A lot of people have passionate feelings about where Tate Thompson uses the bathroom.
More than a million people have a signed a petition because Target’s official policy lets Thompson, and others, use the bathroom they choose.
They want him to use the women’s bathroom. If he lived in North Carolina, that’s what he would be required to do by law.
Thompson, a Fairmont State University student and native of Parkersburg, is a transgender man, meaning his birth certificate says he is female but his innate sense of self tells him he is male. Across the country, social conservatives are fighting for laws that would require Thompson and other transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds with the sex on their birth certificate.
They say that if cities and states pass laws that ban discrimination in public places, rapists will put on dresses, sneak into women’s restrooms, and assault women and children. They say allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that aligns with the gender they identify with will make women and children feel uncomfortable.
But when Thompson goes in the men’s bathroom, no one pays attention. In contrast, he has attracted attention when using the women’s restroom. He remembers one woman who asked him why he was there.
“She was really confused as to why I would go into the women’s restroom when the men’s restroom was right across the hallway,” he said.
He still uses the women’s restroom sometimes, though, when he’s around certain family members. Some of them also still call him by his birth name. He doesn’t like hearing the name, because it reminds him of a time when he felt like he was faking it.
“It wasn’t who I wanted to be, and it wasn’t who I was,” he said.
The bathroom predator myth in West Virginia
Several states and cities have made headlines when they considered legislation that would require transgender people to use bathrooms that correspond with the gender on their birth certificates.
West Virginia hasn’t done so. But the debate has made its way to our state.
Because the state hasn’t added protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender West Virginians to the state’s Human Rights Act, some cities have enacted ordinances that ban discrimination of LGBT residents in housing, employment and public accommodations. “Public accommodations” includes public bathrooms.
The Family Policy Council, a conservative advocacy organization that routinely lobbies against LGBT rights legislation, has been using the topic to try to push its members into opposing the ordinances and supporting a Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Last month, they sent out an email about a man arrested for allegedly filming a girl inside a public bathroom, and said “stories like the bathroom predator caught just yesterday should chill every woman, every girl, every husband, every father, every grandfather and every voter this May 10th.” It was unclear how the Family Policy Council believes new legislation would have prevented the incident, since the suspect was not transgender, the incident occurred in a Pennsylvania town that does not have any laws on the books granting transgender people access to gender-appropriate bathrooms, and the man arrested was clearly not concerned about violating the law.
Allen Whitt, president of the organization, did not return a call.
Dustin Lewis has also been using the myth to campaign against West Virginia Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael. In March, he wrote on Facebook that a nondiscrimination amendment to the West Virginia Religious Freedom Restoration Act that Carmichael supported “would have made it extremely dangerous for women and children.”
And last week, the Family Policy Council sent candidates a one-page survey of their positions on potential legislation. The organizations asked candidates if they would vote for a “bathroom safety law that restores common sense and prevents the state from requiring private businesses to allow men into bath and locker room facilities marked for women.”
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey also joined the debate.
Last month, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a Gloucester County, Virginia, school board bathroom policy, finding that it violated Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination in schools. Besides in Virginia, the ruling automatically set precedent in West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Maryland — states covered by the 4th Circuit.
The ruling said that by not allowing a transgender teen to use the boy’s restroom, the Virginia school had violated a U.S. Department of Education rule that mandates transgender students in public schools be allowed to use the restroom of the gender with which they identify.
Morrisey joined with five other states in an amicus brief arguing the teen hadn’t been discriminated against when he was forbidden from using the boys’ restroom. He released a statement saying he was disappointed by the ruling because it “could subject schools in West Virginia to lawsuits by self-identifying, transgender students who seek unfettered access to the bathroom, locker room or sports team of his or her choice.”
According to police, and people who work with victims of sexual violence, peddling the bathroom predator myth as a violence-prevention measure requires a lack of understanding of the nature of sexual violence. They also say that while hundreds of cities in the United States have passed ordinances that extend protections to transgender residents, no bathroom assaults have occurred as a result.
The argument compelled another state-based organization, the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, to speak out on the topic.
More than 250 organizations that work with victims of domestic and sexual violence, including the state coalition, signed a statement in opposition to anti-trans legislation, saying that the laws promote violence against transgender people and do nothing to protect women.
“As rape crisis centers, shelters, and other service providers who work each and every day to meet the needs of all survivors and reduce sexual assault and domestic violence throughout society, we speak from experience and expertise when we state that these claims are false,” the statement reads.
The organizations noted that nondiscrimination laws protecting transgender people have existed for a long time. More than 200 municipalities and 18 states have nondiscrimination laws protecting transgender people’s access to facilities consistent with the gender they live every day.
