Let’s be real about the target of bathroom bills: Trans women

There is a glut of bathroom bills sweeping the nation, and they are, as they should be, a topic of considerable discussion and concern. However, there’s something about the framing of these discussions — particularly in mainstream progressive news — that we need to discuss, because it’s eliding some extremely important issues. Put more bluntly, these bills are specifically about dehumanising and profiling trans women, and tiptoeing around that fact is an injustice that hurts trans women and makes these bills more difficult to fight.

When yet another bathroom bill pops up, it’s often framed in the media as something that affects the ‘LGBQT community.’ No. It specifically affects the T community, with some outliers, e.g. butches who may be policed in the bathroom. This is not okay, and we should talk about how LBGQA people are caught up in the wake of these bills, but they aren’t the targets. For the people who engineer these bills, they are more like a pleasant bycatch.

More largely, I’m really getting tired of seeing ‘LGBQTA’ slapped on everything, because gender is not the same thing as sexual orientation, and the two need to be separated out. The communities have similar needs, but they aren’t the same. People can be trans and straight. They can be trans and queer. They can be intersex and pansexual. There are any number of combinations of gender and sexual orientation, and many people view the relationship between their gender and sexual orientation as closely tied, but they still aren’t the same thing. When people fail to separate these things out, it has the tendency of marginalising the T.

Zeroing in on the T community in this case reveals something important, though, which is that while technically all T people are in danger with such bills (trans men can be policed in bathrooms too), these bills are specifically targeted at trans women. Period. They are about transmisogyny. The goal is to humiliate, shame, and endanger trans women, to dehumanise them, to suggest that they do not belong in society, to actively keep them out of many social settings. This isn’t about butch lesbians or trans men or genderqueers who can be forcibly passed as the gender aligned with that they were assigned at birth, though all of these people are definitely hurt by such bills.

This is about finding another way to lash out at trans women. It is about the persistent ‘men in dresses’ stereotype and the belief that only men have penises (and that all men have them, for that matter). It’s about moralising and suggesting that people sneak into bathrooms in dresses for the purpose of being predators — which is in itself a mask for transphobia. People know full well that rapists are going to barge into bathrooms wearing whatever they want, but creating the spectre of the trans woman out to use the bathrooms for her own nefarious purposes demonises trans women, which is the point.

These bills serve both to make it harder for trans women to use the bathroom and to keep trans women on the sociocultural radar. They’re popping up in conservative states as part of a complicated backlash to public and increasingly defiant transness. These bills are being introduced, and passing, because conservatives want to make it clear that they think transness is not okay, and they will enforce this by any means possible, and the transness they hate most of all is that of trans women. They want to create a vision of terror in their population, cultivate the notion that trans women are coming to take their communities by storm.

We need to talk about this. There’s a popular myth, especially in progressive circles, that trans women are ‘safe now.’ That we have reached the point where transness is socially accepted, and everything is okay, and the risks they once ran have been resolved. There are trans people on the television! Trans celebrities are out and about! Caitlyn Jenner! People reinforce these notions by erasing evidence to the contrary (the slew of rapes and murders that specifically target not the trans community in general, but specifically trans women), or lumping trans issues together in a broad, rough kind of way that doesn’t leave room for nuance.

The trans community is huge and incredibly diverse. Trans experiences are by no means universal, as any trans person can articulate. The effects of these laws are similarly incredibly diverse, and not at all universal. One group is targeted more than others, and one group is in for intense profiling and abuse in coming months and years, as every single person who enters ‘women’s’ rooms is going to be policed and endangered if she doesn’t meet the standards of what it means to be ‘female’ in the eyes of the observer. For trans women, already at risk of physical violence, this is a seriously dangerous situation.

While we talk about such bills and address what they mean for gender nonconforming people, for nonbinary people, for trans men, for cis people who don’t express gender in the ways other people want them to, we need to make sure that the spotlight is on trans women. Because lumping them in with these groups, or treating them as though they won’t be affected more than others, is a problem. And members of these other groups need to be careful when it comes to how they talk about bathroom bills and their implications for gender minorities.

Image: Nongendered toilet sign, Cory Doctorow, Flickr