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The Lack of Safety in Gendered Spaces

Hey Friends,

Here’s an update on how things have gone in the week since surgery (it’s now been 8 days!).  Along with giving a bit of info on my physical healing, I also wanted to share some of my experiences in public spaces since surgery.

One of the most immediate changes has been the way that I feel I am read/gendered by others.  As much as I’ve been pretty enthralled every time I catch my reflection in a mirror, I wasn’t sure how much my new chest would impact the way others decide to gender me.  In public spaces, there aren’t necessarily easy ways to gauge how people first read me.  However, the stakes get much higher in gendered spaces…like bathrooms.

The morning after surgery, my parents took me out to a nice breakfast to celebrate.  As we finished our meal, I felt the need…to pee.  As usual, I went into an anxious series of questions to determine what to do:

Why didn’t I go pee before leaving the hotel?  Oh wait, I did…damn that extra glass of water!  Okay, so where’s the restroom?  Is it single stall…or is there a single stall room available?  Nope.  So, checking out how full the restaurant is, what are my chances of making it in and out of the restroom without someone else coming in?  Not good.  Well, what am I wearing?  Is my chest showing…and if so, how will folks in this environment read me on first glance?

When I had my pre-surgery chest, that last question was most often where this stopped.  As much as I felt trapped in the way my chest characterized me to others, it was often my “safety” card in gendered spaces for women.  While I slouched and hid my chest as much as possible in most places, I made sure my chest was pronounced when I was in these women-specific spaces.  In times when I had failed to put this trick into action, I’ve had to deal with stares, demands that I leave, and I’ve feared physical acts of violence. With my new flat chest, this safety card was gone.

While considering the effects of having this surgery, I consciously made the choice to forgo my physical safety for my psychological/emotional balance with my body.  Our societal norms force us to be either male or female…and fiercely reinforce these essentialist arguments about inherent female/male-ness and their paired gendered identities.  Because I don’t fit into this norm, I don’t have the option to feel both safe and emotionally/psychologically connected to my physical body as a whole.

Without my chest identifying me as female, I’ve felt more comfortable occupying more gender-fluid/male spaces.  In preparation of my first trip into a male bathroom (in a while), I brought the idea up to my dad at the table as a declaration, “I have to go pee – I’ll be using the men’s room now.”  His response was to give me tips…super cute, right?  Maybe he had already prepped himself for this, but he actually said a lot of the same things I had already learned from others who are also forced to “pass” in these dangerous gendered spaces.

  • Look straight ahead and don’t make eye contact
  • When using stalls, don’t pee too quickly
  • Make sure to “butch it up” so I’m not read as queer (not from my dad)
  • Don’t use my voice above a whisper
  • Act like this space doesn’t scare the crap out of me.  If I look like I should be in there, folks won’t pay attention to me.

 

Check out this video of my buddy, Miles, performing his incredible spoken word piece, “Nebraska”  (*note – his poem includes some references to physical/sexual violence)

 

My first few bathroom runs…so far, pretty good.  I’ve followed most of this advice and felt increasingly comfortable in men’s restrooms.  However, today at the mall, I faltered.  There were so many people in the mall…and tons of folks using the restroom.  I’m still really physically fragile and didn’t want to test my luck.  So, today…it didn’t feel so safe.  While my body has changed, my safety will continue to be in question…especially in gendered spaces like bathrooms.

So, as I was thinking of how I’d write this blog on safety and gender-specific spaces, I came across an article about what’s been happening in Maine regarding the removal of a Trans Rights bill that

“would allow businesses and schools to require people to use restrooms coinciding with their biological gender [sex they were assigned at birth], rather than the gender with which they identify. It also would eliminate the ability of transgender people to sue based on discrimination if they are denied use of their preferred restrooms.” – full article here

When I first saw the headline, I figured this was just another defensive reaction by some scared politicians.  Well…this is probably still the case.  But I looked closer at the article and realized that this was a bill that would reverse parts of Maine’s Human Rights bill that had already been passed.  State Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, who is sponsoring this new bill (L.D. 1046), was actually part of a commission that approved the protections for folks to use any bathrooms that work for them.  But, Fredette was over-ruled…and decided to appeal his case further by trying to rescind these protections.

What are Fredette’s motivations?

“The concept here is there is not an absolute right for a transgender to go into the bathroom they identify with,” Fredette said in front of the overflowing crowd Tuesday. “We have to draw lines in this society so we balance rights with the rights of everyone else.” – Taken from another article

Okay, so here’s the deal.  First off, it’s really upsetting to know that a bill that explicitly includes gender identity as it gives equal protection to folks under the state law would come under this type of scrutiny after it was already passed.  It shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s such a battle to pass such things (re: Massachusetts Equal Rights Bill), it makes it seem like even more of an uphill battle.

