Outward

Being Uncomfortable Doesn’t Mean You’re Unsafe

A street lamp says PISSOIR on it.
They do things differently in Europe.

iStock/Thinkstock

I traveled to Europe last week, where I enjoyed such delicacies as tea and scones with clotted cream in England, paella and local wine in Spain, ancient Roman architecture and art, and, perhaps most refreshingly, blissful silence about transgender bathroom usage.

Many of the restrooms I used while away were single-stalled and not gender-specific. Even those that were gender-segregated had shared space around the sinks—and guess what, no one was assaulted, mugged, or given the evil eye. I felt perfectly safe peeing next to another human being who just happened to have different bits. 

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I even saw a man get completely naked on the street to change out of his wetsuit after surfing. (Whether the Mediterranean waves constitute acceptable surfing conditions is another question.) He wasn’t a deranged, homeless pervert. He was a man who was changing his clothes. Parents with small children walked by, old couples, gay lovers hand in hand. No one batted an eyelid. He did not need to fear getting arrested or being seen as a sex offender. 

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The people of Europe are light years beyond the bathroom war that we’re entrenched in over here.

We’re officially in the throes of a civil rights battle, perhaps the most significant one of most of our lifetimes. Conservative politicians, claiming mobs of angry constituents are pushing them to act, have been introducing measures that aim to police our genitals and criminalize transgender people. 

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North Carolina was the first to go through with passing and signing its awful law. Other states tried and failed—in large part because trans people were front and center, telling their stories and meeting with elected officials, who then had trouble demonizing them after realizing trans folks are actually just people trying to live their lives like everyone else. And big business, celebrities, and a strong and coordinated advocacy community—including not only LGBTQ groups but also reproductive-rights groups like Planned Parenthood and racial justice groups like the NAACP—have come swinging hard to beat back these unnecessary and dangerous bills.

So how are they getting away with it? Why are people so uninformed and scared that they’re buying that their legislators should be voting on unenforceable laws that invade our privacy rather than fixing our crumbling infrastructure, addressing the widening income gap, passing balanced budgets, and yes, even passing more comprehensive nondiscrimination laws that make everyone safer? (Last week, the Oklahoma legislature passed an anti-trans bathroom measure through committee while a bridge was literally collapsing.)

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People are uncomfortable with difference and change. We are programmed to lean into habit and to find comfort or reward in the familiar. In fact, scientific studies have found that “conservatives are fundamentally more anxious than liberals, which may be why they typically desire stability, structure and clear answers even to complicated questions.”

It’s when we encounter something outside of that norm that we have a visceral reaction. A man on the street with no arms or legs might attract our attention. A woman with bright blue hair. A dog riding a skateboard. These sights are not harmful, they’re just different.

The thing is, the more we’re exposed to different things, the more our brains form new habits and the less our auto-response is one of fear. Just because you might feel uncomfortable with someone in the restroom or locker room who doesn’t look like you, or like your notion of what someone sharing that space with you should look like, that doesn’t mean you are in danger. And it doesn’t mean that you have the right to disrupt that other person. 

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Forget the whole, incorrect frame of a “man in a woman’s restroom.” Not only is a trans woman a woman and a trans man a man—which moots this line the opposition has been slinging—why does it matter if a man uses the women’s restroom or vice versa, anyway? I have a menopausal aunt who looks more like a man than many cisgender men. What restroom should she use? What about a man whose penis was blown off by an IED in Iraq? What about someone who has both male and female secondary sex characteristics? 

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I’ve been mistaken for male even though I mostly consider myself female. I also sometimes use the men’s restroom simply because it’s available. Should I be punished? The more we lump people into two boxes that are poorly labeled, the more we risk causing bigger problems down the line. Because we don’t exist on a binary plane, and we never will. 

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Sixty-five years ago, we told black women they had a higher incidence of STDs and therefore couldn’t shower or use the toilets in the same restrooms as white women. Today, our lawmakers, backed by an angry mob, are doing the same thing to transgender people—to anyone who doesn’t clearly fit into the rigid binary gender. Many states are considering or have considered such measures, and it’s a crisis of conscience that we have an opportunity to fix. 

Oklahoma State Rep. John Bennett, the Republican elected official who last week introduced a measure that will do nothing but stigmatize people who just want to pee, said:

Our phones and emails are being flooded by citizens who are enraged by this president’s attempt to use our children as pawns in a liberal agenda. This directive is biblically wrong, a violation of our state’s sovereignty, and it is a serious public safety issue. We are working on legislation that would protect our citizens by not requiring our kids and women to share a facility with anyone who “identifies” as a gender that they were not born. We are going to do everything we can to protect our women and children.

The groups that are using politicians as their puppets to usher in these discriminatory measures are playing to our inherent fears of difference. If lawmakers were actually interested in protecting anyone, they’d recognize that discomfort is not the same thing as danger and that policing gender only creates more problems. Most of all, they’d realize that trans women of color and trans children are the ones who are most in need of protection.  

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