I’m a 21-year-old trans woman. To some, I’m still a kid. To my mother, I’m still a baby.
Almost all my life, going to the bathroom had been an easy thing, one of the most basic body functions. I didn’t realize that the bathroom would be such a place of contention until I began transitioning into a form of gender expression that was perceived to be transgressive.
At 16, I would walk into the men’s bathroom without an ounce of hesitation. At 21, I take a breath to decide where I’ll be today: the men’s, the women’s, or a gender-neutral bathroom, if I’m lucky.
No matter which public bathroom I walk into, I always walk in with some fear that I may be harassed, threatened, or even assaulted, as so many trans people have experienced. The idea that the simple act of using a toilet could entail danger speaks in part to the conditions that trans people live under.
A study in 2008 and 2009 conducted by Jody Herman at Williams Institute reported that over 70 percent of trans and gender nonconforming people were denied entry, harassed, or assaulted when trying to use the bathroom.
Obama took a step to ease difficulties particularly for trans students in May of 2016 by passing a directive pressuring public schools to let trans students use facilities that matched their gender identity. Schools weren’t required to follow the Obama administration’s guidelines, but the schools that resisted the directive could lose federal funding or face lawsuits.
The Obama administration also declared trans students to be protected under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which states that no student should be subject to discrimination on the basis of sex.
Obama’s initiative was timely. There was already a national discussion around toilets underway when North Carolina passed House Bill 2 into state law in March of 2016. This required trans people to use the facilities in schools and public agencies that correspond to the sex they were assigned on their birth certificate.
Just nine months later, Trump is rescinding these guidelines, effectively reverting the situation back to pre-Obama status nationwide. One step forward, two steps back.
Trump’s move required joint action by the Justice and Education Departments. Education Secretary DeVos asserts that any issues trans students face can be “best solved at the state and local level.”
The federal government, by stepping away from the responsibility to protect trans kids, is telling them that states can discriminate against them with impunity. This opens trans kids up to a myriad of potential forms of abuse across the nation.
States’ Rights, Anyone?
While the Trump administration considers trans rights a “states’ rights issue,” as Press Secretary Spicer has suggested, it isn’t from a commitment to give the states more power. When it comes to recreational marijuana, for instance, the Trump administration is choosing not to let states make the final decision. They’re only interested in “states’ rights” when it serves their bigotry.
The decision is a blow against trans youth like 17-year-old Gavin Grimm, who will be the lead plaintiff in a Supreme Court case that started when a Virginia town took issue with him using the boys’ bathroom at his public high school.
The issue of bathrooms is both so simple and so complicated for trans students. Access to bathrooms is just one of the hardships trans youth face just trying to be themselves.
The danger trans youth face in bathrooms contributes to high rates of self-harm: A study from August of 2016 reports that 30 percent of trans youth have attempted suicide and nearly 42 percent have a history of self-injury.
Trans youth are not afforded peace. They’re not allowed to pee without fearing assault, without worrying about being taken to the Supreme Court for using the men’s bathroom on any given day.
When my parents potty-trained me, they didn’t realize it might have been a good idea to teach me what to look out for in public restrooms -- who could be a threat to me. It’s becoming clear the government itself is the threat. And we need to change that.
LBGT Justice is Justice for All
We also need to expand our understanding of LGBT justice and realize that Trump’s attacks on undocumented immigrants - his expansion of expedited removal - are attacks on LGBT people, too. And so is his Muslim ban.
The Trump administration’s rollback of Obama’s directive for trans students is followed by their cancellation of Obama’s plan to reduce private prison use. What does it mean to be an undocumented gender nonconforming person of color under Trump, who fears being detained and incarcerated?
How We Can Respond
In Massachusetts, trans students have a bit more protection than in other states, since Governor Baker signed a public accommodations bill in July 2016 to allow trans students to use the appropriate bathroom. Governor Malloy of Connecticut signed an executive order in direct response to the Trump administration, assuring trans students that they are protected against gender-based discrimination. In New York, Governor Cuomo wrote a letter to the Education Commissioner, urging the department to remind school districts that trans students are protected by New York State policies, such as the Dignity for All Students Act passed in 2012. Governor Dayton took similar actions in Minnesota. But this isn’t enough.
The struggle for trans kids is everyone’s battle. The struggle to free Ms. Gonzalez, an undocumented trans women arrested by ICE in an El Paso Courthouse where she was trying to obtain a protective order against an abusive partner, is everyone’s battle.
We need people to understand not just what a Trump administration means for trans kids. We need to understand what a Trump administration means for everyone.
Xoài Phạm is a 2017 Kairos Fellow and works with the Digital Organizing team at People’s Action. She is a Vietnamese trans woman born to refugees.