A couple of weeks back, I visited the lovely city of Tallinn, Estonia, for Tallinn Music Week. There were various things that struck me about the city — the beautifully preserved medieval town, the way that the whole city seemed to be into fine dining, the fact that the entire population seemed to be unfeasibly attractive — but one little fact that stood out was that pretty much every public place had unisex bathrooms. No urinals, just a row of stalls and a big old mirror with a few sinks in front of it, where girls doing their makeup chatted happily with dudes washing their hands. Any one of these people could have been transgender, and I would have been none the wiser. Who knows? Who cares?
In the eyes of American conservatives, of course, Tallinn would be crawling with (male) predators, just waiting to sneak a glimpse at a girl doing … something. The law recently passed in North Carolina is the culmination of a whole lot of fear-mongering about ~*what might happen*~ if transgendered people were allowed to use the bathroom of their choice. These arguments inevitably revolve around hypothetical scenarios where a man waltzes into a women’s bathroom, proclaims himself to be transgender, and does something nasty to the women therein. (For a particularly obnoxious example, see here.)
The latest proponent of such a scenario is one Louie Gohmert, a Republican Congressman from Texas, who told a radio station last week that “in the seventh grade, if the law had been that all I had to do was say, ‘I’m a girl,’ and I got to go into the girls’ restroom, I don’t know if I could’ve withstood the temptation just to get educated back in those days.” There’s plenty to unpack from this statement, not least the fact that it’s a pretty hilarious indictment on America’s attitude toward sex education; if you have to sneak into the opposite sex’s bathroom “just to get educated,” then there’s something deeply wrong with whoever’s supposed to be educating you.
One can’t help but wonder: what exactly did Gohmert think he was going to see in a girls’ bathroom? A row of sexily closed cubicle doors? A knee-tremblingly exciting lack of urinals? His #1 crush retreating toward the corner as she mouthed the words, “What the fuck are you doing here?”
The thing is, every one of these confessions says a great deal more about the weird attitudes toward sex that religious conservatism breeds than it does about transgender people, who just want to go to the bathroom and get on with their lives. If you’d really sneak into the opposite sex’s bathroom so you could get an eyeful of a woman taking a piss, or assault a 12-year-old, it says a lot about you — mainly that you need professional help and probably shouldn’t be left alone with any woman, ever. Why should some of the most disadvantaged people on the planet suffer further because you can’t keep your hand off your little peepee at the thought of a woman with her pants down? (There’s also something quintessentially American about the fact that this entire “controversy,” such as it is, centers around bathrooms — this is what happens when a country founded by puritans freaks out en masse about who gets to go potty where.)
There’s also something American about the complete refusal to acknowledge the evidence provided by the rest of the world, which in this case completely disproves the hypothetical fears being bandied about here. I asked a couple of people in Estonia whether they’d ever heard of anyone being assaulted in a unisex bathroom by a transgender person, and they looked at me like I was crazy. Of course not, they said. Why would a trans person do that? Lest you condemn me for relying on empirical anecdotes here, here is actual hard evidence: there has never been a single sexual assault carried out by a trans person against a cis person in a bathroom. Not one.
It’s important to be clear about a couple of things here. First, in fairness to the right, it’s not just conservatives who are using these manufactured fears to vilify trans people — the lunatic fringe of the extreme feminist left does exactly the same thing, and often in a way that’s just as spectacularly offensive as anything the right can conjure. Both these viewpoints are rooted in a certain sort of gender essentialism that specifies that anyone with a dick is a man and thus also one step away from being a rapist.
The second is that, unfortunately, there are assault survivors who, because of all the above, are legitimately terrified by the idea of transgender people being allowed into “their” bathrooms. This is perhaps the saddest consequence of all: that a campaign of misinformation has left already traumatized people feeling even more unsafe than they might have otherwise felt, and all in the name of demonizing an already disadvantaged group with a fear that has no basis in reality. Hopefully, the backlash to North Carolina’s law, and the fact-based reporting that goes with it, might help to convince those people that in this case, at least, their experiences are being exploited for political gain.
In the meantime, I’ll continue waiting for a single confirmed report of a trans person assaulting a cis person in a bathroom. Just one. And boy, there sure are a lot of tumbleweeds out here.