Using a public restroom might seem like a simple, if occasionally disgusting, task: look for the familiar man and woman stick figures and help keep the Starbucks bathroom line moving.
But for the transgender community, the ritual is riddled with anxiety and the constant threat of harassment, even violence. If you’re a man who used to be a woman, or vice versa, or in the process of transitioning genders, picking a door can be confusing. Going through that door can lead to anything from a sideways glance to physical violence.
Enter TranSquat, a brand-new iPhone app that uses a vast database of gender-neutral bathrooms across the United States and Canada—and now extending as far as Kuwait—to point users to the closest safe restroom.
TranSquat’s creator, Billy Bolt, a transgender man, says he was inspired to create the app by the community’s all-too-common conundrum: “If we go into one bathroom, we might get beat up. If we go in another, we might get yelled at.”
The app is powered by Safe2Pee, a gender-neutral bathroom database that dubs itself a “copyleft” organization, meaning its content can be used and shared openly. The Safe2Pee database includes more than 400 cities; Las Vegas, Toronto, San Francisco, and Portland have the most abundant bathroom options listed.
Users of TranSquat, which sells for $2.99 through Apple’s iTunes Store, can plug in their location and be directed to all the gender-neutral bathrooms in the area, with additional tips like “the bathroom is free, stroll right in.”
Bolt, a software developer who also describes himself as an “artist, musician, and activist,” says he has received “absolutely fabulous, beyond my wildest dreams” feedback about the app. He estimates TranSquat has about 500 downloads but acknowledges he doesn’t make much money from it after Apple collects 30 percent of the profits. Still, he says, working on the app is a “labor of love.”
Recent spurts of anti-transgender violence and research on restroom discrimination show just how crucial easy access to gender-neutral bathrooms is, says Jack Harrison of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
“People get stopped and asked if they’re in the right bathroom,” Harrison tells The Daily Beast. “People are attacked. There is a kind of gender policing going on.”
Research from the Task Force (PDF), an LGBT civil rights organization, has found that 26 percent of transgender students have been denied access to appropriate bathrooms in school and 22 percent in their workplaces.
Just weeks ago violence broke out at a McDonald’s in New York City when a transgender woman sought to use the women’s restroom and was allegedly stopped by another customer, who directed the woman to the men’s restroom. The woman’s boyfriend defended her choice to use the bathroom she selected and was allegedly slashed in the face and neck by the other customer.
But finding a place to pee safe from harassment is just one of several daily obstacles for transgender people.
Driver’s licenses and IDs present a major problem, says Harrison. “If you’re able to pull out your driver’s license, that has a major protective effect” as a means of proving gender identity, he says. “Unfortunately there’s a patchwork system of different laws and policies” that makes it difficult for people transitioning genders to have their IDs updated. “No one should be denied accurate identification,” he says.
“People get stopped and asked if they’re in the right bathroom. People are attacked. There is a kind of gender policing going on.”
Discrimination against the transgender community can have grave consequences. A survey conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 2011 found that 41 percent of respondents had attempted suicide (PDF). Many respondents also said they live in extreme poverty, earning less than $10,000 a year.
Those stark figures make apps like TranSquat, which can help ease the everyday concerns of transgender people, all the more important, Harrison says.
“It can be really hard to be out in the world,” he says.