Widgets Magazine

Trans bodies, cis panic: More than just bathrooms

I still remember what my high school principal told me in 11th grade when I asked to use the girls’ bathrooms.

“We’re concerned,” he said, dropping his eyes, “that some girls worried about sexual assault might be traumatized by people with your, uh, kind of body.”

I stared at him. Seventeen-year-old me, too embarrassed to use the bathrooms unless they were completely empty, who felt every pair of eyes on her like a test she was always failing, a menace to the girls at my school? That’s what my principal was telling me – that I made people so uncomfortable that I needed to be separated from them for the greater good.

I was told to use the bathroom in the nurse’s office and no other bathroom in campus, or else. That was the end of it. I had no idea what my rights were, or even if I had them in the first place. And even if I had known I could sue, I didn’t have the support to do so. My fight to use the women’s bathrooms was never a fight to begin with, and for the last two years of high school I nursed that humiliation, the only out trans person on campus — a danger to my classmates.

I recall that story now because the last few weeks have made it impossible to forget.

Earlier this month, Kansas lawmakers proposed a bill allowing students who catch trans people in “wrong” bathrooms to sue their schools for $2,500, citing trans students as sources of “embarrassment, shame, and psychological injury” to others. A bill in Illinois, proposed in January, states that “no member of the female sex may use a pupil restroom or changing room that has been designated by the school board for the exclusive use of the male sex and no member of the male sex may use a pupil restroom or changing room that has been designated by the school board for the exclusive use of the female sex.” In Indiana, a proposed bill would make it so trans people using bathrooms and facilities not corresponding to the binary sex category designated on their birth certificates could be charged with misdemeanors and fined up to $5,000.

And these are not the only bills of their kind: similar legislation targeting trans people has cropped up over the last few years in Texas, Kentucky, Florida, Nevada, Minnesota, and Tennessee, among other states. Just last week, a bill of this type was signed into law by the governor of North Carolina – putting North Carolina at risk of losing its Title IX funding.

It goes without saying that this sort of legislation is deeply hurtful to trans communities; in particular, it singles out trans and gender-nonconforming students, low-income trans people and other members of the trans community already disenfranchised by society. I, and I’m sure many of you reading this, unequivocally condemn the string of discriminatory trans bathroom bills proliferating across the country.

But there’s something more than just hate or bigotry or prejudice driving it all— a more complex set of forces driving these bills than is easily written off with one-word answers. Why is it that so many of these bills use similar rhetoric, painting (cisgender) children as defenseless and transgender children as predatory? Why is it that it’s always the trans girls that are demonized, misgendered as “men” and seen as dangerous threats to a fragile femininity?  That transgender people are never referred to explicitly but nonetheless targeted through coded words like “biological sex” and “sex at birth?”

I think of my high school principal, convinced of the dangerous nature of my body; I think of the many students I’ve met at Stanford who have asked me about, of all things, my chromosomes — as if hidden somewhere there is a secret about my identity that they do not trust my words to convey. And it becomes clear that we are all implicated in the same societal transphobia and cisnormativity that drives these bills.

Where did we learn about cisgender women’s fragility and cisgender men’s compulsion to “protect” them at all costs? Where did we learn our compulsory heterosexuality, and how did that sprout our fear of imaginary peeping toms and “naturally” predatory men? How did we learn that the penises of cisgender men are powerful, the vaginas of cisgender women at once dirty, pure, repulsive and desirable; the genitalia of trans people monstrous, inhuman and repugnant?

Transphobia and cisnormativity, like so many other things in our society, are learned.

We cannot think about “bigotry” without contextualizing it within the mechanisms that have created it, and we cannot think about these mechanisms without shedding our belief in our own immunity. Don’t get me wrong; this piece began as one critical of transgender bathroom bills and these bills can, should and will be stopped. But if there’s some sort of moral to this story, it’s that there’s something much bigger than a few pieces of legislation. Rather than setting ourselves apart from these lawmakers, it is our job to ask ourselves how and why we are more like them than we think, and how we can change that reality.

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Lily Zheng

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' stanford.edu – she loves messages!
  • Yisheng Qingwa
  • Yisheng Qingwa

    me me me me me me me.

  • Lily Zheng

    whoa look, a TERF! Make sure you take pictures before it fades into obscurity, folks!

