Many people take the availability and use of safe restrooms for granted. But for some people deciding whether, when, and where to use a restroom is a major safety concern.
Excerpted for The Teaching Transgender Toolkit. Shared with The LOFT by Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes. Both organizations are members of the NYS LGBT Health and Human Services Network.
Many people take the availability and use of safe restrooms for granted. But for some people deciding whether, when, and where to use a restroom is a major safety concern. It may affect their ability to work, interact in their community, travel for work or leisure, and generally participate in society.
The points below explore issues pertaining to bathrooms that may affect transgender people (and sometimes cisgender people whom others perceive might be transgender) differently, and offers suggestions for addressing them. It can help gain knowledge, build empathy and reduce anti-transgender prejudice.
- Transgender people frequently experience discrimination, such as being questioned or challenged about whether they are in the “correct” bathroom, being verbally or psychically harassed or threatened, or fearing for their physical safety. So do people who are not transgender, but whom others believe don’t look masculine or feminine enough for the bathroom they’re in.
- Many transgender people report avoiding using public bathrooms. Or they may restrict their fluid intake. This can have a significant negative impact on physical health, (including extensive dehydration or urinary tract infections) and mental health (including anxiety, depression and isolation).
- Some transgender people avoid situations in which they will be away from safe or private bathrooms for extended periods of time, try to create a “buddy system” to ensure their safety, or go out of their way to find restrooms that are gender-neutral or private.
- Many transgender people, people with non-binary genders, and people who are perceived as gender non-conforming must think every day about whether they have access to a safe restroom at work, in school, in restaurants and coffee shops, at bus and train terminals, at airports, when they are out in the community or traveling elsewhere, and generally wherever they are outside of their homes.
- Transgender people may use a lot time and energy trying to structure their work or school day to avoid having to use the bathroom. This may also affect their work or school performance, if they need to leave early, arrive late, or try to take breaks to travel back home or to another safe location in order to use the restroom.
Risk, Harassment, and Discrimination:
- Transgender people are at risk when using restrooms outside the home. It is common for transgender people to be harassed by cisgender people in restrooms. In one survey, fifty percent of transgender respondents reported having experienced harassment or assault in a public restroom (San Francisco Human Rights Commission, 2002). When this happens, the person may be verbally or physically harassed, asked to leave the restroom, removed by the establishment in which the restroom is located, or arrested by the authorities.
- There are no recorded instances of cisgender people being harassed by transgender people in restrooms. And, a recent report found no instances of harassment or inappropriate behavior in 17 of the largest school districts in the country in which transgender students are allowed to use the restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity (Media Matters, 2015).
- Most people, whether transgender, cisgender, or another gender, simply wish to use the restroom in peace, and leave.
- Sometimes cisgender people find themselves affected by anti-transgender prejudice in restrooms when someone else perceives them as transgender. If this happens, the cisgender person might suffer the same difficulty as a transgender person. They may be verbally or physically harassed, asked to leave the restroom, removed by the establishment in which the restroom is located, or arrested by authorities.
Myth, Misinformation, and More Discrimination:
- There is a great deal of myth and misinformation about transgender people and restroom use. Because of this, some people are fearful or angry when they think about transgender people’s access to restrooms, or if they believe a transgender person may have access to a restroom they might use – or to any restroom at all.
- In 2015, several states introduced laws that would jail people whose chromosomes or birth sex do not match the restrooms they are using. Some of these bills also proposed a “bounty” of up to $4,000 be paid to anyone who turns in someone they believe is using the “wrong” restroom to the authorities. Other laws have proposed fines or criminal charges for schools or business owners if they allow a transgender person to use the restroom.
- There are already laws in place that make harassment in restrooms (or anywhere) illegal, which makes additional legislation unnecessary and shows that the abovementioned laws exist solely to penalize transgender people.
- Multiple-person restrooms don’t prevent people from entering who seek to harass others. Bathrooms with multiple stalls don’t have a “force field” or other magical powers to keep such individuals out.
- Requiring transgender people to use only a specific restroom (for instance, requiring a person to use only a single-person, gender-neutral restroom, or requiring a person to use a restroom that is not open to all other members of the public/employees/students) is disrespectful, an invasion of privacy, and could reveal someone’s transgender status to others and thereby place them at risk for violence. In some places it is against the law.
Strategies and Solutions:
- There are strategies that can assist transgender people in finding access to safe restrooms. These include websites and apps that provide listings of single-person, gender-neutral restrooms in some communities, making plans in advance to visit the restroom accompanied by a trusted friend, seeking out only single-user restrooms (those with “unisex” or gender-neutral signage that have facilities inside for one person, and a locking door).
- At its root, much of the fear and anger others harbor about transgender people and restrooms is a reflection of anti-transgender prejudice, and assumptions that people with penises (cisgender or transgender) will use them to harm women, if given the opportunity.
- Reducing anti-transgender prejudice so that transgender people could simply use any restroom that corresponds to their gender identity would eliminate the need for many of these strategies.
- Providing some single-user restrooms is one way to provide more options not only for transgender people and people whose gender expression differs from what others might expect, but for many other people as well. Single-user restrooms may also meet the needs of people in a variety of situations, including:
~ parents assisting a small child or a person of another gender,
~ people accompanying an elderly relative of another gender who requires assistance,
~ people who have personal care attendants of another gender than themselves
~ people who are very shy and find it difficult to use a public restroom if others are present
~ anyone seeking additional privacy or security while using a restroom
Source: GREEN, E.R. & MAURER, L.M.(2015). THE TEACHING TRANSGENDER TOOLKIT: A FACILITATOR’S GUIDE TO INCREASING KNOWLEDGE, DECREASING PREJUDICE & BUILDING SKILLS. ITHACA, NY: PLANNED PARENTHOOD OF THE SOUTHERN FINGER LAKES: OUT FOR HEALTH. ISBN:978-0-9966783-0-8 Available at www.teachingtransgender.com