Please. Please. For the love of God and your constituency, find a real problem to write bills about. Because transgender people in bathrooms are not causing any problems. None. Zero.
My preference would be that you spend your energy addressing pressing concerns that threaten to destabilize society and possibly annihilate the entire human race. Might I suggest: generational poverty, mass incarceration, underfunded public schools, or Donald Trump’s presidential bid.
If, for reasons I won’t pretend to understand, you insist on creating bills related to public restrooms, allow me to suggest some bills that might actually improve the bathroom-going experience of the general public:
A bill requiring “occupied/not occupied” signs on stalls. The older I get, the more awkward it is to bend over and check for feet under the stall door.
An “all or nothing” bill regarding automation of bathroom amenities. Does the toilet flush by itself? Will the soap squirt out automatically? Will the water turn on if I move my hand back and forth faster under the faucet? How long should I stand here waiting for the paper towels to emerge? An “all or nothing” bill would help me avoid quite a bit of embarrassment.
A bill prohibiting the use of 1-ply toilet paper. For reasons I shouldn’t have to explain.
I appreciate your time and attention to my concerns. And I hope your next experience in the public restroom of your choice is a pleasant one.
Dear Conservative Christian “News” Sites and Conservative Talk Show Hosts,
I imagine you and I disagree about many things. Evolution. Abortion rights. Gay marriage. Women pastors. Israel/Palestine. Military service. But with all of these issues, I at least understand where you are coming from. I can articulate the values that undergird your opposition to same-sex marriage. I can turn to the Bible passages that you quote when you champion creationism. I can even tell you all the reasons you would say that I should not be a pastor.
I don’t agree with you on these issues; I do (more or less) understand your perspective. But when it comes to your opposition to inclusive bathroom policies, I am truly and completely at a loss. I listen to your arguments in favor of forcing people to use the bathroom of the sex they were assigned on their birth certificate. I try to find some shred of reason in what you say, but every single argument I hear either says nothing or it says something that is so obviously false I can’t imagine anyone really believes it.
The say nothing arguments go something like this: You know we’ve just always . . . and we’ve never . . . and society and common sense and values.
The obviously false arguments go like this: If you let people use the bathroom that corresponds to their chosen gender identity, men will go into women’s restrooms and attack women.
Also, it has NOTHING to do with allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. The man was not transgender. He was not even a cross dresser. He was a creepy guy who walked right into the women’s restroom and strangled a girl. Which, by the way, is against the law everywhere.
I don’t get it. I have deep roots in the Christian tradition—Baptist roots. I’ve read a broad theological range. I’ve attended prayer meetings where people spoke in tongues. I’m fluent in evangelical-ese (if a bit rusty), and I almost always understand the conservative Christian perspective, even though I don’t often agree with it.
But not this time. This time I’m stumped. I truly and honestly have no clue why you are opposed to letting people use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. I thought maybe there was something in the Bible that I’ve somehow missed in all my years of study. So I did some searching.
Turns out that many relevant bathroom words are not found in the Bible at all: bathroom, toilet, pee, poop, feces, shat. None of them are in there.
But “urine” was a hit. God tells Ezekiel to proclaim the coming devastation: “Every spirit will become faint and every leg will be wet with urine.” (Ezekiel 21:7) Also, in a story repeated in 2 Kings and Isaiah, a commander declares that the defeated enemy will “have to eat their own excrement and drink their own urine”. (2 Kings 18:27 and Isaiah 36:12)
Which led me to “excrement” and a passage in Ezekiel where God relents and lets the prophet bake his bread over cow dung instead of human excrement. (Ezekiel 4:15)
Very vivid verses—but not especially relevant to the topic at hand.
I was able to find only one verse that seems at all related to modern bathroom use. In Deuteronomy 23: 12-13, instructions are given to the Israelites:”Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement.”
I think we can all agree on the basic Christian principle of covering up our excrement. Or flushing. Beyond that, perhaps we should keep silent where the scriptures are silent.
Your Sister (I can show you my birth certificate if you like) in Christ,Joanna
Dear Cis Woman in the Women’s Restroom with Me,
If I run out of toilet paper in the stall next to you, I may ask you to pass me some. I would be happy to do the same for you. Otherwise, I expect we can each do our bathroom duties in peace. Have a nice day.
Dear Trans Woman in the Women’s Restroom with Me,
If I run out of toilet paper in the stall next to you, I may ask you to pass me some. I would be happy to do the same for you. Otherwise, I expect we can each do our bathroom duties in peace. Have a nice day.
Dear Cis Man or Trans Man in the Women’s Restroom with Me,
It seems only fair that if you enjoy the privileges of being a man in our society—higher pay, more respect, a wardrobe that does not go out of style every six months—then you should also experience the down sides of being a man in our society—nasty public bathrooms.
