Sarah Brown (auntysarah) wrote,

The Perennial Transgender Toilet Debate

The toilet debate seems to have flared up on my twitter feed today, with much discussion taking place at Jack of Kent's blog.

I always find this very frustrating, but I think an important point is highlighted by the way this debate is typically framed.

The "trans people in public toilets" debate is almost always framed in terms of protecting cis women from trans women

Quite often this framing is not explicit, but is implicit in the language used to frame the issue, and in terms of what is and is not said.

Let's take Jack of Kent's framing of this issue as an example - he asks:
Or should the law relating to, say, breaches of the peace be used to prevent transgendered people, especially male to female (MTF), intruding into the "space" reserved for a particular gender?

The emphasis is mine. Now I'm not having a go at Jack of Kent here - his framing reflects wider societal attitudes, but I do think these attitudes, as displayed in the way this question is so oft approached by cis people, are inherently transphobic, and misogynist.

Firstly, there's the more obvious objection - the idea that trans women in a space reserved for women can ever be considered to be intruding. Since trans women are women, it's not possible for us to intrude into women's space, which by definition we have as much right to enter as any other woman. We can be excluded by an act of transphobia, but even asking the question of whether we should be allowed contains an assumption that trans women are not women. This is cissexist (cissexism is the statement or belief that trans people's identified genders are less authentic or less valid than the genders of cis people)

Secondly, notice the "especially" bit in there. The issue of trans men in men's toilets always seems to be considered less important. On the face of it this is perverse. Certainly here in the UK, typically women would not see each other in any state of undress when using a public toilet, because the actual act is done in a cubicle. In the gents, one would often expect to find urinals. Should one decide to deviate from the 1,3,5 rule, and also from the expectation that one should look straight ahead and not even glance sideways while using a urinal, one is afforded the opportunity to see someone else's penis. That this debate is so often framed in genital essentialist terms, that it concentrates on trans women at all is really odd, given the much greater opportunity for genital exposure in a men's loo.

This is one reason why I think this argument is misogynist. It is deemed less important that a trans man (who, it is presumed, does not have a penis - the general public tends to be quite ignorant on these matters) might see a cis man's penis than it is that a pair of adjacent locked cubicles might contain a cis woman, with vagina, and a trans woman, with penis (those trans women who are post vaginoplasty seem to be all too often conveniently ignored by this). This is presumably because men are tough, pragmatic sorts who won't be bothered by having someone who doesn't have a penis seeing theirs, but women are fragile, delicate, pathetic things and must be protected from the possibility of someone pissing through a penis the other side of a wall.

Yeah, right.

Thirdly, and I think this is the most insidiously transphobic part of the whole deal, is the unstated assumption (actually, it's not usually unstated, but in this case Jack of Kent seems to attract a better class of commenter); the "man who thinks he's a woman" might commit sexual assault/indecent exposure in there.

Corollaray - since there's no reason to expect trans women would be any more prone to doing this in a public toilet than anywhere else, we can add, where there won't be a proper man to protect the women folk! Yup, we're back to misogyny again too.

This is predicated on the idea that trans women are likely to be sex offenders. This is stigma that gay men are only just starting to emerge from - the idea that somehow being gay makes them likely to be sex offenders (if you doubt this is still an issue, take a look at how the gay adoption debate is often framed, especially in the US). With trans women, this offensive sterotype is still firmly entrenched.

The irony is enough to make one weep - I'm not aware of sexual assault ever being committed in a women's toilet by a trans woman where a cis woman is the victim. Long time readers will, however, be familiar with the case of a trans woman who was sexually assaulted at Pride London 2008, after being made to use the men's toilets by transphobic stewards. I'll also state for the record that I have also been sexually assaulted in a public toilet - in this case it was a woman's toilet and a cis woman apparently felt that grabbing my tits while I was washing my hands was a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

I know the plural of anecdote is not data, but the reality for many trans women in toilets is that we are far, far more likely to be the victim of sexual assault than the perpetrator. We are vulnerable in toilets, especially if we are read as trans - expulsion, humiliation and violence are the least of the expected consequences, but nobody ever seems to talk about how we can be protected from cis people. It's always the other way round.

Dismayingly, the way trans people are treated by the so-called Equality Act, 2010, seems to be almost completely influenced by this idea that "normal" people must be protected from trans women (I guess those responsible for drafting this repulsive piece of legislation never attended a transgender day of remembrance), and gives barely lip service to the idea that trans people, trans women especially, are vulnerable people who are often the victims of violence and discrimination and need the protection of the law.

No, instead everything is framed in terms of protecting everyone else from the distasteful idea that they might encounter us, or that "proper" women might somehow be contaminated by proximity to us. This attitude needs to change, but we seem as far away from that as ever. In the meantime we will continue to be beaten, assaulted, ridiculed and murdered by the same society that regards us as a dangerous predators.

Also posted at - you can comment here or there.
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