In one of my earliest childhood memories I’m walking into my kindergarten’s bathroom. I’m alone. I don’t know why I was allowed to go on my own- I couldn’t have been more than three or four years old. My kindergarten (technically a Montessori preschool) rented part of a public building, and the toilets were down the hall from our classroom. I found a strange man there.
I don’t know what happened next- memories are hazy at that age, and all I even remember of the man was a huge, looming presence. I remember that I was scared. I think I must have run away. I don’t think that I ever went to that bathroom alone again- not that anyone should have let me go there in the first place. I’m not even sure that I went there at all, if I could avoid it. I think I might have avoided using school bathrooms at all for years. Not easy, when you’re a small kid.
I get being scared of strange men in bathrooms.
That fear does not make transphobia acceptable. It’s not okay to conflate strange men in bathrooms with trans women needing a wee. Which is why I was shocked to read this post by Ale Soares on Cork Feminista earlier this week:
As a woman, I live with the “rape distress”; the threat that around every corner, in every kind of establishment (rich or poor, private or public), at any hour of day or night, I might be raped. Growing up in a society in which a woman is raped every four minutes, one can understand why it is so difficult for a Brazilian woman to shake this feeling off. In truth, there is no safe country for women. One of the “danger zones” would be entering a public female toilet alone. If a strange man is in there, I would fear for my life because of the sexist and misogynistic world in which we live. If I am absolutely convinced a person looks to be of a different gender than the one on the door of a public restroom, I will not try to be inclusive. My first reaction will be “attention”, and I will be tense regarding my well-being and personal safety. When in doubt and in a rush to use the toilet, I don’t think it’s fair to ask: “Excuse me, for my personal safety, are you a transperson?” I am not ready to say that every male-to-female trans is aggressive, also because I have no evidence of that and I know trans community are also targets of hate crimes. But we know some transwomen hate cisgender women, so if I tried this short dialogue I am not sure how it would go. We also know that there are gay men that hate cisgender women. The point is: misogyny is everywhere, and we simply cannot know who might possibly be targeting us. Cisgender women might hate other cisgender women, but the consequences of this hate very rarely lead to extreme hate crimes, as in male hatred cases or sexual abusers. The same way, if a person identifies so much with another gender to the point of crossing over sexes, why would a transman use the female toilet? As you can see, situations are always more complicated to biologically born females because of the “rape” issue. Female-to-male trans could be fearful of their safety in masculine toilets too.
This add, in my opinion, just reinstates the fact that, concerning women, we are never in control of our spaces, our surroundings and our bodies. It is another reminder that women do not matter. “LEAVE IT TO US, WE KNOW BETTER THAN YOU.” It is an extremely optimistic view, thinking about an abstract, inexistent environment that is always civilised, free from any forms of harassment, free from alcohol and drugs – let’s not forget. It is assuming that, no matter what kind of transgender you are, either female-to-male or male-to-female, you would know better than any woman about her own safety. In any case, cisgender women are the last ones to be consulted, taken into consideration and cared for. This add is not gender inclusive. This add is not thinking about women. This add is just propagating a rape culture and a culture of violence against women, trying to dress it differently. It has little to do with the trans community. So, I’d like to rephrase it: “Women, if you are in a public bathroom and you think it is strange for a man to be in there, follow your gut instinct. Safety first.”
Ale was posting in response to this poster, recently put out by the University of Bristol’s LGBT+ Society:
Let’s unpack this.
It’s okay to be afraid of men.
I’ll be honest: I was angry the first time I read Ale’s post. And the second and the third time, too. How dare another cis woman perpetuate the same tired old tropes and stereotypes that put trans women in danger?
This is exactly what she’s doing. Why is she doing it, though? She’s afraid. I don’t blame her. I don’t know any women or AFAB people- or even very femme-presenting AMAB men- who haven’t experienced that fear. How severely we experience it does vary, of course. I’m pretty confident myself- but my instinct when cornered is always to start punching. I still walk home at night along well-lit streets. I make sure I’m not within grabbing distance of any dark hedges, doorways or car doors. I keep my eyes open for men walking alone or in groups, and I don’t relax unless there’s at least two other people or groups within sight. And when I go to a quiet public toilet on my own? If there are no other people in there, I check every cubicle.