But, at any rate, if I run out of toilet paper in the stall next to you, I may ask you to pass me some. I would be happy to do the same for you. Otherwise, I expect we can each do our bathroom duties in peace. Have a nice day.
In bathroom solidarity,Joanna
Dear Sexual Predator in the Women’s Restroom with Me,
Dear Men who were in the Men’s Room when my Woman Friend Accidentally Wandered in there and Used the Bathroom and then Noticed You All Looking at her Funny While She Was Washing her Hands,
She feels pretty silly and wants you to know she was really tired and jet lagged. It won’t happen again. Probably. But if it does, thanks for being cool about it.
Writing offers us an incomparable opportunity to disappear.
I personally hold that words have no intrinsic meaning. What is it about the word “girl,” for example, that specifically encapsulates the idea of a girl? If the word “girl” really is inextricably, objectively tied to the concept of a girl, why do other people talk about ein mädchen, yek dokhtar, une fille? Words are given meaning by our collective agreement to use them—these little clusters of sound—to refer to specific concepts and ideas.
This means that when I write, the text I create is just a representation of what I want to say, not an exact reproduction. The words have meaning to me when I write them, and meaning to you when you read them, but those two meanings will never be exactly the same. Words that have particularly sinister or positive connotations to me might well mean nothing to you, and vice versa.
Imagine a little girl in a brightly-lit room. What does the image make you feel?
I don’t know who you are. When I write, I’m writing to a ghost of you, a reader that doesn’t really exist. You, in turn, read these words and hear a voice that is simultaneously me and someone else entirely. No matter how honestly I write, your understanding will be shaped by your own experiences and ideas, not mine.
I can, of course, change the voice with which I speak, with the aim of generating a specific effect. I can do my best imitation of a man, a woman, a child. What I can’t do is choose who reads the words I write. I can’t know how you feel about men, women, children, and I can’t choose what kind of imaginary writer you enter into conversation with.
These words exist in the middle of this dialogue between ghosts. It’s a space where meaning is in flux, where I create endless numbers of endlessly shifting identities, all of them mine and none of them exactly me. In that space, I can’t help but disappear.
In “real” life I work with refugees. When I first started the process of medically transitioning, I was about to begin a community project with unaccompanied refugee minors. I’d considered pulling out of the project altogether. I didn’t know how much I would change and how quickly, and I didn’t know if it was fair to force vulnerable young people to interact with someone who was physically otherin a way that might make them uncomfortable.
I emailed the project organiser to express my concerns.
“Olive,” her reply began. “Thank you so much for speaking your truth.”
The idea of speaking my truth is a difficult one for me, because in many ways, my daily life is composed of lies I cannot help but tell.
Here is one of my truths: I cannot reliably pass as male or female. On a personal level, this suits me well; having never identified as a man or a woman, realising that I could physically become something approaching neutral was a revelation.
Out in the real world, things are more difficult. Whilst I could, theoretically, consistently refuse to inhabit either a male or female role, in reality it would make life almost unliveable. The vast majority of people will read me as one or the other, and telling everyone I meet that I’m actually neither is inconvenient at best and actively dangerous at worst.
So I lie. Sometimes intentionally and sometimes because I simply have no opportunity to tell the truth. Buying cigarettes, I make an active effort to pass as female, because if the cashier reads me as a teenage boy—my other option—they will refuse to serve me, or worse. I am now on first-name terms with the security guard at my local supermarket, having had a ten-minute argument with him regarding whether I do or do not have a vagina after he had tried to physically remove me from the whiskey aisle. (Entertaining? Yes! An experience I want to repeat? Absolutely not.) In public toilets and on buses late at night, I hunch my shoulders and stare at my phone, because in those situations it is infinitely safer to be a teenage boy than a queer woman.
Ideally, I should never feel like speaking my truth is wrong, even if it might be dangerous. But my own principles tend to fall apart in the face of more pragmatic concerns. When a teenage boy in the middle of a sprawling refugee camp tells me about his experiences of police brutality, in a language that literally does not have a word for “transgender,” am I going to correct him when he calls me “khanoum”? When I return a lost child to her mother and she kisses me on the cheek and calls me “sister,” am I going to object?
That’s a truth that I often cannot speak to others. Here’s one that I often cannot admit to myself:
I am a trauma survivor.
Recovering from childhood trauma works something like this: You are subject to a hurt and a violation that is too horrific to face; much like a light that is too bright to see or a heat so searing that it feels cold, your mind cannot physically process it. In response, your brain develops ways to deal with the experience without facing it head-on. Mostly this is a case of brutal self-distraction and control—substance abuse, self-harm, eating disorders. Recovery usually means processing your experiences painstakingly slowly, in situations where you feel safe, whilst gradually reducing your reliance on self-destructive coping mechanisms.
