This past week I’ve heard from two different female friends about their experience being accused of being in the wrong bathroom. Neither of them could be mistaken for being a Playboy Bunny, a Miss UK contestant, or a WAG, but I would never have guessed in a million years that anyone would assume that either of them were anything other than a woman. It’s true that neither of them fit an idealised, commercialised vision of western femininity or Hollywood fictional beauty. One is a butch lesbian the other is a very tall woman with an earth goddess type figure in a heterosexual marriage. Both are physically lovely, but apparently neither are womanly enough despite having been born with ovaries, a cervix, vagina, uterus and a biology that was designed to make more oestrogen than testosterone. Both were stunned and at a loss for words…though they both continued to do their business. My earth goddess friend was upset at herself for not having a trans-positive response at the ready to confront the woman policing appropriate gender appearance. She posted her experience on Facebook and I was taken aback by the well-meaning people who said things like, “I’m so sorry you had to go through this, “That’s awful”, or my favourite, “That’s terrible as you are every bit a woman”. The responses seemed to suggest there was something wrong or ‘less than’ with being trans. I’m sure none of these people are overtly transphobic, but the responses do suggest the inculcation of transphobic beliefs. It’s not surprising as we do live in a transphobic culture. My earth goddess friend is comfortable in her womanhood and was not upset about being mistaken for a trans woman (or a bloke in a dress as I’m sure the gender police assumed). She was upset she didn’t stand up for trans rights in the moment. I conceptualised her experience as one of collateral transphobia and she has nothing to regret about the encounter. Continuing to go for a wee was like pissing on that other person’s transphobia. Sure, in hindsight it can be fun to imagine coming back with a pithy saying or imagine flashing one’s genitalia to make a point, but carrying on as normal works just as well. Also, if you don’t belong to a specific oppressed group, you don’t typically have the previous experiences that help you develop coping mechanisms like instant come backs.
Both of these experiences have really gotten me thinking about the difficulties the gender police would have if they began to police all bathroom usage. I do worry that we are not far away from that going by my friends’ recent experiences. I began to think of all the gender non-conforming people I’ve met in my travels since 1980. I thought of Jai who took me in when I was made homeless as a young gay man because of homophobia. Jai was the 2nd butchest lesbian in Atlanta, and one could be forgiven for thinking she was a man, but she was all woman. I would have loved to see the bathroom police try to stop her and escape with their lives. Jai was fierce, but downright girlie compared to Brenda, who was the butchest lesbian in Atlanta. In fact, Brenda was the butchest person I ever met. Brenda could have gone into any bathroom she wanted to, and no one would have dared stopped her! It’s not just butch lesbians that could cause some difficulty for the bathroom police. In Miami I had a straight cis-woman friend who had the deepest speaking voice I’ve ever heard. She had a strangely shaped body and didn’t quite know how to dress herself. Her gender appeared nebulous at best, but if you heard her speak it was even more confusing. The gender police would have had real difficulty deciding whether to inspect genitalia or not. Going back to Atlanta there was Sandi, who was what was called at the time, a post-operative transexual (gawd that sounds awful now). In today’s language Sandi was a trans woman who had had gender affirming surgery. Even with the surgery, years of hormones and buckets of makeup, Sandi always looked like a bloke in a dress. However, once you spoke to her for any time at all, her maternal, female spirit was enveloping. She stopped looking like ‘a bloke in a dress’ and simply was Sandi your female friend. However, imagine the gender police’s consternation if they made Sandi show her genitalia before allowing passage into the women’s toilet. Then there was Mandy – one of the most beautiful women you would meet anywhere in the world. She was drop dead gorgeous, and you would never look at her and think she was trans. She was one of the many trans women who can just pass. Unlike some of my trans friends who tried to pass, Mandy was loud and proud, announcing to strangers in her feminine strong Southern drawl that she had “her tree chopped down and her trunk split.” She loved to shock people with that one. Imagine this scene: Mandy with all her womanly gorgeousness approaches the women’s toilets, the bathroom police take one look at her and say, “Come on in here honey. We can tell you are a girl.” I can just imagine the horror on the gender police’s faces when Mandy used her shock line! I do declare, I would love to see that!
So far my examples have been about the ‘confusion’ that women who ‘look like’ men or some trans women would cause the bathroom police. Let’s not leave trans men out of this crazy fun. Where should my friend John go to the bathroom? John has had top surgery and has been on testosterone for many years. He has a much better beard than me and does masculinity way better than me. He truly ‘looks like’ a man. However, he has not had gender affirming ‘bottom’ surgery so still has female genitalia. Would the gender police let him in the female toilets? They would definitely try to stop him yet would be in for quite a shock if he dared to bare all. Thankfully he’s able to peacefully use the stalls in male toilets.
I don’t want to leave my intersex friends out of the picture. Where would the gender police have them go? I met Billy/Billie first as Billie. They presented as female. Billie was intersexed and assigned one gender at birth that didn’t really fit who they were. In the process of becoming clean and sober Billie started to present as Billy and was very androgenous. I wonder which bathroom the gender police would want Billy/Billie to go to regardless of how they were presenting.
All of these examples illustrate just how crazy all this bathroom hysteria is. My trans friends have been using the bathroom that is most appropriate to how they live since I started meeting them way back 1980. And trans people have been doing it way before I became aware of their existence. The world hasn’t come to an end because trans women use women’s toilets. Why has it become such a polarising issue in recent years?
The transphobic hysteria has been heating up in Scotland again with the introduction of the Gender Recognition Act. There are versions of the transphobic hysteria across the UK and people are getting themselves tied up in knots over it. I know that a lot of the moral panic that swept the United States was created by right wing Christian groups who were losing their battles against broader LGBTQ acceptance and human rights, and they have been funding that hysteria here in the UK now too. The right wing landed on using anti-trans messages to push back against the progress we were seeing across a wide range of issues including LGBT rights and women’s rights…and the anti-trans message was a winner. It whips up a moral panic and it creates strange bedfellows, reminding me of how some black Christian groups joined with right wing white Christian groups to oppose abortion or gay rights, when just years before the white right wing was fighting FOR segregation. The anti-trans movement has brought together some feminists, some lesbians with right wing groups who are homophobic, misogynistic, sexist or very conservative when it comes to women’s rights or what being a woman is.
The discourse I hear coming from the anti-trans movement is that women like my two friends I began this essay about aren’t womanly enough. Real women are feminine and lady like. This discourse is part of what the feminist movement and many lesbians have been fighting against for generations. I find it odd that the moral panic has allowed some feminists and lesbians to crawl into bed with the right wing.
I also hear discourse that suggests that women are weak, helpless, fragile victims and they must be protected from all the evil predatory men that are around every corner. This just strikes me as incredibly sexist. Yes, there are predatory and dangerous men in the world, but that doesn’t justify that some feminists and some lesbians should work with the right wing to oppress trans people. Again, the moral panic created by the religious right has led to some crazy bedfellows. I fear that the moral panic around trans issues has given momentum to conservative forces and we are beginning to see the rollback of hard fought progress. Just look at the Don’t Say Gay bill that has just passed in Florida (Think Section 28 – only worse). Or look at all the roll back on women’s reproductive rights sweeping the USA, or the strong pushback against the Black Lives Matter movement. If you don’t think this could happen in the UK, think again. Ask my friends who were told they were in the wrong bathroom…the ugliness that is so apparent in the USA is already taking root here in the UK.