I don’t feel particularly afraid when I do these things. Simply aware and alert. They’re habits, like checking that I’ve turned off the oven and remembered my keys before leaving the house. It’s another of those things we do that we don’t tend to talk about. Other people are more afraid, with good reason. Around 1/5 of women in Ireland will be raped or sexually assaulted as adults. And while most of those assaults won’t involve strangers, it’s strangers who we’re taught to fear.
That fear is real. I’m not pointing this out because it legitimises Ale’s perspective. It doesn’t. I’m pointing it out because, even if she’s wrong about this- which she is- she’s still coming from a genuine place. And it’s bloody hard to keep things rational when you’re scared of being raped. Legitimate fear combined with genuine ignorance? It’s a potent combination.
So while we take this apart, let’s be clear about something: many people are working through trauma. Being traumatised doesn’t make you right. And it doesn’t mean that trans women don’t get to be furious about this kind of thing. But it does mean that right here and now, I’m gonna ask that this space be one where we’re not jumping in, all guns blazing. Okay? Okay.
Trans women are women.
Right. Let’s take this:
This add is not thinking about women. This add is just propagating a rape culture and a culture of violence against women, trying to dress it differently. It has little to do with the trans community.
It is another reminder that women do not matter. “LEAVE IT TO US, WE KNOW BETTER THAN YOU.”
Here’s the problem with them: they both start with the assumption that real women are cis. That women’s problems are cis women’s problems, and that trans women’s problems are something else: something to do with LGBT people, not women. Making this even clearer, Ale says this in the beginning of her article:
It is not uncommon for LGBT and Feminist Societies to work in conjunct, as some of the oppressions faced are intertwined. However, regarding trans the same concordance seems to be missing.
See? She’s creating a separation between ‘trans’ and ‘women’. She is a woman. No matter how many times she calls herself a ‘cis woman’, it’s clear that she sees cis womanhood as somehow more real, more grounded and authentic than trans womanhood. And this division- this removal of trans women from the overarching category of “women”- is at the root of all of Ale’s fears.
You see, if you don’t recognise trans women as women, then of course you’re going to be afraid. If you do recognise trans women as women, then you’ll understand that trans women’s issues are women’s issues and you’ll create a feminism that includes all women. If not, you end up with confusing statements like this:
My problem is not with the transgender or with the LGBT community, it is with a male-dominated society. Therefore, I would like to talk exclusively about the use of the female toilet by the male gender because it concerns my own personal safety as a woman, and it endangers me and other women potentially.
Except, of course, that Ale isn’t just talking about men in the women’s room. Her argument- as far as I can see- is that as a cis woman, she has the right to “not try to be inclusive” if “a person looks to be of a different gender than the one on the door of a public restroom“.
In other words, if someone doesn’t conform to her gendered expectations of what a woman should look/sound like, she will… what? We don’t know what the details of “making no effort to be inclusive” are. Later, she says that she’d even be afraid to ask the person about their gender because “we know some transwomen hate cisgender women” (do we know that?!). I have no idea what Ale wants to do in this situation.
What we do know, is that Ale thinks that she can tell if someone is or isn’t a woman, and that she reserves the right to not be inclusive towards people who don’t fit her expectations. As for trans women, butch women, intersex and nonbinary people? What are they to do?
What Ale is doing here is centering men in two ways. First, she’s assuming maleness as a default: anyone who doesn’t meet her expectations of what a woman looks/sounds like could be a man, and is therefore to be feared. But she’s also saying this: that her fear of men trumps the right of other women to be able to use the bathroom without fear of her.
Who should be afraid of who?
According to Ale, her feelings and perspectives are the ones grounded in reality, whereas people who disagree hold
an extremely optimistic view, thinking about an abstract, inexistent environment that is always civilised, free from any forms of harassment, free from alcohol and drugs
This isn’t the case. Bristol LGBT+’s poster hasn’t appeared out of nowhere or from a rootless desire to be politically correct. There are concrete reasons why it’s necessary, and why cis women who always pass as such need to take this on board.
Trans women face very real violence when they try to use the bathroom.
