Jane Goes to the Bathroom

Readers, we have a very special post for you this week from our friend and colleague, Jane Heenan. We're working closely with Jane and others in the LGBT community to fight for more protections for transgender people in Nevada. The surest way to be successful? Public education. Read on, and share these insights with everyone you know.

During the debate about antidiscrimination laws at the 2009 session, much ado was made about the question of which bathrooms transgender people use, and it was apparent that there is a lot of fear about “deviants” in the bathrooms. Many statistics support the lack of danger, but I thought it would be helpful to explain my own experience in using public bathrooms along the way as I transitioned from living in the social role of a man to living as a woman to clear up some of the misconceptions.

My experience was, I believe, rather typical and in the end my fears about this were much ado about nothing. Still, there were experiences that I felt harmed me, particularly those that involved law enforcement and security. I understand these experiences much more clearly now, and it is my firm belief that no one should be made to endure such struggles.

As I started my transition in the mid-1990s, I felt it was important for me to overcome my fears of getting into or causing trouble for using the bathroom. I needed to be successful in this part of my journey, in part because I had no choice – using a public bathroom is inevitable – and in part because there was something like an affirmation available to me in a public bathroom: if I could successfully use a “women’s bathroom” I could more confidently move through the world in the social role of a woman. In the beginning, there were many times I chose not to use the public bathroom because I was fearful of the possible consequences. These were times when I would be in a more crowded venue – I felt less fear when there were fewer persons around. And, so, I experimented with using the women’s bathroom in these less-crowded circumstances and mostly tried just to go in and come out as quickly as I could. I didn’t want contact because I believed this would create a greater chance for problems. Of course, I found after awhile that nothing really bad happened; no one stared at me or called me names, and as my comfort level grew, I felt less restricted in using the bathroom when I felt the need to do so regardless of how many persons were around. This was helpful in many ways for me.

The times that I found trouble were not a result of the reactions of others who were, like me, just going about their business in a public venue. My trouble with using public bathrooms was always a result of the intervention of law enforcement or private security professionals such as those found in casinos. Among other experiences, I had a police officer confront me in a crowded airport after I had come out of the women’s bathroom, asking me for identification, taking down my information in a note pad, and telling me that he was putting me on a “list of known transvestites.” He further told me that if I was ever caught by a police officer using a women’s bathroom again that I would be arrested. I was terrified by this experience and believed what he told me for some time. I also felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about this – who would take my side against such a figure of authority? Further, it reinforced for me the belief that police officers are mostly engaged in harassing persons; I was only using the bathroom, and there was no legitimate reason for me to be treated in the way that I was.

Another experience came when I was at a casino on a weekday afternoon. I sat at a video poker machine for a short while and then got up to use the bathroom. When I came out, casino security asked me to accompany them to their offices inside the casino. Frightened and confused and not knowing what to do, I went with them. There were several security officers present as I was made to surrender my driver license (which they then photo-copied) and questioned over the next 20 minutes about what I was doing there and why I was wearing the clothes that I was wearing. I was humiliated and scared about what might happen. I didn’t know how to answer their questions – I was just trying to make honest changes in my life. Finally, I was escorted by two officers all the way to my car in the parking lot and was told that if I ever returned to this casino that I would be arrested. They watched me as I drove away, shaking and terrified that somehow something further would happen.

Of course, what happened was that I continued to empower myself and to work toward ending such unnecessary and harmful harassment. I would never put up with such treatment at this point in my journey. And I continue to believe that there is nothing wrong with persons engaging in a process of gender transition or experimentation using the public bathroom that corresponds most closely with their presentation and who they see themselves to be. The fear about bathrooms comes down to stereotyping: “those” kinds of persons are so different that they must be wanting to commit depraved acts such as sexually harming a young person in a bathroom. There was a time when the bathrooms in Nevada were segregated by skin color and those who supported such laws made similar arguments about how “those” people would attack white children. Transgender persons are just that: persons. We are a diverse group, although the vast majority of us only want to pee in peace when we are in a public setting. We fear you much more than you fear us, and our fears are much more legitimate especially since “the law” is against us. We need your support in ending or at least minimizing such fears – as lawmakers you are in a powerful position to support reconciliation and help put an end to harmful stereotypes.

Jane Heenan is a Las Vegas-based therapist and the Director of Equality Nevada Community Services, an equal-rights advocacy group.

A Dubious Distinction

Don’t you just hate when Las Vegas is featured on those “worst in the country” lists? Well, brace yourselves, because one local agency recently received a similar type of “honor” for its blatant disregard of the First Amendment.

On April 13, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, a nonprofit organization with ties to the prestigious University of Virginia, included the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department on its annual list of “Muzzle Award” recipients. Given out every year to individuals and government agencies who censor speech in ways both upsetting and ridiculous, the Muzzles are like the public policy equivalent of acting’s most famous non-award, the Razzies.

So why, exactly, does Metro merit this recognition? It’s all about Elvis, naturally.

The ACLU of Nevada’s ongoing fight to let musicians, Elvis impersonators, and other street performers exercise their First Amendment rights on the Las Vegas Strip caught the attention of the Thomas Jefferson Center, who were as shocked as the rest of us that local law enforcement would consistently harass performers on what has been clearly established as a public sidewalk.

Negotiations in the case are ongoing, and we hope that Metro will ultimately recognize and protect the First Amendment on the Strip. In the meantime, the Muzzle Awards, which received mention in publications as large as the Washington Post, are a sad reminder that sometimes what happens in Vegas…is regarded with grim bemusement by everyone else.

The ACLU Goes Shooting!

As one of the few ACLU affiliates to affirmatively support the Second Amendment, all of us at the ACLU of Nevada have respect for responsible gun owners, and we often work with gun rights advocates on issues of common concern.

