of the lack of safe public restrooms in trans people’s lives — which are only amplified by laws that attempt to deny us access to restrooms that correspond with our gender identity. Details about how, exactly, laws like North Carolina’s would be enforced are muddled, with police departments across the state unclear about how people who violate the law would be identified, charged, and penalized. But regardless of how the law is enforced, the hostile environment in which it was conceived is enough to negatively impact the trans population in a major way.
Selfies of cis-passing trans people in public restrooms simply cannot communicate the fears of the most vulnerable segments of the trans population — and the people who post them, often acknowledging their privilege, aren’t necessarily attempting to speak for everyone. But as these images continue to be shared and commented on outside of the posters’ control, many of the people who express support for their subjects also articulate allegiance to established gender roles as a condition of their support. Focusing on trans people who are, for the most part, able to use restrooms without much trouble risks sending a message to cis people that trans people who present in socially acceptable ways are the ones most deserving of safety and support. Many of us are unable to present in these ways, whether because of our gender expression, our physical makeup, or our lack of access to gender-affirming medical procedures. Neither stoking cis people’s fears, nor comforting them with palatable images of “good” trans people, will assure safe restroom use for the entire trans population. It is only by asserting all trans people’s right to have equal and unimpeded access to public life, regardless of our gender identity or presentation, that we can hope to ensure a future where every trans person can use public restrooms in peace.