Ale starts her piece by pointing out that in Brazil, where she’s from, a woman is raped every four minutes. This is horrifying. How could someone facing that risk be privileged by their gender?
I did some research into violence against trans women in Brazil. I had a sinking feeling that it was going to be bad. What I read was worse than I’d imagined. While average life expectancy for cis people in Brazil is 75, for trans people it’s estimated at 30. Thirty years old. It’s clear from Ale’s article that she understands what it’s like to live in fear of rape and male violence. Imagine how much worse that fear would be if you knew that people like you rarely made it to middle age. And that your last minutes and hours were likely to involve agonising torture and hatred.
While Brazil is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be trans (that we have stats on), trans women face abysmally high rates of violence throughout the world. Trans people don’t live in an “abstract, inexistent [sic] environment that is always civilised [and] free from harassment”. Trans women live with every kind of harassment that cis women do, plus transphobia and transmisogyny.
Let’s go back to bathrooms.
I’ve been hearing horror stories about trans people’s experiences trying to find somewhere to pee in peace for as long as I’ve known any trans people. I didn’t want to just share anecdotes, though- and besides, they’re not mine to share. However, there is this: according to a 2013 study, 70% of trans women have experienced verbal harassment when they tried to use a public loo, and one in ten has been physically assaulted in the bathroom. Another study has shown that a quarter of trans people have been denied access to appropriate bathroom facilities. Where are they supposed to go?
Dry stats aside, how does that feel? From Gabrielle Bellot:
I am at a mall with a friend in Florida. We have been shopping for clothes at H&M, and she says she needs to use the restroom. I do, too, so I go with her. My heart starts to beat a bit faster when I see the gendered signs. I am a woman, and I am going to use the bathroom I always do—the women’s—but in a place as dense with strangers as this mall, I worry that this may be the time that something bad occurs. Pinpricks shoot up the back of my neck. I have always been androgynous, and I look like many other multiracial women from my home of Dominica in the Caribbean, a place I no longer feel safe returning now that I have come out as a trans woman. But in an American atmosphere dense with fear-mongering about how people like me are little more than sexual predators sneaking into bathrooms to assault “real” women and their daughters, I am never without some fear entering the restroom. Even before we near the door, I have already begun to chart the topography of the dangers that could come, hoping I do not give off so bright an aura of nervousness that I will be stopped even before I reach the threshold of the facilities.
As my friend and I approach the door, my voice drops to a whisper.
Read the rest. Remember: trans women are women.
Butch women and nonbinary people do too.
It’s not just trans women who are put at serious risk by views like Ale’s, of course- but let’s be clear, while other groups have difficulties, those issues are generally rooted in the fear of trans women and the myth that their womanhood isn’t “real”. Transfeminine people are the bogey(wo)men and our scapegoats for male violence. Butch women, transmasculine people and everyone else who looks like they mightn’t fit in? Collateral damage.
That caveat aside, what’s it like to be hit by that? Have a read of this:
I could write an entire book about bathroom incidents I have experienced. It would be a long and boring book where nearly every chapter ends the same, so I won’t. But I could. Forty-four years of bathroom troubles. I try to remind myself of that every time a nice lady in her new pantsuit for travelling screams or stares at me, I try to remember that this is maybe her first encounter with someone who doesn’t appear to be much of a lady in the ladies’ room. That she has no way of knowing this is already the sixth time this week that this has happened to me, and that I have four decades of it already weighing heavy on my back. She doesn’t know I have been verbally harassed in women’s washrooms for years. She doesn’t know I have been hauled out with my pants still undone by security guards and smashed over the head with a giant handbag once. She can’t know that I have five cities and seven more airport bathrooms and eleven shows left to get through before I can safely pee in my own toilet. She can’t know that my tampon gave up the ghost somewhere between the security line and the food court. I try to remember all that she cannot know about my day, and try to find compassion and patience and smile kind when I explain that I have just as much right to be there as she does, and then make a beeline, eyes down, shoulders relaxed in a non-confrontational slant, into the first stall on the left, closest to the door.
