Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Environments of Hate: The Anti-Transgender Politics of Bathrooms


“The Anti-Trans Bathroom Nightmare 
Has Its Roots in Racial Segregation"
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Transgender Bathroom Laws

On November 3rd, 2015, Houston Texas voted over the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) that would protect transgender persons' rights to use public bathrooms that coordinate to their gender identities. It has been variously described by conservative news outlets as, "the LGBT 'Equal Rights' Ordinance" (TexasValues). Such political editorializing stresses the LGBT aspect of the bill and putting 'equal rights' in quotations begs the question that anti-transgender politicians are expressing: among socially progressive politics, transgender activism is a step too far. Across Texas, anti-trans politics reframed the protection of transgender persons by redefining their identities. Such political punditry claimed that trans women in the women's bathroom is nothing other than "men in the women's bathroom." Describing transgender protections as allowing "men who wear women’s clothes — and sexual predators — to use public women’s bathrooms," Erin Owens lauds those who voted down the ordinance (DailyCaller). As in the picture shown above, the groups pictured trans women as men glaring at women and little girls, suggesting the threat of rape. The outright claims or moves to paint trans persons as rapists and pedophiles follows a long tradition in white male supremacy of picturing threats to the patriarchy as sexual aggressors and the patriarchs as the saviors of vulnerable women. 

"Blacks, Jews, and even gays do not require or even seek separate restrooms or other different treatment; they ask simply to be treated like everyone else,” said Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson. “But transgender people demand a special accommodation, not available to others, because of how they feel." Following a tactic often employed against disability justice activism (with whom they are often conflated), anti-transgender parties claim that transgender rights are too expensive and ask too much. This marks a continued attempt to isolate transgender politics and trans persons from their communities of support and alliance. This trajectory is furthered by claims to physically separate trans people away from the general population because they make others feel uncomfortable. Calling for a special transgender bathroom, Carson's critique that trans people seeking to use the bathroom according to their gender identity is a demand for special treatment inverts the very grounds on which the criticism stands. "How about we create a transgender bathroom?" asks Carson. The solution Carson suggests is the addition of a new place for trans people, while the HERO bill works with existing structures to make them more accessible. Again, the patriarchal move becomes to enact aggression and then blame the victims of the violence.

These comments ignore how closely anti-trans bathroom politics replay old white supremacy narratives targeting racial integration. In an excellent article for Slate.com, Gillian Frank writes, "the conservative idea that civil rights protections sexually endanger women and children in public bathrooms is not new. In fact, conservative sexual thought has been in the toilet since the 1940s. During the World War II era, conservatives began employing the idea that social equality for African-Americans would lead to sexual danger for white women in bathrooms. In the decades since, conservatives used this trope to negate the civil rights claims of women and sexual minorities. Placing Houston’s rejection of HERO within the history of discrimination against racial minorities, sexual minorities, and women reveals a broader pattern: When previously marginalized groups demanded access to public accommodations, conservatives responded with toilet talk to stall these groups’ aspirations for social equality." This is the narrative given despite a continual lack of evidence. As the National Center for Transgender Equality reports, to record there has not been one confirmed case of “a transgender person harassing a non-transgender person in a public restroom.” Such narratives seem to invert the flow of aggression as a way of excusing the patriarchy's violence after the fact by painting their victims as aggressors. Evidence of cisgender attacks (especially by men against trans women) are plentiful. Just in my own backyard, DC and Baltimore, where a trans women was beaten in a McDonald's ladies room (Salon.com) and another sexually assaulted in a Dupont Circle bathroom (NBC). Indeed, the premise that women are weak and need men to protect them from trans women (qua "other men") is a narrative that reinforces female subjugation to a male supremacy that gets to play both abuser and savior, oppressor and liberator.

Without evidence and pragmatism on their side, the patriarchy falls back on its narrative of female dependence and need for subjugation to men. “It is not fair for them to make everybody else uncomfortable,” Carson said after suggesting that there be a separate bathroom for trans people, away from the general public. “It’s one of the things that I don’t particularly like about the movement." Rather than taking the position of the trans women at risk in the men's room, Carson speaks for cisgender women, claiming that trans women are inconsiderate of the discomfort they cause the traditionally sexist environment they are reforming, "how typical women might feel about a person with a penis sharing their restroom.” The comfort defense is one that is particularly insideous of what I call, "polite hate." "Uncomfortable" has long been a word I've witnessed people use as a way to enact "polite transphobia," "polite homophobia," or "polite racism." Once you unpack what that means, it is a way of excluding others, shaming, and excusing oppression. It is an attempt to turn privilege into a right, the oppressor into a victim, yet if one takes it seriously it severely underestimates the discomforted person. It assumes that they have no intelligence, no stamina, no empathy with which to overcome their own ignorance and hatred. Polite racism instills in its proponents a kind of passivity and deniability. Male supremacy comes to function by using people as tools to create environments of hate then convincing those who built it that they are trapped. It breeds dependency, not so much to particular patriarchs, but to an ideology of weakness and dependency on the patriarch, whoever he is, who has the superior power to summon the monsters of difference and slay them. In the "15/"16 presidential climate, various Republican candidates make clear that they will become the country's paterfamilias by slaying the current threat to the patriarchy: transgender. 
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 Environments of Hate

