Outward

The Actions of One Person Cannot Derail the Trans Equality Movement

The alleged incident of voyeurism happened in an Idaho Target store.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Last week, news broke that a transgender woman, Shauna Smith, had been charged with voyeurism at a Target in Ammon, Idaho. The details of the case are still sketchy, but available reporting alleges that she reached over a fitting room dividing wall with an iPhone to photograph or record a young woman who was trying on swimsuits. According to court documents, Smith explained to a detective that she made such recordings for the purposes of sexual gratification. Smith is currently being held in the Bonneville County Jail.

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If you’ve been following the furor over trans people’s access to bathrooms, fitting rooms, and other gendered facilities consistent with their identities this year, the implications of this case—especially for those looking to deny such access—are easy to see. The apocalyptic event that anti-trans folks have been waving their hands about came to pass; the sexual assault boogeyman behind the “bathroom bills” in North Carolina and elsewhere became real. That it happened at a Target, whose trans-affirming company policy has been praised by advocates, is doubly unfortunate. And because Smith appears to truly identify as transgender (her roommate confirmed this to authorities), as opposed to being a cisgender activist looking to stir up trouble, one of the more effective arguments against bathroom legislation—that no such violations have never happened, even in states with nondiscrimination protections in place—has been severely weakened.

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Or, at least, that’s one way to read it. Another is that since Smith was arrested and charged for a crime that is already illegal for everyone, the case only proves the legal system is working as intended. Indeed, any woman—trans or cis—who committed this act in this space would and should be subject to the same penalty, so using the incident as a bludgeon against trans folks in general makes little sense. Chase Strangio, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT and HIV Project and a contributor to Outward, echoed this view in an email. “There is no evidence that one could successfully use the existence of a non-discrimination law to somehow avoid arrest, prosecution, or conviction for conduct that would otherwise fall within the scope of a criminal prohibition,” he wrote, continuing:

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We have seen time and time again that cisgender people engage in conduct in restrooms and other single-sex spaces that intrudes upon the privacy and safety of others, but we don’t station police officers outside the restroom door, nor should we. As a society we have a collective responsibility to deal with the violence and harassment that occurs, but that responsibility does not mean regulating bathroom access in such a way that bars transgender people from public space.

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No doubt this logic will fail to convince those deeply hostile to trans equality. But for individuals more open to challenging their fears and thinking through the issue, the case offers an opportunity for reflection. The best any of us can hope for as we move through the world is that the systems of law enforcement we have set up will be there to assist us when necessary. That’s exactly what happened here, just as it would have if the alleged perpetrator had been cisgender. In fact, the only reason this case might feel any different stems from the lingering, perhaps barely conscious, sense that trans women aren’t really women, and so Smith’s presence in the fitting room was somehow already transgressive. But we shouldn’t give in to that feeling. And once we dismiss it, it’s clear that discomfort with anything beyond the crime itself cannot help but be prejudiced.

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After all, fair-minded people agree that blaming a group for the behavior of one member is at the core of prejudicial thinking; it has no place in a just culture, and it certainly cannot be a part of our legislative or judicial framework. As Strangio rightly puts it: “If transgender people will only be entitled to rights if the entire community is perfect, then we are not going to get very far, and that is certainly not how we extend rights under our legal paradigms. … Regardless of what happens with this Idaho case, I would hope that we have a more robust set of equality and justice principles than would crumble under the actions of a single individual.”

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