The Reviling Fight against Gender Neutral Bathrooms

January 24th 2015

The Reviling Fight Against Gender Neutral Bathrooms

It feels like Groundhog Day. 

Last January, Utah state Rep. Michael Kennedy (R-Alpine) made a stir by introducing legislation to block safe bathroom access for transgender individuals. 

The 2014 bill, HB 87, sought to redefine 'gender' within Utah’s state code by phenotype, concluding that that “[g]ender does not mean an individual’s own opinion of [their gender].” Instead, a birth certificate listing the same gender on the bathroom door would need to be presented -- or an invasive “physical examination of the individual’s genitalia” -- for a transperson to use a public restroom facility that corresponded to their gender identity. 

I’m a transman with a beard. I would presumably make most women uncomfortable in the women’s restroom, and I would be justifiably uncomfortable as well; but I still wouldn’t pass either of Kennedy’s proposed gender tests to access the men’s room. (Let’s put a pin in Kennedy’s pseudoscience-esque ‘phenotype’ language for a moment.) 

This January, state legislators are self-nominating to be the gender police once again. 

Up for bat this time is Kentucky Sen. C.B. Embry (R-Morgantown), a Kentucky politician who introduced the “Kentucky Student Privacy Act” on Jan. 9. The legislation, SB 76, would ban transgender students from using bathrooms that don’t correspond to their ‘biological sex,’ which Embry narrowly defines as “determined by a person’s chromosomes, and is identified at birth by a person’s anatomy.” (Sound familiar?) In an added twist, the bill would also allow students who ‘catch’ a trans or gender non-conforming fellow student in the ‘wrong bathroom’ to sue their school for $2,500 in damages. An unfortunate addition, it would effectively null any support that more compassionate school staff might try to provide. 

Oh, and apparently the bill has been labeled a legislative “emergency.”

According to the Intersex Society of North America, one in every 100 births are of babies with bodies that don’t match “standard male or female.” Where should these kids go to the bathroom? What about the one in every 1,666 births that are chromosomally neither XX nor XY? If Kennedy’s legislation had passed, apparently nowhere in the state of Utah. And if Embry’s bill does pass, not at a single school in Kentucky.

It's not just conservative states.

These “gotcha” style bathroom laws highlight a problem that isn’t solely the province of conservative states either. Earlier this week, a transgender graduate student at California’s San Diego State University reported being ejected from the on-campus student recreation center locker rooms because of his gender identity.  

In a conversation shared with ThinkProgress by former Kentucky resident and mother of a trans teen Angela Swift Harris, Embry responds to her concerns about the proposed Ken. bill by suggesting that students would pretend to be transgender for restroom privileges: “[M]y concern is more with those who cross dress but are clearly boys (or girls as the case may be).” 

Utah representatives expressed similar dismissals of the reality of trans lives on Twitter when debating their state’s bathroom bill. In Feb. 2014, Rep. Jacob Anderegg (R-Lehi) tweeted: 

The private Men's bathroom in the House office building is occupied. Strongly considering a gender identifying change to use the open womens
— Jacob Anderegg (@Political_Jake) Feb. 3, 2014

Whether in jest or not, such concerns about cisgender (non-transgender) individuals pretending to be transgender to see others of the opposite sex are so common that the urban legend has a name: trans bathroom panic. Used to whip up fear about the safety and privacy of the public, the myth that trans people will expose themselves or that cisgender individuals will crossdress to sexually assault women and children is tired and heavily disproven

When advocating for safe bathroom access at my college, one concerned community member announced to me that establishing gender neutral restrooms at the Claremont Colleges would be “a beacon to rapists across the county.”  (News flash: They weren’t.) Legislators and right-wing political organizations also haven’t stopped trotting out the same story, like in this wildly inaccurate 2008 video released in response to a gender identity-inclusive Gainesville, Fl., human rights ordinance

With only 13 states committed to protecting trans students, Pres. Obama’s historic mention of transgender Americans in this week’s State of the Union should be seen as more than a talking point. It’s a call to action for Millennials, many of whom are or were recently students ourselves, to lead the charge against inaccessible facilities in our states and on our campuses. Or, as Obama said so simply in his State of the Union address, to “do the right thing.”

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