The most recent debates in Houston are hardly the first or most dreadful time that transgender bathroom legislation that has been moved on by hate groups. While anti-trans politicians paint themselves as victims, the environment of hate that they espouse is the tradition rather than the innovation. The tide of legislative attacks on trans persons around bathrooms and locker-rooms have been big conversations this year. Back in April 2015, Florida lawmakers were pushing through a bill that would punish any trans person using the bathroom corresponding with their gender identity with a fines of up to thousands of dollars or up to a year in prison - all for peeing in "the wrong toilet." Many activists, including myself, traveled to Florida to oppose the law through public acts of civil disobedience - simply by using the bathroom. Twitter photos in both bathrooms (#occupottty & #wejustneedtopee) and a few demonstrations with toilets put outside of either men or women's restrooms were publicized as "shit-ins" to draw attention to the extraordinary level of invasive legislative power the government was trying to exercise. Unlike in Houston, the protection of trans bathroom rights were upheld. Beyond the laws themselves, however, which despite the posturing are very difficult to enforce, the real danger is the rhetoric and environment of hate the anti-trans politics create.

There is a malicious irony to the sentiment that transitions and accommodations for transgender youths are too dangerous and uncomfortable to pursue: this assumes that the sexist cis-gender structures that currently exist are not already dangerous and uncomfortable. Or rather it excuses the violence and alienation as only affecting the trans students, a population it passively, if not actively, quietly, if not vocally, politely, if not overtly, wishes to eliminate, humiliate, and subjugate. Women, disability, transgender, are all targets where society polices our bodies and even takes away our control and access to our bodies. This is the essence of hate. If the heart of gluttony is the statement, "I have the overruling right to consume you" and the heart of greed, "I have the overruling right to own you," then what we see here is nothing better than wrath, "I have the overruling right to act against your body." We can hide behind fear and phobias but these are just the rationalization of ingrained, systematic traditions of rage against difference and otherness.  In the end, the wrathful (however polite) rhetoric is probably more damaging than the bathroom laws themselves. It is a toxic discourse that turns the world into an unlivable environment for trans persons. I fear most how this poison gets internalized by trans youths, causing them to despair; to give up fighting for their lives. We need to denaturalize hate, call this the war that it is. We don't always fight because we think we can win, we fight because we can't not fight. In the words of Lorde, "It feels better biting down"

As I sat in the nurses office of my Junior High-School, the hallways were quiet except for the distant sound of children panting and shouting in gym class. I tried to mumble a "thank you" (which came out more like "'ank 'ou") when the nurse handed me a new icepack to press against my swollen black and blue cheek. Across the hall, a fellow student was in the Vice Principles Office recounting what had happened. Although I was not told the exact words the boy used, I was given to know that the story matched exactly with my version of events. About twenty minutes earlier, I was in the locker room changing for gym. I was a feminine, nerdy, slender child known for hanging out with a strange crowd of girls and a few boys (half of whom would come out as queer or trans years later). Although it was years before I would publicly transition, in this pre- and early puberty my body enjoyed a kind of androgyny that made the physical differences between myself and other girls minimal - except for those who had begun to change more quickly and fuller than most. Because I was assigned male at birth and channelled through the men's track in school, I had to go through the frustrating and isolating exercise of daily being separated from the girls and made to share a locker room only with boys. Consequently, I was a target for many of the boys to perform childhood shows of male dominance without my friends to surround me. 

In this way, the gender dysphoria in the environment, which we might also call sexism, or perhaps even more accurately, male supremacy, set up this boy and myself to play out a narrative that is too common for trans youths. Gym class offered some respite from a raw, emerging, yet competitive male culture in the form of mixed activities. Even when the boys and girls were separated into two groups - the boys to learn wrestling (as a way of dominating other bodies) and the girls to learn self-defense (as a way of avoiding the domination of boys) - some thoughtful group of parents caused the creation of a third gender neutral group who could practice dance aerobics. Yet each class would be framed by the breaking into the highly gendered spaces where I would have to walk the gambit of young boys vying to gain ascendancy in a culture of male power. As had been the case in other circumstances, the pre-transitioned trans girl became the easy low-risk target for this boy to prove his masculine superiority and work his way up the ranks. These assertions of power came in various ways but mostly through the twice daily (at the start and end of class) shoving me aside and slamming my locker closed. He would take his little bow, showing that he could assault me without consequence - besides reports which I would give to the gym instructor who was neither present in the locker-room nor particularly interested in policing; after all, "boys will be boys."

