TW: Transphobia and Violence
As an intersectional feminist, I believe that to call yourself a feminist you have to advocate for the rights of all women. By definition, this includes trans women. A discussion that has been brought to my attention recently is whether trans women should be allowed access to women-only bathrooms. My automatic reaction is yes, of course they should be, what is there even to discuss here? But, due to misconceptions and scaring a lot of people are worried about this. So, today I want to help you to understand both sides of the argument and expose the real reasons behind counterarguments. Conversations such as these display the depressing reality for women in general and how unnecessarily difficult society makes it for transwomen, and others who do not conform to cis-normative stereotypes, to access their basic human rights.
Before we break down both sides of this discussion, I would like to draw your attention to how concerning it is that we need to have this conversation. One of the main arguments against allowing trans women into women-only bathrooms is the idea that this could result in the potential victimisation of women in this previously ‘safe’ and ‘private’ space. It is so sad that the initial thoughts are that people accessing the bathrooms that match the gender they identify themselves with, would result in women being potential victims. Due to ingrained sexism within our society manifesting into actions that make women feel uncomfortable such as catcalling, a bathroom, where men are seemingly excluded, can feel like a safe space. It is ridiculous that sexism and how women have to endure it daily is only acknowledged to support arguments against people who do not fit the status quo. If you think about it women are unsafe in so many environments, but it is simply ignored. It is undermined by statements such as: ‘not all men’ and ‘what was she wearing?’. But in an uncomfortable environment involving something that threatens general dominant gender stereotypes suddenly violence against women becomes useful, so it is considered. This leads to the question, who is this argument actually designed to protect? Is it actually women or is it transphobic people who cannot seem to understand those who don’t fit in the status quo to the point where they revert to scare-mongering to prevent equality from taking hold?
Safe and uninhibited access to public restrooms is fundamental. Whether at work, in educational institutions, or in public spaces in general. Being refused access or feeling uncomfortable will have significant physical and mental health implications. This is what transgender people face if their access is not socially recognised and protected. There are countless stories of the embarrassment felt by transgender people when accessing bathrooms extending all the way to being subjected to violence themselves or being forced to leave. These actions and feelings stem from socially engrained discriminatory practices that do not have clear, effective, or well-known laws to counter-act them.
For those who still believe that the costs of allowing transgender women to access women’s bathrooms outweigh the benefits, it is obvious that their thinking is based on a conscious or subconscious hierarchy of value firmly placing the worth of transwomen below that of ciswomen. This is transphobic and represents the perpetuation of gender stereotypes. Gender identity is crucial for people’s psychological health and dignity, denying this would be a violation against them. Legally, under the Equality Act 2010, transgender people are allowed access to bathrooms aligned with their gender identity, but they still feel unsafe, with many reporting verbal harassment when accessing gender-specific bathrooms, and some reporting physical assault. This reflects the sustained social biases against transgender people perpetuated by backward views that have even infiltrated the media. For example, a 2018 article in the Sunday Times covering the introduction of laws allowing self-identified transgender women to access women’s bathrooms whether they have previously undergone transition was described as ‘the most radical move yet’. a commenter went even further to say that this would abolish women’s protected spaces and be a danger to women and girls. These misleading claims are examples of the misinformation fuelling this debate.
Trans-exclusionary social misconceptions that are encouraged and promoted by some include the concept that trans people are practicing ‘gender fraud’. Terms such as this are employed in an attempt to normalise transphobia and/or cissexism. People who adopt these attitudes simply have an innate fear of identities, expressions, appearance, and behaviours that do not align with social norms of cisgender people. Spreading fear around the use of bathrooms by transgender people is a popular strategy used by conservative/anti-LGBTQ+ groups to increase resistance against anti-discrimination laws aimed at promoting trans rights. They claim to be protecting defenseless women from aggressive men in this vulnerable space, again reverting to the troubling stereotypical characteristics of women and men.
This insistence to keep gender inside a box encourages people to publicly express transphobic opinions that invertedly control what it means to be feminine and masculine which is fundamentally oppressive. Furthermore, despite the violence argument being consistently brought up there is no statistical evidence to support it, where trans-inclusive policies have been implemented the number sexual harassment cases in bathrooms or changing rooms has not increased. Also, the concept that encouraging social acceptance will effectively allow men into women’s bathrooms makes no sense. This assertion is based entirely on a misunderstanding of what it means to be transgender. It is a myth that allowing transgender people to access the bathroom aligned with their gender identity is a threat to others. Whether or not trans-inclusive policies are in place, it does not affect the laws regarding sexual harassment, this is still universally illegal. If a man intends to sexually assault a woman, gender norms regarding bathrooms would not be a hindrance to this. Trans people are being mislabeled as a threat and transferred the blame. Should we not consider instead why we automatically assume transgender women are predisposed to commit crimes such as abuse, and they would choose a women’s bathroom to do this as outside of this space women are ‘protected’ by men? If someone intends to assault another human being and breaks laws doing so, it is highly likely that they would break a law that forbade them from entering a women’s bathroom.
To conclude, this debate is ridiculous and it is clear that the roots of the ideas that fuel it stem from ingrained sexism and dominant cis-normative ideology that endure through naive anti-LGBTQ+ idiots that, unfortunately still have prominent and influential voices. Trans people need to be humanised and social acceptance needs to be promoted. Legal change is all well and good, but it won’t go anywhere towards affecting the necessary change in social attitude. These views need to be challenged and countered publicly, in the news, and in person, people need to call each other out when they’re being transphobic. This is not an overnight solution unfortunately but we can break down these views one by one. I hope this is a step in the right direction and we can all agree on one thing, transgender people have the right to freely access the bathroom aligned with their gender identity, this is legally recognised in the UK and should be socially recognised. If people bring up the issue of a threat take a moment to consider firstly that they are actually admitting that men generally are a threat to women, secondly who they are actually trying to protect with their argument, and thirdly they are fundamentally transphobic and do not understand the meaning of the term trans.
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Illustration courtesy of Phoebe Holden
Madeline Trudgian (She/Her)
Politics and international relations student at the University of Nottingham, intersectional feminist and blog writer for Our Streets Now. Passionate about women's education globally as a powerful tool to dismantle the patriarchy.