When I first heard that Washington’s most recent bathroom bill was defeated, I wanted to feel relieved, ecstatic, joyful. It was just past noon on the day of Bellingham’s Pride Festival, and I stood on the edge of the concrete, watching a parade of lavishly decorated individuals and organizations weave their way past the crowds on their route to the center of the city. A group in matching rainbow suspenders passed in front of us, holding up signs that read, “We Said No To I-1552! Washington Won’t Discriminate!”
The crowds cheered uproariously, whistling and raising their fists to the sky, and I knew I was supposed to join them. After all, wasn’t this a victory? But at that moment, all I could feel was weariness: a bone-deep exhaustion at the reminder of what had almost come to pass, paired with a sense of trepidation of what would come next.
I am trans, and I am tired. For the last year or so, the discussion of transgender rights and visibility has been centered primarily around a number of “bathroom bills” proposed and, in some cases, passed in several parts of the country. For a year, the most pressing question has apparently been whether my community should be allowed to use the restroom without fearing for our lives. And I am glad that, in Washington, the answer to that question (for now) is yes. But even without legislation explicitly denying trans people access to restrooms, there should be no illusion that we are safe and that this means our needs have been met.
Gendered restrooms still hold many limitations for those who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, and perhaps especially for those such as myself who identify outside of the traditional and culturally enforced binary of male/female. Choosing between the “men’s room” and the “ladies’ room” often feels like trying to pass a test that has no right answer, a multiple-choice exam where the solution is none of the above but the only options for response are A or B. Not only is your identity reduced to a single twenty-second decision, but making the wrong choice can have detrimental consequences: harassment, verbal abuse, and physical assault are just some of the ways in which a quick bathroom visit can instantly turn traumatic. According to a study conducted in 2009 by the Williams Institute, 70% of transgender respondents said they had experienced harassment or assault in a public restroom or had been denied access to a facility altogether because of their gender. It’s almost ironic: the proponents of restrictive bathroom bills often justify their discrimination by talking about the danger posed by gender-flexible restrooms, and yet trans and gender-nonconforming people are forced to put themselves in danger on a daily basis when they enter such rigidly gendered spaces.
Is there a simple solution to this? Not necessarily — but there are steps that can and should be taken to make bathrooms safer and more affirming to transgender individuals. This includes increasing the availability of gender neutral restroom facilities in both public and private spaces. Certainly, there is much in this regard that Western can do as an institution for its students and the community as a whole. As of this month, there are a total of sixteen gender neutral restrooms on campus; the majority of these are located on north campus, and many are difficult to find or not accessible to students who are disabled. The existence of these sixteen bathrooms is significant, but sixteen is not enough for a campus with more than fifty buildings and a student population of fifteen thousand. The administration can and should do better, not just in spirit but in practice, by increasing accessibility and ensuring that Western’s trans students have the facilities they need — not just in one area of campus but everywhere.
Even if the number of gender neutral bathrooms is increased, however, it is important to acknowledge that this conversation will not be over for a long time. Not until transgender people are respected and affirmed as individuals who deserve the same rights, protections, and freedoms as those who are cisgender; not until our right to use the restroom is not simply permitted but protected, both by legislature and by cisgender people around us. It will not be over until I can feel completely safe expressing my identity in public without fear of hatred or violence, and to be honest, that feels impossibly far away to me right now. This is why I am tired: I may be young, but I have been a part of this community for long enough to know that every time we take a step forward, we will also inevitably be forced half a step back. It takes more than thwarting a single bill; it takes continual awareness, and sincere advocacy, and immense amounts of emotional and physical labor performed by trans people and allies both separately and together. It’s a daunting task, and bathrooms are only the beginning.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep pressing forward, though — we have to continue making change happen, starting with those bathrooms. After all, as we fight our way through larger-scale activism, we really do need to have a place to pee.