  • Jasper Martin

    As someone else so astutely pointed out… “If a white people were crying in a liberal forum about black people distrusting them, they’d be told to check their privilege”. As much as I do indeed sympathize with the distress caused by bodily dyphoria, there is a legitimate conflict of interest here and the transgendered community would do best by noticing a few things:

    1. The way the trans community currently defines the term “woman” to mean “anybody who says they feel like a woman on the inside” AND also insists that no surgery or hormone treatment be required in order for a bio male to have the word female stamped on all of his legal papers, then the trans community makes it possible for any non-transgendered creep to do his creepy thing in the women’s bathrooms/showers/prisons/rape crisis centers/etc.

    2. The trans community needs to understand that the 99% of the population who are not trans, will never ever under any circumstances allow the possibility for non-transgendered creeps to do his creepy thing.

    3. Up til now, the trans community has managed to bully some young liberals into allowing certain tresspasses, but now, the full repercussions of the *current* trans ideology has come to the attention of the wider public — and the trans community has yet to come to terms with the fact that the desire of the 99% to keep creepy non-transgendered out of spaces where women are disrobing or otherwise vulnerable, is quite simply, non-negotiable.

    4. No amount of emotional manipulation from the trans community will alter that non-negotiable position.

    5. Your only option is to accept the fact that bottom surgery is absolutely required if mtf want even a slim chance of accessing female spaces — and even then, depending on the exact circumstances, some trans who don’t pass well might still be told to use a family/unisex/disabled space.

    6. Your only options are to go down graciously, or go down having a screaming meltdown. But either way, the only direction you are going, is down.

  • Lily Zheng

    …wrong? For a number of reasons. I’ll play the game on your terms and address the points you’ve made here.

    1) Guess what, creepers will do their thing anyways. Is there the *slightest chance* that someone might claim to be trans to creep? Sure, though the fear of such is a result of persistent efforts by hate groups to sow this unrealistic threat; see: http://mediamatters.org/research/2015/10/07/fox-reports-another-fabricated-bathroom-inciden/206024
    Guess what, how scared are you of shark attacks compared to falling out of bed? Shark attacks result in less than 10 fatalities per year; falling out of bed — 450 deaths in America alone. Forget about your scare-mongering; your transphobia is showing.

    2) Yeah guess what, when y’all specifically see trans people as “creepers” its not hard to make statements like that. Like the actual incidence of people pretending to be trans to assault people/harrass people/”creep” is so low that hate groups have to plant people to make it up. It’s that ridiculous.

    3) You’re literally reiterating the same point, and it’s ridiculous.

    4) lmao

    5) I see! So you’re saying that trans people should flash their post-op genitalia at people in bathrooms to prove that they belong there, yes? Oh wait, that’s actually sexual harrassment??? Get your nose out of our genitalia. You’re terrified of this hypothetical idea that you’ve convinced yourself represents the trans community, and you’re so wrong that it hurts. How many trans people do you know? How many trans people do you even *want* to know?

    6) Our options, thank you very much, include ignoring ignorant and uninformed people like you, getting this bathroom shit out of the way so we can focus on larger structural problems of poverty/discrimination/violence/exclusion, and watching with amusement as people like you find their hate and ignorance able to utilize less and less of a platform.

    Have a good day!

  • Bettysnark

    One of your numbered points in response is lmao? Good thing you take a possible dialog or opposing points seriously. Vomit. Does this paper have an editor? Doesn’t sound like it. Fail.

  • Jasper Martin

    The “logic” you’re using takes the form of: “as long as there’s a little bit of harm present then we might as well add more harm”.

    “Since some people already commit murder, we might as well make it easy for more people to murder”.

    That’s rather bad “logic”. More accurately, it’s actually a justification used by a creep who wants to increase his opportunities to creep.

    People who use bad logic and morally reprehensible justifications in order to trespass the safe boundaries of others, tend to make a pattern of it…

  • Lily Zheng

    and the “logic” you’re using takes the form of “if I can think of a hypothetical way this law can be abused, it invalidates the law’s necessity”

    Do you want to play the game of “how many ridiculous parallels can we make of your argument?”

    1) Disability ramps would make it easier for people looking to wheel explosives into buildings blow up the buildings. No disability ramps.

    2) Letting people wearing scarves into movie theaters makes it easier for murderers who happen to be people wearing scarves to shoot up the movie theaters. No people with scarves in theaters.

    3) The postal service makes it easier for people trying to send poison through the mail to poison people. No postal service.

    4) Letting trans people into bathrooms makes it easier for rapists to pretend to be trans to assault/harass/traumatize people. No trans people in bathrooms.