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"Who is watching you pee? Forcing #transgender women to use mens rooms is systematic abuse #occupotty #wejustneedtopee"

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Punched in the Face by the Patriarchy

On this day, however, I decided that if the environment and systems of authority were not going to protect me by merely speaking back to power, I would offer physical resistance to the harassment. I was mostly changed (I tried to get in and out of the locker-room quickly) and my locker door was open. Then I heard the laughter from behind me that signaled that I was about to be shoved. Waiting for it, I felt him press his shoulder against me but instead of following the force of his thrust, I pivoted instead so I would be facing him. Grabbing him by the scruff of his neck (the closest target beside his shoulder and head) I held him at arms length away from my locker and, importantly as I began to consider the choice I had made, away from my body. "Stop," I commanded in rough monosyllabic clarity, like I would to our pet dogs when we found them scratching the couch or about to piss on the carpet. He didn't respond except for a kind of growl and big bulging eyes that read both surprise and fury. He bared his teeth at me and grabbed my arm. Without looking away from my aggressor, momentarily checked, I could notice that no help or escape would be offered for me as his friends surrounded us. Ears pounding with blood, reading the situation, I acknowledged that I knew what would come from whenever I let him go - which I eventually would. 

Closing my eyes slightly, I released him, dropped my arms to my side and stood firm waiting for what came next. Lightning raced through my jaw as bone hit bone, cushioned only slightly by the padding that a boy's knuckles and my cheek afforded. Tasting iron as my mouth filled with blood I don't remember much until I found myself sitting in the nurse's office with an icepack on my face waiting for my mother to pick me up and take me to the dentist. As it turned out, he had, in fact, broken one of my teeth. After my mother showed up, the boy came out of the office. He came over to me and apologized. I believe he faced temporary suspension. I did not hear much more about it. I didn't ask. Even now, I don't feel much personal contempt towards the boy who caused me to have my third in a line of bully-inflicted broken bones. He was a boy, not even very big for his age, looking to prove himself in a culture that maintained a quiet, polite form of male supremacy. This was a community mixed between working class industrial workers and those who have made their way, proudly, into middle management. The abuse of girls, women, queers, crips, and trannies would be allowed to happen - but there would be a formal apology afterwards and the individual actor would take the fall. I was a trans girl, a feminine target for abuse and subjugation, stranded alone in an epicenter of young, rough, competitive manhood. 

Neither of us created this system or its rules. He wanted power among his male community and I was his way to get it. I had my feminine community and power taken from me, leaving me with the choices of quiet submission or painful resistance. We made our choices as they were given to us. These are the consequences and dangers of forcing trans girls to stay in gender segregated bathrooms and locker-rooms with boys - either by not offering alternatives or else by ignoring the demands for systematic changes and protections. These are also the consequences of long-held systems of gender that define manhood by power and power through the subjugation of the feminine. This is what comes of cleaning up, making politically correct, and offering sacrificial candidates to male supremacy and violence so the inheritance of male privilege will go only to those who will enact its violences or pay the consequences - risking becoming one of those the ascendent abuse. Here we see the irony of claiming that gender transition or trans accommodations for the youth are dangerous: this assumes that the cis-gender segregation of the sexes (based on centuries of male supremacy and abuses) is safer. By refusing these changes, the system clearly states that it would rather put trans youths at risk of assault than make their oppressors uncomfortable. In the end, it was the plans of male supremacy that punched me in the face and gave me this partially prosthetic tooth - more than it was the conscious intents of a hormone raging tween looking for male approval.

A brief note on ethics: In this post, I work hard to reframe the moral debate towards corporate violences and away from personal faults - be they the hateful words of a Republican candidate for the presidency or the fist of a bully. This is an important move in social constructionist theory because it places the focus where bipolitics can be reformed to do the most good. The punishment of individuals rarely solves many problems, either for the victims, society, or the punished. Often, systems of hate and oppression want the conversation to focus on the indiscretions of its agents who screw up and get themselves caught. Indeed, the system may even want to add to the person's punishment as a way to sooth the outrage for justice and distracting it away from the larger violences. Let the individual take the fall to protect the patriarchal super-structures. So long as we are debating whether the abuser took extraordinary liberties or whether the victim somehow "asked for" the abuse, the wider systems of violence that created the environments of hate can continue to chug along unnoticed. I like to say (in a half-truth) that for this kind of ethical debate, it is not about intent or feelings. Hate, racism, sexism, are not feelings but actions and systems of power. You can have the best intentions and do the most violent acts. Nonetheless, as I finish writing this articles, I am still angry, and sad, and hurt. Looking back, it's not only a personal pain I feel but almost as though I am looking at someone else, because I am an adult weathered in taking abuse and this child doesn't know the things I know and isn't prepared to handle them like I am. This child could be any number of children today. And the stories only get worse. The half-truth is, ethics are not about personal feelings but systems of abuse. The other half of the truth is, ethics are all about the vulnerable lives made to feel powerless, alone, and unlovable. Ethics has to do both. It has too be exactly big enough to see the monolithic forest that is male supremacy and exactly small enough to see the twelve year old lost in it.
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"Governments bully too. Transgender persons need protection from transphobic bathoom laws #occupotty #wejustneedtopee"
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"#transgender women like me could spend half a year in prison for using this Florida women's bathroom #ijustneedtopee"

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