Anti-transgender bathroom laws like North Carolina’s HB 2 are not just inconvenient for transgender people. They may also be life-threatening.
Greta Gustava Martela, co-founder of Trans Lifeline, a crisis hotline for transgender people, told The Daily Beast that their call volume has “nearly doubled” since North Carolina restricted the use of public bathrooms based on birth certificate gender markers.
“This would normally be a time of year when we would be on an upswing,” Martela told The Daily Beast, explaining that suicide prevalence generally rises in the spring, but to her the steepness of this increase is “indicative of some event happening, rather than the normal seasonal fluctuations.”
Trans Lifeline data shared with The Daily Beast shows that before Gov. Pat McCrory signed HB 2 on March 23, the hotline’s daily volume peaked at around 200 incoming calls. After the law, the peaks started getting higher.
From April 8 to April 16, the most recent date included in the data set, the hotline has only seen two days below 200 incoming calls. On April 13, they received what Martela notes is an “unprecedented” 357 calls.
When asked if the call volume increase could be attributed to any media attention directed at Trans Lifeline post-HB 2, Martela cited internal analysis showing that the hotline had already reached two-thirds of U.S. counties—“basically all the populated places in the United States”—within six months of its 2014 launch.
“I don’t think that news stories are what’s driving people to our hotline anymore,” she explained.
The spike in calls to the Trans Lifeline is sadly unsurprising.
“If I had to guess what’s being impacted I think [it’s] probably people’s hope for the future,” Martela said, citing recent legislative attacks on transgender people that have been endorsed by the Republican National Committee.
In February, the Human Rights Campaign reported that there were 29 anti-transgender bathroom bills under consideration at the state level.
Many of these bills perpetuate the harmful myth that transgender people are dangerous predators. According to a recent SurveyUSA poll, an astonishing 56 percent of North Carolina voters believe that transgender bathroom use “pose[s] a security risk for women and children.”
In reality, there are zero reported instances of a transgender person harassing a non-transgender person in a bathroom.If anything, it is non-transgender people who pose a threat to transgender people in the bathroom. Nine percent of transgender respondents to a Williams Institute survey reported experiencing physical assault in a public restroom and 68 percent reported experiencing verbal harassment (PDF).
Being denied access to basic bodily functions based on an urban legend, it turns out, can take a deeply personal toll.
“Bathroom access is a basic human right—it’s something we all need, wherever we live,” said Dr. Kristie L. Seelman, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Georgia State University, in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“To deny someone the ability to use a public restroom is an attempt to deny that person basic dignity,” she added. “Such a situation has a profound impact on well-being, including mental health.”
Dr. Seelman is the author of a February 2016 study published in the Journal of Homosexuality, which analyzed survey responses from 2,325 transgender people who had attended college and found that “denial of access to bathrooms and denial of access to campus housing due to being trans were statistically significantly associated with lifetime suicide attempt.”
This is not the first time that the link between bathroom access and mental health has come up in her career.
“What I’ve heard from transgender people in my past research is that not having access to a bathroom heightens their anxiety and stress, leading them to try to plan their daily lives around when and where they can find a bathroom, sometimes even getting to a point of dehydration or social isolation,” she noted.
Her latest study research that the association between bathroom barriers and trans suicidality remained significant even after controlling for other experiences of bullying.“This suggests that there may be a distinct relationship between the stress of not being able to use bathrooms… and one’s mental health,” the study noted.
Dr. Seelman cautions that we cannot yet “interpret causality” from the data but believes that it should still act as a warning to lawmakers who seek to restrict bathroom use for transgender people.
“We know that stigma and lifetime discrimination influence suicide rates, whether we’re talking about transgender people or another marginalized group,” she told The Daily Beast. “Policies like HB 2 are not solving a problem—they are actually making things worse.”
Given its sample of college attendees, Dr. Seelman’s study should also hold special significance for the University of North Carolina (UNC) school system, which announced on April 5 that it would require all of its campuses to comply with HB 2.
In the midst of the current bathroom panic and its potentially grave consequences, there are emerging signs that the tide is starting to turn against this recent wave of state-level anti-transgender legislation.
Perhaps fearing the backlash that North Carolina’s law has received, Tennessee lawmakers tabled their own anti-transgender bathroom bill until 2017.
With regards to that bill, transgender teenager Henry Seaton had specifically warned legislators that restroom restrictions could increase the already alarming suicide rate in his community.
“When you don’t have a restroom to use,” he said, “that really encourages those numbers to increase exponentially.”
And on Tuesday, a federal appeals court issued a landmark ruling defending Gavin Grimm, a 16-year-old transgender boy who sought to use the boy’s bathroom at his Virginia high school.
As BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner reports, that ruling reaffirms the Department of Education’s interpretation of Title IX, which holds that discrimination against transgender people is a form of sex discrimination.
McCrory, North Carolina’s governor, said Tuesday that he would “respect” the ruling, although it is not yet clear what actions his administration will take.
These and other victories could help lower the suicide risk in an already endangered community. According to the Trevor Project, one-quarter of transgender youth report attempting suicide.Researchers have already concluded that the suicide risk for transgender people depends on broader social support, but now it is becoming clearer that it is also directly tied to having a safe place to pee.
While courts and state legislatures continue to debate bathroom access, Martela’s and Seelman’s data should serve as potent reminders that trans lives are on the line.