Second, folks like Maine’s State Rep. Ken Fredette deliberately mislead voters with fear mongering about bathrooms being more unsafe because folks who are trans blur the male/female fauxsafe space divide.  As someone who constantly worries about my own safety (in so many public/private spaces), I don’t really believe that the idea of “safe spaces” really exists.  Instead, spaces are patrolled by and held accountable to norms and expectations that we (as individuals and as a society) choose to follow and reinforce.  Because many of us are so comfortable with these norms, the spaces can seem “safe” when nobody rocks the boat.  So when folks blur this line, instead of calling the false idea of safety in gendered spaces into question, we avert our focus to scapegoat gender variant/trans folks who are rocking the boat rather than focusing on our real issue of a false sense of safety and comfort in gendered norms.

Also bathrooms can be really important…since we all find ourselves in public spaces having to pee.  However, this fear of bathrooms being safe spaces is always the first line of defense offered in rebuttal to the idea of trans rights.  Not only does this minimize trans rights as being solely about bathrooms, but it also switches the context of the discussion from being about equal rights for a group of people who are marginalized to being about society’s need to protect our “safe” spaces from violence.  Thus, discussions of trans rights almost always turn into discussions about bathrooms….and also almost always turn into discussions about violence and danger. It’s dirty politics…and it’s been working well, so folks who are threatened by the idea of gender identity being protected use this tactic almost all the time.  And…the effect is that the discussion turns trans folks into violent and dangerous people to the wider public, while anti-trans rights folks benefit politically.

Third, as much as some people don’t like to think this way, anyone can commit a crime in more isolated (and less public) spaces like bathrooms.  Especially if these people fit into the norms of false “safe” spaces, they can use their privilege of passing in these spaces to commit acts of violence without drawing much attention to themselves.  The false sense of safety in gendered spaces actually renders bathrooms more unsafe because folks may let their guards down more than they would in public spaces.  Basically, bathrooms aren’t safe for anyone…especially with the norms we’ve established and set around them.

And, there’s also the huge issue of gendered bathrooms being really hostile and dangerous places for those who are deemed outsiders.  Upon entering a bathroom, my biggest fear isn’t that I’ll upset someone…or that they’ll upset me.  My biggest fear is that I’ll get physically assaulted or abused…and nobody will be there to protect me.  I’ve heard so many stories of friends being harmed in these ways that I’m often numb to new stories of violence.  Bathrooms are definitely not the only places where violence against gender variant/genderqueer/trans/queer folks happens.  But, there’s a reason why these stories exist – these semi-public/semi-private, gender-patrolled, fauxsafe spaces are extremely unsafe to trans folks.  This is why equal protections for bathroom use need to be included under the law!

So, if this law gets passed…the sex that folks are assigned at birth will determine the only legal place for them to pee.  Aside from all the other messed up elements in this, do they really think that this solution would work?  I know I’ve made tons of people using the women’s restroom uncomfortable…and that’s before having top surgery and without testosterone.  What about my many friends who have no trouble using the bathroom of their choice, but would have to use the other restroom should this law get passed?  Or, what about folks who may not have been assigned any sex at birth?  This solution simply doesn’t work…and proponents know it.

Meanwhile, business owners are staying fairly neutral in the debate by asking for some sort of clear legal plan that they can follow.  So what should they do?  Well, I’d send them to my friends at Genderqueer Chicago who are promoting this amazing T-Friendly Bathroom Initiative in Chicago – check out this article!  Also, in addition to getting rid of this absurd law, how about offering businesses funding for…wait for it…single stall restrooms!  Even if you keep them gendered (which is, frankly, totally unnecessary), they’re still individual spaces for folks to use regardless of how others read them.

❤ Asher

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About Queerly Asher

I'm a genderqueer, trans-masculine Jew. I grew up/went to school in the Midwest (UW-Madison) and recently re-located to Boston (Jamaica Plain, MA) to work as a Community Organizer with a LGBT & Queer Jewish organization. I started this wordpress to document my experiences and journey of my own psychological, emotional, and physical form of transition. We'll see where it goes!

Discussion

One thought on “The Lack of Safety in Gendered Spaces

  1. There’s a really fabulous website called Safe2Pee that maps user entries of gender neutral washrooms! So far, they have locations listed all over the US and Canada, and they have the option for you to enter places anywhere in the world. They also tell you important things like if you have to buy something to use the washroom and if it’s also accessible.
    http://safe2pee.org/

    Posted by raimi | April 14, 2011, 9:44 am

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