“In some cases, these protections have been in place for decades,” the statement read. “These laws have protected people from discrimination without creating harm. None of those jurisdictions have seen a rise in sexual violence or other public safety issues due to nondiscrimination laws. Assaulting another person in a restroom or changing room remains against the law in every single state.”
Tonia Thomas, team coordinator at the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, noted that the Family Policy Council has never worked with them on a effort to prevent violence against women before.
“For us, it’s even larger than the bathroom issue,” she said. “When oppressions like racism, sexism, transphobia and classism — when all of those are in existence, they perpetuate violence in our communities.”
She noted that most gender-based violence occurs among people who know each other.
Police and officials in towns with LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances throughout the country have also rejected the bathroom predator argument.
In an extensive investigation, Media Matters, a nonprofit politically progressive media watchdog, interviewed law enforcement officials, city officials and advocates for victims of sexual assault throughout the country and couldn’t find any instance of nondiscrimination laws resulting in bathroom assaults.
Numerous cities in West Virginia already have ordinances that extend protections to LGBT residents in public accommodations. No bathroom assaults have occurred because of them.
Huntington has had a nondiscrimination ordinance that extends protections to transgender residents since 2013.
Police Chief Joe Ciccarelli said there has been no uptick in sexual violence. He noted that most sexual assaults don’t occur among strangers.
“I don’t really see the connection quite honestly,” he said.
‘People are dealing with the aftermath’
As politicians debate about bathrooms, the scrutiny transgender people are under has an effect on their everyday lives.
According to health care professionals, the debate about bathrooms is causing health problems among transgender people, a population already at higher risk of health issues due to their marginalized status in society.
Some transgender people are planning their whole days around when they will have access to private bathrooms, and purposely avoiding food and water so they won’t have to use the bathroom in a public place, according to Gary Cordingley, a Athens, Ohio, neurologist, physician and an ally of transgender people. Dehydration and infections can result, he said.
“There have been no verified cases of this bathroom predator thing, which is a myth disingenuously presented by people who actually know better and who are intelligent and who know the facts, we would assume, but keep saying that anyway because it apparently suits their needs and perhaps other motivations,” he said.
JoAnne Keatley, a social worker, director of the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health at the University of California, San Francisco, and a transgender woman, pointed to psychological effects as well. She noted that many transgender people have been using the bathrooms of their choosing without issue for years. Now, videos have surfaced online of people approaching others in bathrooms and questioning their gender.
“There’s been relative safety in doing so,” she said. “Now that blanket has kind of been pulled away and people are dealing with the aftermath.”
She noted that transgender people are using bathrooms for the same reasons as everyone else, and “then we just want to get the hell out of there.”
Dr. Madeline Deutsch, director of clinical services at the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health and an associate editor for the journal LGBT Health, is disgusted that the national conversation about bathrooms has brought us to this point. She can rattle off a list of health effects, though — kidney stones, kidney damage, urinary tract infections, psychological stress.
“It’s sort of frustrating to have to give a medical justification that someone has to go to the bathroom — the fact you even have to go to a doctor to say it’s bad to hold in your pee,” she said. “If I was testifying before Congress, I don’t know that I’d even have to cite a study.”
‘Fear and divisive tactics’
Doctors who study transgender health, women’s advocates who work with victims — they can all tell you why transgender people should be allow to use gender-appropriate bathrooms, and why preventing them from doing so won’t prevent violence against women.
But some can also see a deeper issue going on.
Deutsch said she blames the politicians for using “fear and divisive tactics.”
“I blame the politicians who are using this as a wedge issue because they don’t have anything else to offer people,” she said.
At one time, segregationists said integrating white and black people would result in black men sexually assaulting white women, and that integrating bathrooms would result in black women transferring diseases to white women. In 1966, Samuel Younge Jr., a black college student and civil rights activist, was killed for trying to use a whites-only bathroom in Alabama.
David Fryson, a vice president for West Virginia University and head of the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, remembers some of those segregated bathrooms when he would travel with family as a young child.
“I didn’t understand why we would have to have pop bottles in the car to relieve ourselves,” he said.
So Fryson can see why to the transgender community, being denied access to the bathroom can be even more demeaning than some other types of discrimination.
“It goes to the very essence of your personhood when you’re excluded from this very basic human function,” he said.
Keatley said that the bathroom predator myth has resulted in transgender people, a group already at greater risk of being victimized, experiencing more fear.
Keatley, like other transgender people, worries about her own safety when using the bathroom while traveling in unfamiliar areas.
“It should not be an issue where we have to think twice about if we are going to come out of there alive,” she said.