The Human Rights Commission in Maine has been getting it right lately when it comes to protecting trans people in that state. Back in May they found that a trans woman banned from using the restroom in a Denny’s had indeed been discriminated against. Now they’ve backed a little girl who was forced out of the girls bathroom by transphobic attacks.
You’d think this would just be a matter of course for a state department charged with protecting human rights. Unfortunately, Maine is actually ahead of the curve in many ways and what ought to be commonplace is remarkable instead. I’ll come back to that idea after the cut — first, check out what actually caused the incident at this girl’s school:
The discrimination in question first occurred in October 2007 when the child was in the fifth grade at Asa Adams School. Until then, she was allowed to use the girls’ bathroom, although she was biologically male. But that fall, the transgender child was followed into the girls room by a male student who had “previously started to harass her by stalking her and calling her ‘faggot,’” according to the Maine Human Rights Commission investigator’s report.
After the second such episode, the boy was suspended and removed from the transgender child’s class. At that point, school officials told the transgender child that she had to use a single-stall faculty bathroom at the other end of the school, and that was when her parents decided to take the matter to the Maine Human Rights Commission.
Paul Melanson, grandfather of the boy accused of harassing the transgender student, also filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission, saying that not allowing his grandson to use the girls bathroom or the faculty bathroom as the other child did was a violation of his grandson’s right to public accommodation under the Maine Human Rights Act. Melanson had given his grandson permission to use the girls bathroom as long as the transgender student was doing so, according to the report.
Wow. So, this school had actually provided pretty well for this trans student’s bathroom needs, but then Paul Melanson decided to use his grandson as a pawn to fight against what’s wrong. And by “fight against what’s wrong” what we really mean here is “stalk a little girl into the bathroom yelling ‘faggot’ at her.” Good job, Grandpa Melanson. One asshole bigot who won’t mind his own business really CAN make a difference!
The school suspended his grandson. Then, in an equivocating somersault of victim-blaming, they also told the girl being harassed that she had to use the faculty bathroom at the other end of the school. Presumably for her own safety, right? That’s exactly the rationale used to isolate and stigmatize other people who endangered by bigots and abusers. It’s what some prisons claim as the reason they throw trans women in solitary confinement, even when they’re required by law to use “the hole” only as punishment.
Grandpa Melanson is now running around town trying to stir up mothers against this tween trans girl, and presumably any other trans kids who dare to be growing up in Maine. Seriously: what the hell is wrong with some people? It only takes one jerk to complain about a trans person, or a “guy in a turban who looks like a terrorist” on the airplane, or anyone else “suspicious,” before some lily-livered authorities will flip out and abandon any pretense they have of fair treatment. (Note by the way: I don’t recommend reading the comments on the Bangor Daily News’ website, unless you want to see exactly how many jerks are out there just waiting for an opportunity to vent their colonial rage at DIFFERENT people being treated fairly.)
I’m glad to see that the Maine Human Rights Commission is taking a stand and saying that trans people have the right to use a bathroom that fits with and affirms our gender identity. Even the school in question was down with that… until the first sign of trouble. Far more often, trans people are asked to compromise and accommodate the fears and prejudices of bigots and other people who are ignorant or afraid of us. Solutions and halfway measures are found that basically resolve conflicts by making trans people go away somewhere that we won’t be seen.
“Oh, come on,” you might be thinking, “is it really that big of a deal to go to a single-stall unisex bathroom somewhere else in your school, or across the street from your workplace, in another part of campus?” Sometimes that compromise is the only deal that trans people can strike, and there’s no choice but to live with it. But how do you think that kind of compromise makes a little kid feel? When a school won’t stand up for her against a bully, when they say “you know, we said you could use the bathroom just like all of your classmates, but now that we think about it, some students don’t like how you’re different, and it’s causing us too much trouble. So go to the other end of the school and use that isolated bathroom in the faculty lounge.”
Is that really necessary? No. Public institutions like schools should stand up against bigots, for the rights of marginalized and isolated students. I don’t care if there’s only one trans student in the whole district; that makes it all the more important. Schools are failing all over the place at the task of protecting queer and gender non-conforming kids from harassment and discrimination, and kids are getting killed as a result. Sometimes this is a very murky and difficult task to place on a school administration — how do you stop bullying? How do you intervene without making it worse? Other times, as with the case up in Maine, all they had to do was put their foot down and stand up for this girl’s right to go to school without stigma, just like any other kid.
All too often, the compromise of “go hide in a bathroom where nobody will encounter you” has been promoted even by trans people. Transgender awareness trainings for workplaces and organizations, many of them given by trans people who train as a profession, hold out that option as a compromise solution to help “uncomfortable” employees deal with having to work with a trans person. Of course, companies and other organizations are happy to seize on any kind of compromise that will help them avoid the more difficult work of dealing with, educating, standing up against employees who don’t want to be in a stall next a trans person.
I have a friend who faced a similar problem in college — she just wanted to be able to go to the bathroom like anyone else. Her school called Jennifer Boylan, catapulted to the status of trans rights expert because she wrote an autobiography about her transition. Boylan told them to have my friend go to a unisex bathroom (across campus) rather than using the same facilities as everyone else, and to make sure she was carrying a letter from her physician about her transition at all times. (What?! This is an old recommendation from some local trans groups to try and protect trans people in the case of a bigoted state trooper pulling you over, but nobody does it anymore.) I have been slightly irritated with her ever since.
You know what? Single-stall lockable restrooms are a great idea for everyone. There’s no question about that. They’re great as unisex changing stations, they may be a more comfortable and affirming option for genderqueer people who don’t want to go in either bathroom, they often double as accessible restrooms for people with mobility impairments. They should be more common and widespread. But nobody should be FORCED to use them, especially if it means hiking much further away from a classroom or workstation than anyone else. You know who should have to use single-stall lockable restrooms, when it comes down to it? People whose ATTITUDES make them uncomfortable with trans people. Attitudes can change. Holding onto them, not wanting to learn or understand, is an individual’s choice. And sure, it can take a while. Gentle education is often a great idea. Until you feel okay sharing a bathroom with other people, how about you use the faculty lounge at the other end of the school?
If you want to educate your organization or company or school about this stuff, I recommend you get a copy of Toilet Training, a documentary put out by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project that covers the bases on this issue. (Disclosure: I work with SRLP.) Another really good resource is Transitioning our shelters: A guide to making homeless shelters safe for transgender people, put out by the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force.
Here are some highlight talking points:
- Trans people are not creepy sexual predators. We just want to go to the bathroom in peace, and safe bathrooms can be hard to find.
- Many people are worried about being safe in bathrooms, especially the safety of women and children. Unfortunately, a gendered sign on the door (of a stick figure in a skirt, for instance) won’t actually help protect anyone from real threats. Single-stall lockable bathrooms are safer for people who feel like they’re in danger, too.
- It’s often not as hard as schools and institutions think to create bathrooms or other facilities that are safe for trans people. Sometimes it’s as simple as building a wall or putting locks on doors. Sometimes it’s a simple as actually training staff, employees, students about trans issues, which many schools have started to do.
- If another employee, client, or student is afraid of or triggered by the presence of a trans person, that’s not the trans person’s fault. It may still be a problem that needs to be explained, taught about, or dealt with by providing the upset person another place to go.
- If someone is acting inappropriately or threateningly in a bathroom, that’s a problematic behavior that needs to be dealt with. Trans people are not inherently a problem just because of the way we dress or look. It’s up to restaurant managers, school staff, supervisors, whoever is representing an institution, to figure out if there’s actually been problem behavior, or if someone’s complaining about what they perceive to be a “problem person.”
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