Trans bodies, cis panic: More than just bathrooms

March 28, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

I still remember what my high school principal told me in 11th grade when I asked to use the girls’ bathrooms.

“We’re concerned,” he said, dropping his eyes, “that some girls worried about sexual assault might be traumatized by people with your, uh, kind of body.”

I stared at him. Seventeen-year-old me, too embarrassed to use the bathrooms unless they were completely empty, who felt every pair of eyes on her like a test she was always failing, a menace to the girls at my school? That’s what my principal was telling me – that I made people so uncomfortable that I needed to be separated from them for the greater good.

I was told to use the bathroom in the nurse’s office and no other bathroom in campus, or else. That was the end of it. I had no idea what my rights were, or even if I had them in the first place. And even if I had known I could sue, I didn’t have the support to do so. My fight to use the women’s bathrooms was never a fight to begin with, and for the last two years of high school I nursed that humiliation, the only out trans person on campus — a danger to my classmates.

I recall that story now because the last few weeks have made it impossible to forget.

Earlier this month, Kansas lawmakers proposed a bill allowing students who catch trans people in “wrong” bathrooms to sue their schools for $2,500, citing trans students as sources of “embarrassment, shame, and psychological injury” to others. A bill in Illinois, proposed in January, states that “no member of the female sex may use a pupil restroom or changing room that has been designated by the school board for the exclusive use of the male sex and no member of the male sex may use a pupil restroom or changing room that has been designated by the school board for the exclusive use of the female sex.” In Indiana, a proposed bill would make it so trans people using bathrooms and facilities not corresponding to the binary sex category designated on their birth certificates could be charged with misdemeanors and fined up to $5,000.

And these are not the only bills of their kind: similar legislation targeting trans people has cropped up over the last few years in Texas, Kentucky, Florida, Nevada, Minnesota, and Tennessee, among other states. Just last week, a bill of this type was signed into law by the governor of North Carolina – putting North Carolina at risk of losing its Title IX funding.

It goes without saying that this sort of legislation is deeply hurtful to trans communities; in particular, it singles out trans and gender-nonconforming students, low-income trans people and other members of the trans community already disenfranchised by society. I, and I’m sure many of you reading this, unequivocally condemn the string of discriminatory trans bathroom bills proliferating across the country.

But there’s something more than just hate or bigotry or prejudice driving it all— a more complex set of forces driving these bills than is easily written off with one-word answers. Why is it that so many of these bills use similar rhetoric, painting (cisgender) children as defenseless and transgender children as predatory? Why is it that it’s always the trans girls that are demonized, misgendered as “men” and seen as dangerous threats to a fragile femininity?  That transgender people are never referred to explicitly but nonetheless targeted through coded words like “biological sex” and “sex at birth?”

I think of my high school principal, convinced of the dangerous nature of my body; I think of the many students I’ve met at Stanford who have asked me about, of all things, my chromosomes — as if hidden somewhere there is a secret about my identity that they do not trust my words to convey. And it becomes clear that we are all implicated in the same societal transphobia and cisnormativity that drives these bills.

Where did we learn about cisgender women’s fragility and cisgender men’s compulsion to “protect” them at all costs? Where did we learn our compulsory heterosexuality, and how did that sprout our fear of imaginary peeping toms and “naturally” predatory men? How did we learn that the penises of cisgender men are powerful, the vaginas of cisgender women at once dirty, pure, repulsive and desirable; the genitalia of trans people monstrous, inhuman and repugnant?

Transphobia and cisnormativity, like so many other things in our society, are learned.

We cannot think about “bigotry” without contextualizing it within the mechanisms that have created it, and we cannot think about these mechanisms without shedding our belief in our own immunity. Don’t get me wrong; this piece began as one critical of transgender bathroom bills and these bills can, should and will be stopped. But if there’s some sort of moral to this story, it’s that there’s something much bigger than a few pieces of legislation. Rather than setting ourselves apart from these lawmakers, it is our job to ask ourselves how and why we are more like them than we think, and how we can change that reality.

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' – she loves messages!

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