If anyone faces heightened danger in public restrooms, it’s transgender people. And as lawmakers in North Carolina and elsewhere take aim at their right to relieve themselves, there are troubling signs that this danger could be growing.
Most recently, on Wednesday evening, NBC Washington reported that a security guard at a Giant grocery store in northeast D.C. had been charged with simple assault after allegedly forcing 32-year-old transgender woman Ebony Belcher out of the store for trying to use the bathroom.
“She opened the door and came in and started calling me derogatory names,” Belcher said, claiming that the guard said, “You guys cannot keep coming in here and using our women’s restroom. They did not pass the law yet.”
In fact, transgender people are included in Washington, D.C.’s Human Rights Act. The district’s municipal regulations also explicitly protect their right to use restrooms that match their gender identity.
Under Title 4, section 801 of the municipal code it is “unlawful for any person or entity” to “[deny] access to restrooms and other gender specific facilities that are consistent with a customer’s or client’s gender identity or expression.” Section 802 reiterates that protection and also requires all single-occupancy restrooms to have gender-neutral signage.
The details of Belcher’s story are still forthcoming. The female guard has not yet been identified, and the grocery chain released a boilerplate statement deferring inquiries to the police. We do know that the incident is being investigated as a possible hate crime.
But whatever comes of her particular case, it is alarmingly common for transgender people to be harassed and even physically attacked in a public restroom.
In 2008, the Williams Institute at UCLA conducted a survey of transgender people in D.C. and found that 70 percent of respondents had experienced difficulties using public restrooms.
Eighteen percent said they had been denied access, 68 percent reported verbal harassment, and 9 percent said that they had experienced physical assault.
There have been alarming and brutal cases of violence against transgender people in restrooms. In 2011, for example, a young transgender woman named Chrissy Lee Polis was beaten for using a Maryland McDonald’s restroom while an employee filmed the incident instead of protecting her.
The Baltimore Sun described the footage in graphic detail: “The video shows two females… repeatedly kicking and punching Polis in the head as an employee and a patron try to intervene. Others can be heard laughing, and men are seen standing idly by. Toward the end of the video, one of the suspects lands a punishing blow to the victim’s head, and Polis appears to have a seizure.”
Anti-transgender violence isn’t confined to restrooms, of course. In 2015, there were at least 21 reported murders of transgender people, primarily young trans women of color, in the United States—more than any other year on record.
But bathrooms have always been a site for discrimination and, after North Carolina’s sweeping anti-LGBT law turned transgender restroom access into a national talking point, there has been a noticeable increase in reports of vigilante bathroom policing.
In Danbury, Connecticut, last Friday, as the News Times reported, a cisgender woman with short hair alleged that a stranger mistook her for a trans woman in a Walmart restroom, calling her “disgusting” and saying, “You don’t belong here!”
Hers is one of several recent cases of police officers and private citizens alike apparently questioning someone’s restroom choice based on their appearance after the passage of the North Carolina law.
Scott Turner Schofield, a transgender actor and activist who starred on The Bold and the Beautiful, warned that this might happen. Shortly after North Carolina’s law was passed, he told The Daily Beast, “Anybody who has been politicized by these bully politicians now has a license to commit the very kinds of assault that these bills try to prevent.”
Two short months later, some of those politicians are not just emboldening their anti-transgender supporters, they’re openly encouraging them to break the law.
On Tuesday, as BuzzFeed reported, Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa called for “civil disobedience” in response to the Obama administration’s guidance to public schools on transgender students’ restroom access.
On the far right, the anti-transgender rhetoric has become baldly violent in the past few months. After Target reiterated its support for trans employees and customers, Anita Staver, president of the evangelical legal organization Liberty Counsel, tweeted that she would be taking a gun with her into the women’s room at the retail chain.
As The Advocate reported, her threat was echoed by a Republican candidate for sheriff in Denton County, Texas, who posted on Facebook that any transgender woman who enters the same restroom as his daughter will “then identify as a John Doe until he wakes up in whatever hospital he may be taken to.”
Meanwhile, anti-transgender memes and fake news stories are spreading like wildfire on social media as The Daily Beast reported. Worse, they may be successfully convincing people that transgender people are a real threat.
As BuzzFeed discovered this week when they dove deep into the world of Facebook transphobia, wholly-invented stories about trans people harassing women in restrooms are accruing tens of thousands of shares, and even getting picked up occasionally by more legitimate conservative media outlets.
In reality, there are no reported instances of a transgender person harassing a cisgender person in a restroom.
But that appears to make little difference to the many commenters on these fake news stories who use them as fuel for violent threats like “Don’t want to get gunned down? STAY OUT OF THE WOMEN’S BATHROOM” or “pervs need to stay away from our wives and daughters or pay the price.”
Transgender people are already paying the price, not for harassing people in restrooms, but for simply existing. Since North Carolina’s law, Ebony Belcher is the first widely-reported case of a transgender person allegedly finding herself on the receiving end of an act of violence for simply entering a restroom.
The way things are going, she won’t be the last.