Just the other week, our good friend Robert Johnson from Gun Owners of Nevada invited us to try our hand at shooting. Staff Attorney Maggie McLetchie and I made the trip out to Boulder City and, I’ll be honest, as two people who had never used a gun before, we didn’t know what to expect. I was hoping that I’d at least hit the target!

After a comprehensive lesson on firearm types and safety protocols, we were each set up with a .22 caliber gun.  Maggie was up first:

Her first shot was nearly dead center! The guns we used were relatively quiet and did not kick back into your shoulder as we expected they would. After Maggie’s round was done, it was my turn. I was nervous, but I tried to focus on the target and remember Robert’s tips about breathing and properly holding the gun.

Success! My shots were quite close together for a beginner, and as the lesson progressed I became more comfortable holding the gun and reloading the ammunition. For both of us, apprehension quickly turned into excitement about learning a new skill.

We hope to go out again soon with Robert to practice some more and further improve our marksmanship. Given that summer is fast approaching and it gets pretty darn hot out in the desert, I suspect it will need to be an early-morning excursion.

As someone who had never touched a gun before this experience, I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with them under the tutelage of an experienced teacher. As Americans we have the right to bear arms, but we also have a duty to exercise that right responsibly. 

The best part? Maggie and I have found a new hobby!

Phil Hooper is the ACLU of Nevada's Program Coordinator and Las Vegas Office Manager.

Immigration Reform, ACLU-Style

Hello Readers! We've got a LOT going on this week, including our work on the Personhood ballot initiative case. Check out our Facebook page (the link is on the right side of this page) for the latest updates--and become a fan if you haven't already!).

In the meantime, a variation on last week's theme: the rights of immigrants. Our own Rebecca Gasca has some thoughts on comprehensive immigration reform from an ACLU perspective. In 3...2...1...


Most Americans would agree that our immigration system is in tatters. Here at the ACLU of Nevada, we support responsible and comprehensive reforms to U.S. immigration policy that protects the civil liberties of everyone- regardless of their immigration status.

Last year, Congressman Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL) introduced legislation that proposed many meaningful reforms to the immigration system. However, it fell short from our perspective in two ways: it did not extend the same protections to lesbian and gay couples as their heterosexual counterparts, and it required the implementation of a privacy-invading electronic employment verification system (that even the US Government admits is flawed) for all workers (not just immigrants).

More recently, Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) announced their own framework for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), which includes, among other things, mandatory biometric Social Security cards for all Americans.

The ACLU, however, views both biometric Social Security cards and electronic employment verification systems as attacks on our constitutionally-protected right to privacy. Both would essentially require every worker, including US citizens, to obtain a “permission slip” from the federal government in order to work. They are costly, invasive, and are thinly veiled disguises of systems that lay the groundwork for a comprehensive national identification card.

We have also long opposed mandatory electronic verification systems for privacy reasons and for their adverse impact the error-filled records in government databases would have on all workers. On these grounds during our 2009 legislative session, the ACLU of Nevada submitted written testimony and testified against Assembly Bill 431, which would have required some employers to verify the immigration status of workers before hiring them.

As civil libertarians, we believe that a comprehensive solution does for this problem does exist- but it can’t come at the price of cherished fundamental liberties and privacy protections.


Rebecca Gasca is the Public Advocate for the ACLU of Nevada

Effective Legal Counsel for ALL

It’s a great day for civil rights! In a 7-2 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court just declared that criminal attorneys MUST advise their non-citizen clients about the immigration consequences of a guilty plea. In a society that is supposed to require effective legal counsel for those accused of crimes, this just makes sense. Here’s some expert analysis from ACLU of Nevada board member and local immigration attorney, Peter Ashman:


Today, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Padilla v. Kentucky that criminal defense lawyers must advise their noncitizen clients about the risk of deportation if they accept a guilty plea. The Court recognized that current immigration laws impose harsh and mandatory deportation consequences onto criminal convictions, and that Congress eliminated from these laws the Attorney General's discretionary authority to cancel removal in meritorious cases. The Court said, "These changes to our immigration law have dramatically raised the stakes of a noncitizen's criminal conviction. The importance of accurate legal advice for noncitizens accused of crimes has never been more important."

This case involved a Vietnam War veteran who has resided lawfully in the U.S. for over 40 years. His criminal defense lawyer told him not to worry about the immigration consequences of pleading guilty to a crime because of the length of time Padilla had resided in the U.S., but that advice was wrong. In fact, the guilty plea made Mr. Padilla subject to mandatory deportation from the United States. The state of Kentucky said that Mr. Padilla had no right to withdraw his plea when he learned of the deportation consequence. Today's decision reverses the Kentucky court. It also rejected the federal government's position (which had been adopted by several courts) that a noncitizen is protected only from "affirmative misadvice" and not from a lawyer's failure to provide any advice about the immigration consequences of a plea. Nevada has long ago adopted the "collateral consequence" position advanced unsuccessfully by the State of Kentucky. (Barajas v. State, 115 Nev. 440, 991 P.2d 474 (1999)

The right to counsel is at the very core of our criminal justice system. The Court affirms that immigrants have the right to challenge plea agreements when they rely on incorrect advice from their lawyers or where counsel fails to provide any immigration advice at all, if they can also show prejudice. Today's decision also reminds us that ultimately, the increased criminalization of immigration law and lack of flexibility has resulted in harsh results. Congress should do its part to restore immigration judges' discretion to consider the particular circumstances in a person's case, thus affording each person facing deportation an individualized and fair opportunity to be heard.


If you are an attorney and want to learn more about what this means for you, please check the ACLU of Nevada website for information about possible trainings. For more info about our organization’s work on immigrants’ rights, visit http://www.aclu.org/immigrants-rights/.


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