A few weeks ago, a man followed Jessica Rush into the women’s restroom at the Baylor Medical Center in Frisco. When Rush noticed the man behind her, she thought she was about to be attacked. That is, after all, the nightmare situation that politicians inevitably mention as justification for their stance against anti-discrimination ordinances: men following women into bathrooms and attacking them. But the man who followed Rush wasn’t dressed up as a women—which seems to be what some politicians think being a transgender woman means—he was checking to see if Rush was a woman. The man, who left once he’d confirmed that Rush met his standards of femininity, offers a peek into the world that “bathroom bills” are encouraging.
The national conversation about public bathrooms was reignited after North Carolina struck down Charlotte’s nondiscrimination law and then followed up with the statewide HB2, which dictates that people use the public restrooms that match the gender they were assigned at birth. Texas’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, eager to bring the conversation to Texas, weighed in when he called for the resignation of Dr. Ken Scribner, the superintendent of the Fort Worth Independent School District, over the school district’s “transgender student guidelines.” As Patrick sees it, by allowing transgender boys to use the boys’ restroom and transgender girls to use the girls’ restroom, Scribner has “lost his focus and thereby his ability to lead the Fort Worth ISD.”
On Friday, Patrick solidified his stance on bathroom bills when he declared that Texas could forgo billions of dollars in federal funding for schools as a response to the Obama administration’s directive to allow students to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. Thus, Texas is at the crosshairs of another debate over where people can and cannot pee.
This isn’t the first time the private business of transgender people in restrooms has been subjected to so much scrutiny. Houston became the hotbed of such a discussion last fall when the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance was defeated largely because of right-wing ads that depicted HERO as a “bathroom ordinance” that would allow men to enter women’s restrooms and sexually assault women and girls (but somehow the men and boys these same men would already be sharing restrooms with aren’t in danger).
And it was HERO’s defeat made it clear that too many Texans are still uninformed about what it means to be transgender. Transgender activists, actors, and celebrities such as Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and Caitlyn Jenner have elevated transgender issues in mainstream media, so we’re finally having conversations about transgender lives that go beyond the state of their genitalia. Unfortunately, that also means that it’s 2016 and politicians still think non-discrimination laws are about sending men into women’s restrooms. Case in point:
JFK wanted to send a man to the moon. Obama wants to send a man to the women's restroom. We must get our country back on track. #tcot
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) May 17, 2016
This seemingly willful misunderstanding is based on dated and offensive stereotypes that depict any gender or sexual identity that is not cisgender (matching the gender identity you were given at birth) and heterosexual as some type of perversion. That’s why it’s all too easy for so many people to equate transgender people wanting to use public bathrooms in relative peace with an ulterior motive to sexually assault (just) women and girls. What’s even more frustrating about these “bathroom laws” is that the reasoning behind them is as unfounded as the stereotypes they’re based on. Patrick told CNN that “the way these [non-discrimination] ordinances are written, any man could walk into the bathroom if that’s the way they feel that day.”
But that’s not true for two major reasons: First, transgender women are women and transgender men are men. They aren’t people who just decide to walk into the wrong bathroom because they “feel” like it. Non-discrimination laws aren’t sending men into women’s restrooms, they’re offering transgender women (who, again, are women) protection when they enter the women’s restroom. The second reason is that these “bathroom bills” aren’t rooted in reality. PolitiFact looked into the claims that men claiming to be transgender women were just waltzing in and out bathrooms and attacking women in cities with non-discrimination ordinances and found that (surprise, surprise) this just isn’t happening. After searching for examples “on conservative blogs and family values websites dedicated to news about transgender bathroom ordinances,” Will Doran came to this conclusion:
We haven’t found any instances of criminals convicted of using transgender protections as cover in the United States. Neither have any left-wing groups or right-wing groups.
So the pushback against non-discrimination ordinances isn’t just a solution looking for a problem; it’s a problem-less solution creating actual problems. Navigating public spaces is often dangerous for people who aren’t heterosexual or cisgender. According to a 2013 survey conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA, 70 percent of the 93 transgender and gender non-conforming respondents based in Washington, D.C., reported experiencing some form of harassment when attempting to use public restrooms. Their experiences ranged from being denied access to restrooms, being questioned about their gender by strangers, having the police called on them, and even being physically attacked or sexually assaulted. That’s why non-discriminatory laws exist in the first place, to ensure that people who aren’t heterosexual and cisgender can exist safely in public without harassment. As bathroom laws and the accompanying debates sweep the nation with unchecked “facts,” they only mobilize people like the man who thought it was his civic duty to follow Rush into the women’s restroom.
Because, as Sally Kohn explained in TIME, “what these ‘bathroom bills’ are actually about is enforcing traditional gender codes and norms in an increasingly diverse and shifting America”. The bathroom laws aren’t protecting women from predatory men, they’re putting anybody who doesn’t fit easily into society’s ideas of masculinity and femininity at the mercy of any stranger who takes it upon themselves to uphold their limited understanding of gender. Luckily, Rush passed this strange man’s personal test, but what if she hadn’t? There’s a video circulating of a woman being forced out of a restroom by police officers because she didn’t have identification to support her claims that she was a woman. The woman, who’s identified by the video poster as a lesbian and is dressed in loose, baggy clothes, repeatedly tells the officers she’s a female, only to be told, “You have no ID, let’s go,” as the officers force her out.
Over the commotion, one woman asks, “So you’re saying you have to have an ID to go to the bathroom?” In the world that Patrick and Abbott are suggesting, the answer seems to be “yes.” At the very least, women who others can’t easily identify as women risk being followed into the bathroom by strange men. All the in the name of making sure there isn’t a man in the women’s restroom.