My Safety As A Trans Person Requires Individual Unisex Bathrooms

In Depth

Let’s talk about bathrooms. Let’s talk about the transgender experience with bathrooms. Let’s talk about my experiences with bathrooms. Let’s talk about how what I need, and what I feel other trans people need, is often actually ignored in the sensational debate over all-gender bathrooms/mixed gender bathrooms, or whatever we would like to call them. What we need is something on a much smaller and more immediate scale: more individual unisex bathrooms.

There are two major reasons why I, as a trans woman, feel I need access to individual unisex bathrooms, and there’s a further reason why as a trans woman with ability privilege, I feel we need to build more individual unisex bathrooms. My biggest concern is safety, my second concern is my comfort level, and finally, I have a separate concern that my use of individual unisex bathrooms (almost all of which are intentionally designed for persons with disabilities) is an usurpation of facilities which are not designed with my needs in mind, and that I may actually be using facilities when someone I have privilege over needs them more.

Comfort level is often discussed in the debate on mixed gender bathrooms, or even just the idea of trans people being able to go into the bathroom of the gender they identify as, live as, and, oh, yeah actually are (which always seems to be in question each time this discussion pops up). I do think comfort level is incredibly important, especially during the beginning stages of transition. This becomes incredibly important when documents aren’t yet changed. In this case, regardless of how safe or unsafe a gendered bathroom might be (in both terms of physical and verbal assault and harassment), many trans people (myself included) have decided to instead seek out individual unisex bathrooms where we will not have to put up with judging stares, double takes, or muttered comments. An individual unisex bathroom can become an oasis, a respite from a world where those stares, double takes, and muttered comments come at us even in our most private moments.

Yet I think the major reason why trans folks find choosing a bathroom to be one of the hardest decisions we make in a day is simple: Violence. When I scope out a bathroom, I don’t generally worry much in Japan (unless I am in central Tokyo or Osaka) because the overall amount of crime here is significantly lower, but in the United States or Australia or, I presume, another Western country (although I’ve only spent time in the other two)? Yes, I worry. I worry because attitudes prevail where a misunderstanding could lead to an altercation: either because I’m seen as a woman entering a man’s bathroom, as a man entering a woman’s bathroom, or because I’m simply seen as a freak. I would prefer to suffer minor abuse for the latter two than major abuse for the first. My biggest fear as a trans woman is being sexually assaulted, only to be murdered when my attacker discovers my status and becomes enraged. That could even happen here in Japan. It could happen anywhere there are rapists. And rapists, unfortunately, are everywhere.

Trans women aren’t a threat to cis women, generally speaking. No, generally speaking, cis men aren’t a threat to trans women, either…? But in comparison, if we look at the reported incidents, there is justification for trans women to be wary when going to gendered bathrooms. And, let’s be honest, most of the attackers are cis men. On the flip-side, there just isn’t the justification for cisgender women to be fearful of trans women (in fact, the brutal beating of 22-year-old Chrissy Lee Polis by two teen girls seems to suggest there may be justification for fear going the opposite direction). What about trans men? These spaces are also very dangerous for trans men. And for many of the same reasons, although the circumstances can develop differently. Trans men are at risk in men’s restrooms for being “women daring to pretend to be men” and at risk in women’s restrooms when gendered correctly. Butch lesbians also have these issues, and while not trans, their gender variance can often mean facing the same issues. Violence and harassment are the norm, not the exception.

Until we can move beyond violence as a response to women, trans or cis, and trans men (who are often seen as women when othered) just, you know, existing, then the answer is not going to be mixed bathrooms. Even if cis men and cis women who believe that we all should just be equal would like it to be so, because of their comfort level and egalitarian political views, even if they may be LGB themselves, (but not trans, which is an important distinction make). Paul Florez, currently an MFA candidate at The New School, writes over at HuffPo:

An all-gender bathroom at a university means many things. For starters, it’s a small step in the right direction for transsexual rights and one giant leap for gender equality. It also sends a message to the students that the administration views us all as equals. However, in my head it meant I wouldn’t have to feel shame for styling my hair or doing a double take in front of the mirror. I could now take my time to apply concealer, and perhaps give a little strut, and there would be absolutely no judgment.

Yes, it is a small step. It is a very small step. Too small. And… Not particularly useful in areas without the culture change that allows these all-gender bathrooms to be violence free. Many universities struggle greatly with sexual assault, and so I’m not sure holding up university policies on all-gender bathrooms as a “giant leap for gender equality” is particularly accurate. And until all of our spaces, especially spaces which aren’t devoted to education and exploration (as universities are) like, perhaps, fast food restaurants, reflect a culture where violence against women and those perceived to be women has been significantly curtailed or eliminated, then the answer is going to be to provide additional restroom options, not throw everyone together and hope we all get along because we should.

Who’s doing it right? Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia is doing it right, and was doing it right when he signed legislation into law in Philadelphia, PA mandating the inclusion of more individual unisex bathrooms in city buildings, in addition to traditional men’s and women’s restrooms:

This is now the law in Philadelphia.

Thank you, Mayor Nutter. It needs to be the law a lot of other places, too.

Image via Getty.

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