The Fight for Inclusive Trans Policies on College Campuses and Beyond

Photo by Juni Nguyen on Unsplash

My Texas university occupies just over one square kilometer, plus vertical building space. The campus supports over ten thousand students, in addition to full-time faculty, part-time faculty, and support staff. There are public restrooms on every floor of every building I have been inside, but I know of only three single-stall public restrooms anywhere on campus. Long before my first day on campus, I searched fruitlessly for any reference to a campus bathroom policy. I resigned myself to frustration and stress, wondering whether the omission was careless or malicious. This leaves me in a stressful, unwinnable, mundane dilemma if I can’t make it to one of the family restrooms in time. Do I feel safe in the closer facilities? How many people are present? Which room will get me fewer looks? Is that the same as where I feel safer?

Gender-expansive people, used here to include transgender and non-binary people, must navigate a hostile world every single day. We are inundated with news of violence, book bans, and criminalization. The rhetoric used to bar us from public restrooms—effectively pushing us entirely out of public life—descends directly from White supremacist pro-segregation beliefs about the Black male’s predatory threat to the virtue of White women. In another echo of the civil rights struggles of the twentieth century, public schools and universities are still among the most fraught battlegrounds for the rights of the marginalized. Inclusive policies communicate to the whole community that gender-expansive people are welcome, considered, and safe on campus.

Institutional silence has an actual human cost. In a 2013 Williams Institute survey of transgender and gender non-conforming people in Washington, DC, “seventy percent of respondents reported being denied access, verbally harassed, or physically assaulted in public restrooms.” On more than one occasion, I have personally been followed into public restrooms and hidden in silent anxiety until the stranger (always a man) gets tired of waiting for me. The absence of explicitly inclusive policies leaves room for vigilante “enforcement” of “correct” gender presentation and expression.

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, the executive director at the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), told the Guardian that anti-trans violence rising along with anti-trans legislation “is no coincidence.” He explains that through sustained policy attacks, society is “sending a signal about whose lives are considered important.”

And gender expansive people are not the only targets of this violence. Searches for terms about transgender bathroom access peaked a few weeks after North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” hit the national news cycle, around April and May of 2016. At the same time, stories began circulating of cisgender women being accosted when using women’s restrooms because their (cisgender male) assailants decided they must be transgender. Explicating inclusive policies for gendered spaces signals support to gender-expansive people, communicates to the general public that gender-expansive people are welcome, and creates recourse for people in the event they are harassed or assaulted in public spaces.

I received a peculiar rebuttal when I asked my school administration about the absence of trans-inclusive campus policies: Bathroom usage is not legally restricted by the state, so there is no need for a stated policy. This is akin to saying that because there is no law requiring audiences to hurl rotten fruit at public performances, theaters don’t need to say, “No Throwing Fruit.” In other words, gender-expansive people in the community should assume we are safe despite all evidence that we are not, and there is no value in voicing support for people under constant stochastic threat and worse. The absence of exclusionary laws is not justification for neglecting inclusive policy, and besides positioning the institution on the side of humanity and justice, issuing straightforward statements in support of marginalized people makes them materially and emotionally safer.

Transgender and gender-expansive people make up less than three percent of the adult American population. We are enduring relentless assault by the political right, led and funded by Christian nationalists. The Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention has publicly characterized the attacks on transgender people as genocidal. We need accomplices in the fight for our right to exist. We need allies to help us carry the weight of saving our own lives from a hostile world every single day. Without safe facilities, we are effectively barred from every place where life happens. Every bookstore, bar, library, school, cafe, and gym is dangerous until we have seen differently.

Look around your community. (Yes, even y’all in “blue states”!) Gender-expansive people are your neighbors, whether or not you see them right now. How can you help them feel safer? Could your favorite diner put supportive signs on the bathroom doors? Can you influence policy in your workplace? Are safe, inclusive, secular resources available for people fleeing abuse or experiencing addiction or homelessness? Are students, especially children and teenagers, safe to use the restroom at school? Has discriminatory legislation been introduced in your local or state government? Pick up the phone, get involved in local government and school board meetings, or email human resources. Your vocal support can make the world less dangerous and more accepting for everyone, and we need all the help we can possibly get.