What “Trans Panic” Means for My Family and Me

26581230671_a5efcb854f_zMost of us already hate using public bathrooms. There’s a reason all those news stories compare the bacteria levels of common surfaces—steering wheels, doorknobs—to the bacteria levels in public bathrooms. We’re grossed out by them. They’re malodorous caverns to which we must expose our most sensitive external organs and deposit our own smelly, bacteria-ridden waste while strangers listen in. Even in the best public restrooms, it seems there are always drops of moisture on the toilet seat or the floor or both. We look at them and try to push the disgust down. Did the previous woman hover and pee all over the seat? Or was she careful but then the flushing toilet sprayed her urine all over the place? Do I try to wipe it away with a wad of toilet paper or take my chances with the cumbersome paper liners? Are those things even effective?

For me and my partner of five years, Zinnia Jones, a transgender woman whom I love devotedly, things have recently become even more unpleasant. As a somewhat popular transgender rights activist who’s appeared on CNN, Al Jazeera and BBC radio, Zinnia is sometimes publicly recognized. Normally, a recognition or disclosure of her gender would elicit either support or a frozen smile plastered on top of obvious discomfort. But when transgender people are on the news and in public conversation, such as during the sentencing of Chelsea Manning, the coming-out of Caitlyn Jenner, or more recently, North Carolina’s HB2 “bathroom bill,” things change. It’s not just that we now have to postpone our road trip to the Biltmore indefinitely, or that really all of our summer vacation plans now must do an absurd zigzag through dangerous states or be cancelled entirely. The whole world has become more hostile.

I will not lend credence to the asinine claims of those in favor of the bills. They know how disingenuous they are. They say they wish to stop sex predators, but make no effort to regulate the bathroom use of actual sex predators. Perhaps that’s why North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R), who signed the bill into law, has been doing a lot of backpedaling lately. Or why even a Fox News host, Chris Wallace, called the bill “a solution in search of a problem.” But the crisis has only just begun. ADF, the legal group behind the bill, has aided legislators in 15 additional states and has no intention of stopping.

Ironically, though this kind of panic has its malice historically and universally aimed at trans women, it is gender-nonconforming, non-transgender women who take the lion’s share of the abuse. On May 2, for example, a man followed a woman into a Dallas restroom because she looked masculine to him. Just this past Friday, another Texas man followed a woman into a bathroom because he thought she might be a guy. One masculine-presenting lesbian who was stopped and forced out of a public bathroom by police managed to get caught on film. There are now more men in women’s restrooms than ever!

My partner has never had trouble using women’s restrooms or changing rooms. She’s fairly small and unassuming—as are many of the trans women I know. She does not make other women uncomfortable because, like most of us, she pretty much minds her own business when nature forces her to enter the filthy stink closets. Making it illegal for her to use the women’s room puts her in a unique situation. Anyone who looks at her would see a woman, but she’s also sometimes recognizable as an openly transgender activist. Does she use the women’s room and risk getting recognized, fined or imprisoned? Or does she use the men’s room and effectively out herself in a political environment that is suspicious, if not outright violent, toward transgender women?

Like most 30-something moms, I spend time on Facebook. I read my news online and I update my Twitter feed with pictures of my lunch. I’ve seen the stories, opinion pieces and memes in support of HB2 that have been passed around lately. I see the number of likes and shares on them and they are, well, intimidating. It’s hard to go outside at all anymore. I look around and I see those sickening comics. Which among the crowd shared them to their Facebook pages? Which of the men at this restaurant or mall is leering at crotches, biceps twitching, hoping to spot a bulge? Will they spot my partner? Will I see her get assaulted today? Will our children? Do I have any hope of protecting her? This is Florida: What if somebody is armed?

As we do every day, my partner and I texted each other throughout my afternoon lunch break today. We brainstormed what we should write for the next episode of our YouTube series about transgender issues, Gender Analysis, and we lamented the recent necessity of just about everything we do now needing to be about bathrooms. “It’s like living in a very personal dystopia,” she said.

I looked around at my coworkers and remembered some of the vile conversations I overheard when Chelsea Manning was the story of the day. A familiar, acidic pang of resentment rose to my throat. I haven’t been able to look at them the same way since. I typed in my reply: “I couldn’t have said it better.”

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sarah Mirk licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

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Heather McNamara is a lesbian, feminist, activist and mom. She writes about indie literature, politics and civil rights at HeatherMcNamara.net and tweets @ADubiousPronoun

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    Comments

    1. Great post! Absolutely these laws are causing more harm than good. I worry for my transgender son, but even more for transgender women out there.

      If they are so worried about safety, why do they allow priests in the men’s room? What if they sexually assault a boy in the bathroom? How do we know which priests will do that? Why not have a separate priest bathroom?

      If the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence against women supports transgender folks using the bathroom of their gender identity, I think that says a lot…. http://endsexualviolence.org/files/NTFNationalConsensusStmtTransAccessWithSignatories.pdf

    2. Allison Wunderland says:

      Gender presentation is a speech act. Free speech is Constitutionally protected. Simple as that.

    3. Terms like “trans panic” have the same ring as “hysteria”–they delegitimize fears based on centuries of violent misogyny. Hatred of women and femininity extends to violence against effeminate men, women and trans-people. Misogyny is a more correct term and gives victims of this hatred a clear target for their antipathy–misogynists.

    4. Parker Brown-Nesbit says:

      Excellent piece, Heather. The “religious right” (who are neither) are scared by progress. They’re making a problem (as they do with so many things) where none exists.

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