Every time I bring up or write about the hassles trans and genderqueer people receive in public washrooms or change rooms, the first thing out of many [cis] women’s mouths is that they have a right to feel safe in a public washroom, and that, no offense, but if they saw someone who “looks like me” in there, well, they would feel afraid, too. I hear this from other queer women. Other feminists. This should sting less than it does, but I can’t help it. What is always implied here is that I am other, somehow, that I don’t also need to feel safe. That somehow their safety trumps mine.
Emphasis mine. And, yes, do read the rest. Especially this:
I know a little girl, the daughter of a friend, who is a self-identified tomboy. Cowboy boots and caterpillar yellow toy trucks. One time I asked her what her favourite colour was and she told me camouflage. She came home last October in tears from her half-day at preschool with soggy pants because the other kids were harassing her when she used the girls’ room at school and the teacher had instructed her to stay out of the boys’ room. She had drunk two glasses of juice at the Halloween party and couldn’t hold her pee any longer. She and her peers were four years old, they knew she was a girl, yet already they felt empowered enough in their own bigotries to police her use of the so-called public washrooms.
I avoided school bathrooms for years because of that strange man I saw. Then I grew up, moved house a few times, and the incident and my fears started to fade into the past. But this kid? She doesn’t ever get to have that privilege. Those kids harassing her are going to grow up right next to her, and the adults who are supposed to be protecting her seem to be doing nothing to protect her.
The need for cis, femme-enough women to lay off trans and gender nonconforming women in bathrooms isn’t, as Ale says, an
extremely optimistic view, thinking about an abstract, inexistent environment that is always civilised, free from any forms of harassment, free from alcohol and drugs.
This is people: women like her, and nonbinary people without even the benefit of a stall matching their gender, who are responding to years of real, daily harassment that cis, femme-enough women never have to consider.
Those aren’t enough? Check out the comments in this article, where a lot of people from all over the gender spectrum share stories of being harassed in the bathroom. Not abstract, theoretical harassment: real incidents of real cis women policing other women’s right to have a pee in peace.
But what if..
What if, people ask. What if a man used our acceptance of trans and GNC people in bathrooms to gain access to the ladies’ restroom? What if predators gleefully jumped on this loophole?
When we look into what ifs, we need to balance our fears, the possibility of the what if happening, and who will be hurt if we give in to our fears. How do we do that here?
Do we- AFABs of all shapes and sizes, that is- need to be afraid of trans women in bathrooms? Ale is. Despite having claimed that her piece is about men, not trans women, she says:
we know some transwomen hate cisgender women… Cisgender women might hate other cisgender women, but the consequences of this hate very rarely lead to extreme hate crimes.
Do we? How?
Short answer: no. Longer answer? Not even a bit. In seventeen US school districts which adopted inclusive guidelines for trans women in bathrooms, (covering 600,000 students) there were zero incidents of harassment or inappropriate behaviour by those women and girls. Zero. None. Not a single one.
This is not a real problem. It’s something made up to play on cis women’s fears. It’s pitting one oppressed group against another who just so happen to be another step or two down the gender based respectability ladder.
Access to bathrooms is not a luxury: it is a necessity.
If you’re a cis woman who’s socially acceptably femme enough to never have had anyone question that status, and you see someone in the bathroom who doesn’t look like a woman? I get how you might be afraid. But right in that moment is where you’re going to have to grapple with one of the most complex things about who you are: while your gender is a source of vulnerability to violence, it is also and simultaneously a site of immense social power and privilege.
It’s hard to pay attention to that when we’re scared. Of course it is. But fear isn’t an excuse to play into a pattern where trans and non gender-conforming women have to construct their lives around avoiding using a public bathroom if at all possible. That is not fair. It’s not right. And as people with cis or gender-conforming privilege, we have an absolute responsibility to handle our own fears and stop being part of beating down others.
How about this, cis and socially-acceptably-gender-conforming people: instead of putting trans people at risk in bathrooms and other binary-gendered spaces, be part of the solution. Be a bathroom buddy. Grab an I’ll Go With You button and advertise that you’re not a danger in those spaces. Let your trans/GNC friends know you’ll accompany them to gendered spaces if they need it and back them up when they get hassled. And above all, look into your own fears. Figure out who you are afraid of and why. Work out ways to mitigate the danger you’re in. But while you do that, make sure you’re not creating danger for others. It’s hard work. But I can’t see any other way to get out of this.
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