Why is the bathroom so important to transgender rights ?

ToiletsJust recently in the USA, the ever thorny issue of transgender peoples use of the bathroom once again flared up with the news that a US judge has ruled against a Virginia transgender toilet ban.  This reversal has simultaneously re-invigorated transgender activists, galvanised conservative opinion and led to confusion among legislators across the USA.  It’s also led to a project to develop a mobile app which maps “safe toilets” for transgender people to use.  Sometimes referred to as  “bathroom bills”, this type legislature has emerged as one of the most contentious remaining battlegrounds over transgender rights.

But why have toilets become synonymous with the fight for transgender rights in the USA and polarised opinion ?  Well following on from my previous blog about my own experiences, I thought it would help to summarise the most recent incidents, offer some statistics and commentary.


Last month, to much fanfare, legislators in Charlotte, North Carolina passed a law to make enable transgender people could use toilets of the gender they identified with.  But then, shortly after, North Carolina state legislators effectively over turned that by passing a bill  which removed that (and other) protections for various minority groups.

Going the other way, an appeals court overturned a Virginia school policy that barred a transgender student from using the mens toilet,  referring to it as discriminatory.  Previously though, a federal judge had earlier rejected the students sex discrimination claim, saying Title IX ( a federal law which prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funding) only protects students from discrimination based on biological sex, not gender identity.

These incidents are by no means isolated either.  In Florida, a House committee passed a bill on March 4 that would make it a misdemeanor for anyone to knowingly enter a bathroom that didn’t match the sex on their driver’s license or passport.  In retaliation, a number of trans people have started posting pictures of themselves in restrooms across America to highlight the discrimination laws like this facilitate.  In Maine, the state governer stopped his administration from promulgating new rules that would punish schools that do not allow transgender students to use the restrooms, showers, and other accommodations of the opposite biological sex

The two views

Those that argue in favour of “anti” legislation justify their position with the following points.  Firstly, they argue that legislation which allows transgender people to use the bathrooms of their gender identity puts women and children at a higher risk of attack, violence or abuse. Secondly, they point towards transgender people being “deviant and deceptive” and that they have no place in a largely gender binary society.  (Those on the more extreme fringe of the second point actively campaign for the benefits of conversion therapy)

For those that argue in favour of “pro” legislation, the argument is much simpler.   They argue on the basis of equal rights, supplemented by the three key points.  Firstly, in common with all decent, fair minded people, men and women, all transgender people want to do when they use a restroom is use the facilities.  Secondly, labelling transgender people in this way facilitates a misunderstanding of the issue, since there is no documented evidence of a link between people being transgender and being a rapist, abuser or murderer.  Thirdly, transgender people are more likely to suffer attack and abuse in a restroom, than the people laws like this are purported to protect.

Some statistics

  • Currently 18 states have laws protecting people from discrimination based on the sexual orientation or gender identity.
    • Of the states that have passed legislation – media matters presented the following graphic.
  • Three more states have laws which cover just sexual orientation.
  • When polled, Americans
    • Overwhelmingly support LGBT rights.  78% of people support  giving transgender people protections from discrimination in schools and the workplace.  However,
    • They narrowly oppose allowing transgender people to use bathrooms and locker rooms different than the gender they were assigned at birth by a 38% to 37% margin.
  • Transgender people
    • Are more likely to suffer abuse or violence than any other community
    • 45% of hate murders are against transgender women
    • 87% of transgender people have reported being the subject of abuse or violence.


I did a short and admittedly unscientific survey across the groups that I support about hurdles transgender people face in their journey an found that after coming out to friends or family and experiencing violence while out, fear of going to toilet while out was the next biggest fear transgender people worry about.  Kyle Lauder, the facilitator at the Norwich group I support recently made “bathroom etiquette” the subject of a meeting with the graphic to the right. trans toilet

He observed “When you think about it, toilets have a natural order that promotes privacy. Public toilets for the most part are very private places; there are stalls and standard customs that put invisible walls of privacy all around us. I can’t remember the last time, if ever, when I looked at a stranger and decided this was the ideal place to start a conversation.  Lets face it, all that any of us want when we enter a stall, is for it to be clean, have enough toilet paper and water and towels to wash our hands.  Pass a law on that !!”

When you research the “anti” campaign argument in more detail, you notice the point about women and children being at more risk of abuse is often based around assumption that it will come from “straight men dressing as women”. Either from them exposing themselves, staring or verbal/physical violence.  Think about that for a moment.  It’s specifically not singling out transgender people !!!

Even if it was, the fear it infers is based on a definition of Transvestite from the 1960s which suggests “people who dress in clothes (typically underwear) more often associated with the opposite gender, for the purpose of sexual gratification”.  However, most people now understand and accept that “Transgender” (Gender variant) covers a broad spectrum of people – those that wish to move (transition) permanently from one gender to another, those who wish to temporarily wish to present as either gender and those who wish to be neither or even both genders.  None of those definitions have anything to do with the sexuality or motivations of a “straight” man…….  Don’t prejudge them as Transgender simply because you don’t understand the label.  If you want to label the perpetrators of these incidents as anything, label them as perverts or deviants, prosecute them as abusers, sentence them as criminals, reform them as offenders.

Further, I don’t know about you, but I’ve found whenever I catch the tube in London at rush hour, I’m far more likely to be leered at, brushed up against and at worse surreptitiously groped “when someone reaches for something in their bag” (please) than I am in the bathroom.  I’m seldom expectant or demanding that the government passes laws to keep certain people away from me.   These incidents, if they happen, happen at all manner of places and there are existing laws in place to protect ALL of us when they occur.

People being put at risk of being abused by other people is the issue. Transgender people just want to be treated fairly, like all people, not legislated against and have the law protect them.  They need, deserve and are fighting for the same protections as everyone else has. When you see the issue from this angle, you realise that both campaigning interests have the same agenda, protection of people from harm and abuse.  Therefore, they should be campaigning for it as such, rather than trying to score points off, or encourage discrimination against the other !!!!

Here in the UK we have seen in the last few years a number of reported cases of abuse in care homes.  By people who were trusted with the care of frail and vulnerable.  No-one anywhere in the UK has campaigned for care workers to be banned from access to care homes.  It simply wouldn’t work.  Instead, training, registration, background checks, regular surveillance and registration were all parts of the solution.  No-one is or should be suggesting registration of transgender people, but there are other options than legislation.

Moreover, while the transgender community in America is over focussed on their basic rights to use a restroom, bigger issues are being ignored. For instance access to the right medical care, being fired in many states for just being transgender or even the right to exist. On the subject of equality and diversity, surely there’s more significant issues to tackle and work towards resolving ?




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