Bathroom Laws Are About Insufficient Femininity, Not Being Transgender

Recently, in the wake of all the high-profile nonsense about restrooms in this country, a friend of mine (who is a gay attorney, just to set the table) messaged me on Facebook with this:

“I am in regular communication with lots of ‘Republicans’ and others who would self-describe as conservatives. I frequently hear people say, ‘I don’t have a problem with anyone being transgender.’ And when they elaborate, what’s clear is that their problem is with people who ‘look like’ they have transitioned—i.e., people who, for whatever reason, have external visual identifiers that indicate that they were formerly presenting as male/female. And I just think that that sort of thing is:

1) classist (not everyone can afford procedures like facial feminization, etc.) and

2) not really any different than other sorts of bigoted thinking—why should it really matter what someone looks like?”

There’s a good bit to unpack in that comment. Let’s start with his statement that’s really at the heart of the matter: “their problem is with people who ‘look like’ they have transitioned—i.e., people who, for whatever reason, have external visual identifiers that indicate that they were formerly presenting as male/female.”

Of course that’s true. You could even narrow the focus a little further and state that conservatives’ problem is with transwomen who look (to them) like men; it’s “men in dresses” going into women’s restrooms that conservatives care about, not transmen in men’s rooms. I presume this is due to a sexist attitude that men can take care of themselves, but dainty, defenseless women and girls need protection from burly, scary transwomen.

But it’s basically a tautology to say that masculine-looking transwomen are the ones conservatives care about, because the ones who don’t look masculine—who look like every other woman in the loo—are never “clocked” as transgender in the first place. Transphobic conservatives don’t discriminate against them because they don’t know they exist. They recognize the transwomen they recognize.

I made posts here about physical differences between men and women, both large and small. “Passing” (the term I prefer is “having a cisnormative appearance”) as one’s correct gender identity is difficult or easy for transwomen, depending on the individual. It can be achieved via:

a. Makeup. Just like cisgender women.

b. Hormone replacement therapy. Results vary, but estrogen can redistribute fat in the face to soften masculine angles.

c. Electrolysis or laser hair removal. No other single trait looks as male to most people as a beard shadow.

d. Surgeries to feminize the face and body.

Not all masculine-looking transwomen go for these therapies and procedures. They can be dangerous for some; many people have health concerns that preclude surgeries, and others risk thrombosis if they take estrogen supplements. And, as my friend surmised, the treatments are very expensive, and until quite recently they usually weren’t covered by government or employer-provided health insurance. It is absolutely correct to say, as my friend did, that discrimination against masculine-looking transwomen can be discrimination against the economically underprivileged.

However, my friend missed one very important fact. When I followed up with him, he confessed it hadn’t even occurred to him: not every transgender woman cares about “passing,” or at least, not enough to go to all the effort and expense required to do so.

Seems strange, right? When we first learn about transgender women, we assume looking and acting feminine is the whole point. But transgender women are women, and women may choose to look however they want. They may be short-haired and tall; prefer pants to skirts; own no makeup. I’m sure you know cisgender women who describe themselves as “butch.” There are transgender women who do as well. Having a female gender identity does not automatically equate to being a cartoon of womanliness.

The assertion by conservatives that women should be feminine, and indeed must be so to be allowed to participate in society, is at the heart of the “bathroom bills”; and why they’re doomed to fail. Drafted to single out transgender women for harassment, they’re certain to have their greatest effect on butch-looking cisgender women instead. It’s already happening:

  • Cortney Bogorad in Detroit is suing a restaurant after a security guard threw her out of the establishment’s women’s restroom for looking “like a man”
  • In Dallas, Jessica Rush was followed into a hospital restroom by a diligent officer of the gender laity because she was “dressed like a man
  • CNN contributor Sally Kohn is 6′ 1″ and short-haired; she repeatedly has unpleasant encounters of this nature

All three of those women are cisgender, and it’s worth noting that none of the localities where they were harassed, to the best of my knowledge, have passed any “bathroom bills.” The concept is in the Zeitgeist now, so it’s emboldened the idiots and jerks regardless of the laws. And these are just three examples; there are already many, many more. Google “mistaken for transgender” if you want more evidence, and have a high tolerance for outrage.

I haven’t seen any stories about transmen (or effeminate cisgender men) being mistaken for women yet. It may or may not ever happen; as I wrote above, the touch point for the transphobes is having to share women’s rooms with masculinity. Transphobes like former ACLU employee Maya Dillard Smith, who related this story on Fox News:

I have shared my personal experience of having taken my elementary school age daughters into a women’s restroom when shortly after three transgender young adults, over six feet [tall] with deep voices, entered. My children were visibly frightened, concerned about their safety and left asking lots of questions for which I, like many parents, was ill-prepared to answer.

The simple answer to Ms. Smith’s children, “those people are transgender,” apparently didn’t occur to her at the time. And note that she doesn’t give any reason in that story why she or her children should have been afraid of those three young adults, or how she knew for sure they were transgender.

Laws regarding who may use which public restroom are nothing new and accomplish nothing good. They’re tools of hatred and hurt people in categories far beyond their intended targets. Fight them and end them.

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