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.