Public accommodations bills aren’t just about bathrooms

My friends, we need to have a talk about something that is really starting to chap my hide, and that is the way that people discuss transphobic public accommodations bills, sometimes called ‘bathroom bills,’ as well as federal guidance (or lack thereof) on public accommodations for trans people, particularly students.

We’ve already discussed the fact that trans people are so much more than bathrooms, and the issues of relevance to us stretch far beyond where we pee, so please stop obsessing over this subject, even though I know it’s dear to your cis hearts.These are also not ‘anti-lgbqt bills.’ They are anti-t bills. We’ve also discussed that these bills are specifically about targeting trans women, and they should be centred in any conversation about their impact — the trans community as a whole suffers, and that’s important to acknowledge, but this is about transmisogyny.

But they are also not just about bathrooms, and this is something I see being elided in conversations about them. It is so ludicrously horrifically dehumanising to pass laws determining where people can use the restroom that it’s easy to get hung up on that. It’s easy to talk about how trans people are harassed and assaulted in the bathroom. About how women get urinary tract infections from holding it because they can’t find a safe place to pee. About how these bills and the conversation around them are used to make it sound like trans women are creepy sex predators.

These are about gendered public accommodations, though, and that includes locker rooms, changing rooms, and other areas where people are segregated by gender because they’re doing things that involve bodily functions or nudity. This is an important thing to acknowledge and discuss for a lot of different reasons, starting with the fact that it highlights the desire to exclude trans people from public life, period. Keeping people out of the bathroom is a powerful start, but this, too, has an effect on the ability to engage with society.

Trans students, for example, may be involved in school athletics — and sometimes have to fight for inclusion on gendered teams. If their school supports use of the appropriate changing room, what about on away games? What happens if visiting teams complain about a trans girl changing with the girls? Trans students are also caught in physical education, still required in many US schools — should a girl be forced to change with the boys? What might that expose her to, knowing, as we do, about the rates of assault among trans women and girls? If a trans woman wants to try on some stuff at a store, should she be herded into the men’s dressing rooms? What about trans theatrical performers, circus artists, and others who change for work and performance?

There are a ton of settings in which people use gendered facilities without even thinking about it that don’t extend to the bathroom. If you belong to a gym, you probably use a gendered changing room. If you’ve been to a gendered hot spring or public bath, you’ve probably been told where you are and aren’t allowed on the basis of your gender. If you’re a performer, you’ve probably spent time in gendered dressing rooms.

These are things that allow you to engage with society. You can do something fun and enjoyable because you have access to a changing room so you can pull on appropriate gear to do it. You can soak in relaxing waters and take a sauna because a facility has chosen to be gendered, and has chosen to include you in its gender restrictions. You can use the company changing room when you bike in every morning, or when you’re pulling on your work uniform and personal protective equipment. As you tour with your fellow musicians and other performers, you shuffle through a series of gendered changing rooms in cities big and small — unless you’re big enough to have a private dressing room. If you see a pair of pants you dig at a store, you can pop into the gendered changing room to try them on.

Some spaces are breaking down boundaries about gender and make these spaces all-gender. I’ve been in all-gender dressing rooms at department stores, for example, and I prefer to attend all-gender hot springs, in part because I’m usually going with mixed gender groups. In my theatre geek days, I also encountered all-gender dressing rooms. But the fact is that many accommodations, both public and private, remain highly gendered and your access to the facilities and benefits they offer is predicated on your gender.

We should be discussing this in the context of public accommodations and how they embolden exclusionary policies. Such bills bar public accommodations from making their own decisions about how and whether to gender spaces like changing rooms. They also encourage private parties who aren’t necessarily subject to the law to be exclusionary, or inclusionary, depending on their response. Such laws hound trans people out of all aspects of public life.

While the ability to use a bathroom safely is paramount when looking at all the access rights touched by such bills, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about their broader picture. The United States sent trans people to the Olympics last year. Transgender performers appear in ballet, opera, theatre, the circus, symphonies, and numerous other performance settings. Trans people work in industries that require changing into a uniform and/or PPE at work, including aspects of federal, state, and local government. Trans people travel, and face not just the question of ‘where can I pee?’ but ‘will I be able to change clothes or take care of other personal care needs safely?’

Image: Locker Room Talk, Thomas Hawk, Flickr