I tend to think of it as a badly-broken leg that has healed wrong. You learn to avoid walking on it because it can’t take your weight. Your new way of walking will twist your spine, ruin your joints, and cause you pain, but it will allow you to function. To fix it, you’ll need to break the bone and re-set it, and then—slowly—learn how to walk in a way that doesn’t hurt.
Forcing someone to face a traumatic experience when they’re not ready is about as therapeutic as forcing someone to walk on a broken leg.
I am transgender. I was sexually abused as a child. These are truths I’ve been forced to speak—in doctors’ offices and gender clinics, to my family, to my friends, to strangers at work—so many times that not only have the words ceased to be empowering, they have also ceased to have any personal relevance to me. Having an identity and experiences that differ from the norm, especially when those differences are visible, means constantly having to explain yourself on other people’s terms. When I say these words aloud, I enter into a conversation with someone who is talking not to me, but to their idea of a transgender trauma survivor, a composite figure made of all the other narratives about gender identity and trauma that they’ve ever encountered.
These are also truths which often cannot be spoken, for reasons of personal safety and lack of vocabulary, or because they represent a horror that is by nature unspeakable. They are truths that exist in conflict with each other, constantly calling each other’s validity into question. What if I’m making it up? What if I only think I’m transgender because transitioning allows me to destroy the little girl in that brightly-lit room into which I, even now, cannot look? What if I am too scared to transition fully because it means ceasing to be that girl, and becoming the man standing behind her instead? My truth is one of uncertainty, a constant internal dialogue between shifting identities—man, woman, child—all potentially false.
People often talk about writing as a way to speak your truth, but for me, the primary lure of writing is that it allows me to speak my lies, too.
I don’t know how to speak my truth, because I’m not sure that I have a truth to speak. My lived experience is composed of multiple identities and histories, all of them potentially false, and some of them impossible to face. In writing, this uncertainty is not only acceptable, but unavoidable. There’s no way for you and I to be certain that we are reading this text in the same way; we both know that the meaning of these words is in flux.
This is a space in which I don’t have to present my identity as a truth to be spoken, but can show you myself as a mosaic of uncertainties and shifting identities, all of them neither true nor false.
Imagine a teenage boy. Imagine a queer woman. Imagine a little girl in a brightly-lit room.
Only here can they exist in dialogue with each other. That dialogue between them is my truth.
You’ve seen me before. I boarded your bus last week, in the afternoon.
I was the one wearing round black headphones around my neck like a DJ; I was the one in the slouchy red shorts and the too-large white Nike tennis shoes. I was the black one. My two friends and I crowded into the back of the bus, laughing, loud, because school had ended for the day and we are fourteen and it was only 3 p.m. You glanced back at me, annoyed, because you wanted to read the day’s headlines about Charlottesville in peace, and I was singing Beyonce in falsetto, my two friends in hysterics.
When the white man, age fifty-one, shouted from his seat in front of you, “Shut up, N____!” you bowed your head.
When my friends shouted back to defend me, when the white man lunged for us, when the white man threw his first punch at my black face, you closed your eyes and faced forward.
You’ve talked to me before. Last night in Starbucks, you sat waiting for a friend to meet you for mochas and an hour or two of catching up, and you noticed me at the next table bent over a thick biology textbook, a pen in my hand. Maybe ordinarily you would not have interrupted me, but I looked so young and earnest, and — well — I had brown skin and long glossy black hair. As a student, I surprised you. You wondered if I had been adopted.
“What are you studying?” you wanted to know, though the front cover of my textbook told you clearly.
“I’m in the pre-med program at UCD,” I told you, and then I bowed my head to return to mitosis and osmosis.
“Where are you from?”
“Here,” I said, because I have lived in Denver since my parents brought me here at age five. We waded across the slow-moving Rio Grande on a night so dark I could not see my mother, though I held her hand tightly. My father lifted me up and over a fence that tore at my clothes, and for long minutes I stood in Los Estados Unidos all alone while he helped my mother, who was pregnant with my baby brother. The crickets sounded the same in America as they had in Mexico, and the dusty road my family walked into the outskirts of El Paso, where my uncle waited for us, could have been a road anywhere, too.
“But where are you really from?”
I could have told you I have DACA status, that I emerged from the shadows with hope that I could study thick textbooks in coffee shops like any other American. I could have pointed to today’s headline about Trump ending the DACA program; I could have told you that, if I get deported to Mexico, I will walk into a country I do not know except in dreams and into a language I speak, pero mis sueños son en ingles.
Instead, I said, “I’m from here,” and I turned back to my studying.
You’ve needed my help before. At Chicago O’Hare one morning last month, you passed me pulling a wheeled black carry-on behind you, your turquoise faux leather purse slung across your chest. You looked weary: dark circles sagged beneath your eyes, you walked slowly, your mouth hung slack. I stood beside my duffle reading the day’s headlines in The Chicago Tribune.
