As much as I hate referring to transgender protections as “the bathroom bill,” the fact is, the bathroom is on everyone’s mind. And whether or not the opposition is putting out scary ads, the bathroom is a scary place.
For me, the mother of a 19-year-old transgender son, the bathroom has been a scary place for about five years. Ever since my son, at the age of 14, started living as a boy, we have had to decide, at every rest stop, concert, bus station, sporting event, restaurant, school, museum, gym, medical office, swimming pool, movie theater—is it safe? Can he use the bathroom of his choice? Should his father go with him? What about late at night? What about in West Virginia? When has he been in there too long? Is he in a stall, too scared to come out? Did one guy just ask his buddy, not bothering to lower his voice, “Is there a chick in here?”
When my son finished high school, he went to Portland, Oregon, for a gap-year program. It seemed like a safe bet, liberal and open-minded. He was attending a social-justice program in a synagogue when I got the call: he’d had some trouble in the bathroom. My heart stopped. Here’s what I pictured: Someone in the men’s room figured out he had a vagina and decided to teach him a lesson. Thank God, it was much more benign. A very drunk man, who had wandered into the space from the street, thought my son was brave, was living his truth and wouldn’t stop hugging him. Eventually my son’s housemate noticed he’d been gone a long time and sent someone in to get him. But my mind will always go to that rape scene first.
Just as allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice won’t affect the number of times a man hides in the women’s room with nefarious intent, it won’t eliminate the guys who make a nasty comment about my transgender son when he uses the men’s room, or even protect him 100 percent from something much worse. But it does normalize him being there. Legalizing his presence in the men’s room means he won’t draw attention to himself just by being there. If other people in the bathroom sense trouble, they are more likely to speak up. And trouble is the extreme end of the spectrum. My son just wants to GO TO THE BATHROOM. In the space that feels most comfortable to him. Without any hassle.
Recently I was in Washington, D.C., for a work event. At a cocktail party with colleagues from all over the country, the subject of politics came up. The young man I was speaking with told me he had voted for Donald Trump, and I asked him, seeing an opportunity I rarely encounter in my hometown of Cambridge, how the candidate had earned his vote. It quickly became clear that the issues most important to this young man were fiscal; and, indeed, when I pointed that out, he agreed, saying, “I don’t care about social issues.” I saw another opportunity. I told him I care a great deal about social issues, because I have a transgender son and don’t want him to be beaten up or killed. I doubt that particular issue had ever crossed his mind, and I said it mildly, not trying to shock or shame him. My goal was simply to make him aware that the trans guy he sees in the bathroom next time he’s at a bar or a ball game, the one who might be getting hassled, has a mother. He’s a person. What happens to him matters.
I can’t imagine my son being asked to leave a bathroom or anywhere else just because of his gender identity. And right now, in Massachusetts, he can’t. But if our current law is overturned this November, it will be legal for a bus driver to kick him off the bus. It will be legal for a hostess to refuse to seat him in a restaurant. And it will embolden those on the wrong side of justice to try to repeal laws in the 16 other states, and Washington, D.C., where it is currently illegal to discriminate against transgender people in public accommodations. Massachusetts is a testing ground, and we have to stand like a brick wall in front of transphobia and discrimination. Please remember me and my son when you are talking to your friends, family and colleagues about voting “YES on 3” this November.
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