A few months ago I accompanied a transgender friend (we’ll call her Julie) to pick up some snacks from a local gas station just outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee where I live. She was about to join my wife and I for some hobby board games back at our house, and we needed snackage. So we drive down to the nearest gas station to our house. I remember walking in next to her and splitting off to grab a couple of things. Meeting her back at the line to the checkout counter, I began to take note of how both the customers and the employees were looking at her.
Everyone was intensely and unabashedly staring at her. Seeing as we live in the American South where folks tend not to approve of transgender people, I quickly moved closer to her and began to chat amiably. The stares made me feel immediately concerned for her, so I wanted everyone to see that she wasn’t alone. I’m not a small man, and sometimes my mere presence has diffused situations. But even that seemed to have little effect. I remember trying to appear as comfortable as possible while chatting with Julie, and she seemed to adopt the same approach. We finished our business at the checkout counter and left to then enjoy a day of delightful board games.
I’ve never asked her how she felt while we were there. And when I consider asking her, it occurs to me that this is what it’s like to be Julie on any given day that she doesn’t happen to “pass” perfectly as female. Everywhere she goes, this sort of response is quite possibly the norm. Being with Julie in that moment gave me a small window into what it’s like to be her – to never know if someone might try to make good on the threatening stare they’re leveling at her. I’m used to being able to cruise below everyone’s radar, making my way through the world without most people even batting an eye so long as I don’t behave strangely.
But Julie doesn’t have that luxury. Despite how she feels on the inside, she doesn’t pass perfectly as female all the time on the outside. And that makes me terribly afraid on her behalf. I fear getting a call and hearing that my friend has been beaten up or killed by some idiot bigot. And this is no idle fear, mind you. Transgender people face a significantly higher risk of physical and sexual abuse from strangers when compared the general population. I’m sure that Julie has developed a pretty effective sense for which places are safe, but she isn’t perfect. And she won’t always have someone to stand alongside her against bigots wishing to do her harm.
This is one of the reasons that the recent “Bathroom bills” making their way through the American South concern me. Ostensibly enacted to protect children from an imaginary wave of transgender bathroom predators, these laws merely function to put people like Julie in extremely dangerous situations. The last thing someone like Julie needs is for a ridiculous law to force her into a men’s bathroom here in the South. We may as well be putting a big “bigots please beat the hell out of me” stamp on her forehead. And all in the name of protecting people?
As a father of a six year old, I’m absolutely in favor of protecting kids from sexual predators. But let’s focus our energies on places where this is actually a historically demonstrated threat. (Far more children have been molested by authority figures in churches than by transgender people in public bathrooms. How about we start with church authority figures?) Transgendered people aren’t any more likely to be pedophiles or child abusers than are cisgendered people (i.e. people whose gender identity matches their genitalia). They just want to pee in peace. And as civilized people, we have no reason to deny them that peace.
P.S. If you’d like to provide support to transgender folks who just want to pee, take a look at the IllGoWithYou Ally Project.
Update: I invited Julie to read the above, and she noted that she doesn’t even notice the stares anymore. This may be because they’re so common, but it may also be because people look away before she can notice them staring. I don’t recall her looking any of the gas station employees or customers in the eye during our visit, so I’ll have to keep an eye out the next time I accompany her somewhere. To this day, what strikes me about the situation I described in this post was how unabashed the people were in staring, and how immediately threatened I felt on Julie’s behalf. To be sure, feelings of threat don’t necessarily equate to actual threat. I may well be biased in favor of seeing threats where they don’t actually exist. (I also tend towards taking on a protector role with people I care about.) That said, this doesn’t necessarily mean that I should discount those feelings either. And the above-linked national statistics on violence against transgender people do suggest that my fears are not entirely baseless.