“Excuse me, sir,” you said, “I don’t mean to bother you. Do you know if there’s a place to get breakfast nearby?”
I folded my newspaper under one arm and surveyed the area. I was on my way home to Iowa from Afghanistan after two years of duty. The moment I’d landed in New York several hours before, I had rushed to the first McDonalds I could find to buy myself a bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit, hash browns, black coffee. Every bite tasted as perfectly greasy and salty as I had remembered. Watching me, people grinned knowingly. The tall slender young man in Army fatigues wolfing down McDonalds deserved this real American food. An old white-haired woman tucked a ten-dollar bill into my pocket. “Thank you for serving us, son,” she said. I used the ten dollars to buy another breakfast.
Now you looked at me with the same mix of respect and awe, the same belief that of all the people in this airport, I was trustworthy because I wore a U.S. Army uniform.
I caught sight of a Caribou Coffee stand. “I’ll walk you there,” I said, and I offered you my arm, because young men in uniform do that for older women. You took it gratefully, leaning on it. You told me as we walked that your mother had just died, that you were so tired.
Would you have leaned on my arm if you had known you leaned on the arm of a man born into a body identified as female? Would you have trusted me so much if you had known that I served for two years in Afghanistan praying my commander would keep my secret for me? Today’s headlines told me Trump will ban transgender soldiers from the military. I am so tired.
“Thank you, young man,” you said in front of Caribou Coffee. I bowed my head to you, and then I turned on my heel. My mother waited in Cedar Rapids to embrace her son.
You’ve watched me on TV before. It was late at night, and you turned on the TV because you couldn’t sleep, and the BBC was running a documentary on North Korea. You decided to watch because your grandfather fought in Korea in the 1950s, and you realized you knew nothing at all about that war. You learned that your grandfather and the other U.S. troops fought to defend South Korea from the Soviet-supported North Korea, that North Korea’s invasion was the first official action of the Cold War. You learned that the UN forces almost lost. You learned that the fighting ended with an armistice and the creation of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, but that technically the two sides are still at war. You wished you had asked your grandfather more questions.
The documentary includes shaky footage of people interviewed on the South Korean side of the DMZ. There I am: a young man with short, well-groomed black hair, a white button-down shirt open at the collar, a shy smile. I surprise you. I speak English well, and I look directly into the camera, telling the BBC reporter that the world must not forget Korea. I do not say “South Korea.” My grandmother and father live in the north still, I say. My great-grandfather fought in the Fatherland Liberation War in the 1950s, I say.
On the bottom of the screen, the day’s headlines scrolled. North Korea has just successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, and the UN is discussing strict sanctions. Trump says he will not rule out a military response. You paused the documentary and stared at a photograph of the DMZ: sky blue buildings, green grass, razor wire looping along a fence edge, a soldier standing guard over a rectangle of empty stone.
Briefly, you wonder if your grandfather ever looked into the eyes of my great-grandfather.
Then you turn off the TV.
I know you. You do not have to read the day’s headlines. You can camp for an entire weekend in the woods, blissfully free from any notifications, and return home rejuvenated. You can do this because they do not attack you or your children on public buses or in the street because of your skin color — you are white. You can avoid the day’s headlines because they do not threaten to deport you to the country in which you were born — your ancestors safely arrived in America, legally or illegally, one hundred and fifty years ago. You can ignore the news because they do not brandish pitchforks outside your door, crying “Monster!” — in your skirts, you safely live as the sex into which you were born. You can refuse to hear today’s latest announcements because they do not cavalierly suggest the annihilation of your homeland — you live in the United States.
And so you imagine you can close your eyes, drink your Starbucks mocha, turn off your phone and the TV and the computer. You imagine today’s headlines, terrible as they are, do not apply to you.
But you’ve seen me. You’ve talked to me. You’ve needed my help. You’ve watched me on TV. And someday, they will come for you.
And in that moment, you will pray that someone else has paid attention, that someone else is brave enough to speak — to act — to stand — for you.
Here’s what you can do today:
read the newspaper, every day (especially papers like The Guardian, which give an outside-U.S. perspective)
donate to an immigrant rights group to support DACA students (I donate to Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition)
donate to the ACLU, LambdaLegal, Human Rights Campaign, and other organizations that support the rights of all people, including transgender people who wish to serve in the military
oppose ANY form of racism and ANY organization that supports or spreads the ideas of white supremacy
call your senator and insist that the U.S. work with the UN on North Korea through careful diplomacy, not military action
refuse to be silent — Trump’s support (even passive) of white supremacists, his discontinuation of DACA, his ban on transgender people in the military, his aggressive stance on North Korea, and many, many other of his actions are wrong — and will hurt us all