Policing bathrooms


The question

A friend is training to be a police officer, and sent me the following question:

Hi Silviana,

We are having a discussion about transgender people and cultural competence this morning in Law Enforcement Academy. I’m wondering if you would offer your opinion on the following (hypothetical this morning but very realistic) situation. I understand that you don’t speak for the transgender community and am just seeking your own opinion and what you would like to have happen. If you prefer I not contact you with questions like this, please say so and I will of course respect that. I am also reaching out to ~ and ~ for their professional opinions.

Someone calls dispatch because a “man” is using the women’s restroom in a restaurant. We would typically show up to a call like this if dispatch requested it (which I know may be a question in and of itself) and make contact with the person who complained (we’ll just call her Karen). If we determine from talking with Karen that there aren’t any substantive issues, should we still make contact with the person using the bathroom to let them know that someone complained? Some of us say “yes” to let them know for their own safety, and some say “no” because there’s nothing going on that would warrant you making contact with them.

If you have any thoughts you would be willing to share, I’d love to hear them.

Thanks and hope you’re well!

My answer

I replied:

Personally, as a trans person I avoid police like the plague. I've been misgendered by a police officer in my own home while working on the case of a transphobic death threat hatemail. I commonly have the experience of being treated differently after a person learns I'm trans, whether they intend it or not. Even when they intend it to be positive differential treatment, it's not often actually helpful to me.

I infer that nothing good for me will come of contact from the police in this hypothetical situation. Instead, it will raise the following specters, even if the officer didn't intend them:

  • now I'll be afraid of the business / facility / community I'm in, forever
  • now I have to be on my best behavior, so the police don't harass or beat me
  • now I doubt my own gender, and simultaneously have to defend it to a total stranger
  • The fundamental issue with contacting the bathroom user in this case is that, whether you want it to or not, police contact lends credibility and authority to the question of the validity of my presence in the bathroom, when I was using the bathroom legally. No, nothing good can come from my contact with the police in this situation.

There are additional issues to consider:

  • is this a single-user bathroom? If so, why is it gendered in the first place?
  • did Karen actually experience any real harassment?
  • was Karen actually in the bathroom, or did they merely observe the trans person go in?
  • how does Karen know the person is a man? Gendering people is fraught.

I guess my short answer after this is, please leave me alone. Please don't approach me as a police officer, when all I did was use the bathroom.

There's a deeper point, though, than whether to contact the person in the bathroom. I think you, as an officer, should strive to understand this as a double bind. As you identified, there's no positive outcome in either scenario, whether you contact the person or not. One path directly and inevitably erodes my mental health (and possibly my physical health, too). The other leaves me ignorant that I'm in a dangerous space. Double binds are dead giveaways that there's an "ism" at play. In this case, the ism is sexism.

I think the way out of the bind is to train ourselves, yourself, our society, to expect heterogeneity, or difference and variety. The trans person in this case was marked, because Karen didn't expect someone in the bathroom who doesn't fall into her understanding of "woman", whatever that is. But as you undoubtedly know, there are countless ways to be woman, and some of those include masculinity, androgyny, and a-genderness. I hope that the responding officer has a discussion with Karen about expecting difference, and that unless a person is actually harming another person -- regardless of their perceived gender -- they are free to use any bathroom that matches their gender identity.

I'll conclude this response by reminding you that trans women almost never cause problems in bathrooms. Trans people (I) just want to use the bathroom, and have no good option because of societal expectations of homogeneity in gender appearance. The bathroom issue is a dangerous red herring that people use, wittingly or unwittingly, consciously transphobically or not, to stir up fear of trans people. I understand and appreciate it being in your training, while at the same time, I wish it wasn't.

One more related point I should add: I haven't been to a gym in over 6 years because I fear what will happen when I use a locker room. This is despite the fact that I have fully medically transitioned, including having grown my own breasts, same as you, and now having a vulva and vagina (which is indistinguishable from a cis vulva without close inspection). I fear I will die a premature death due to lack of fitness, simply because I believe I cannot safely use a locker room, and society constantly reminds me of it. And I still have fear in bathrooms, ~, where my clothing stays on. I look exclusively down in bathrooms, and avoid talking in them at all cost, lest I out myself (despite two years of vocal training!). I often ask friends and partners to use public bathrooms with me, just in case, though I've never personally experienced problems in one. This is the pernicious effect of the trans bathroom panic conversation. I live in constant fear that someone will hurt me simply because I needed to empty my bladder or void my bowels. And that fucking sucks. The only way out is a societal shift, including our police.

Thanks for asking. I'm glad you're training to be a police officer. I hope you found my reply helpful in understanding a complicated answer. If you'd like a book recommendation on helping understand homogeneity / heterogeneity, double binds, and the way out, check out Excluded, by Julia Serano. It's my top book, and is rarely out of reach. It has broad application to a variety of isms, including many experienced by cis women, persons with disabilities, and any marked trait. If you have time, I'll be leading a reading group on Excluded in the Fall 2022 semester, and I'd love to have you and your fellow officers with us.

Yours, silviana amethyst

post-script: I declined to draw analogies using other marked traits, but they're not that hard to imagine. Should the police talk to a person with marked trait X, when they weren't causing any problems, not committing a crime? Fill in X with any marked trait you choose, and you get similar conclusions. It's a double bind. The way out is to erode the double standards and hierarchical thinking that power double binds by expecting difference, expecting heterogeneity, in every human trait imaginable.