Monday, October 19, 2015

Wisconsin Schools Are Clearly Failing Trans Youth

When I came out as queer, I admittedly was super naïve about my state.  It made sense as somebody whose experience was limited... I was trained off-the-bat to be proud of the fact that Wisconsin was the first to ban workplace discrimination back in the early 1980s, so when we started fighting against anti-queer bigots in the mid-2000s over same-sex marriage bans it was actually legitimately shocking for me when we lost.  I still reflexively associate legislative harassment of queer and trans people with other states, no matter how many times I am entirely wrong about it.

I worked for a time in Fond du Lac, where somebody tried introducing legislation to protect trans people in housing.  It had nothing to do with public accommodations, and yet cis people throughout the city pitched fucking fits about bathrooms and locker rooms (the day I learned about it I had incidentally used a men's locker room in Fond du Lac).  I contacted the people voting on this legislation, and without fail every single one of them cissplained to me that it was not about public accommodations, even though they had been pandering endlessly to cis fears about that very thing.  That was few weeks shy of two years ago.

Even as an adult, it's really rough for me to be living here right now as Wisconsin is a battleground with regard to trans accommodations, particularly accommodations in high schools.  Recently at Oshkosh West High School (in other words, very close to where I live) a trans male student came out saying that he was given a detention for using a men's restroom.  In addition, Representative Kremer (R, predictably) in Kewaskum (very near where I grew up) is trying to push legislation to standardize which restrooms trans students are allowed to use in Wisconsin schools, requiring them to use either the restroom of their assigned sex or a unisex or faculty restroom.

In both these cases--as in most cases where trans people are antagonized for having bodily functions--the whole story may very well not be being told on either side.  For instance, I didn't know until recently that Kremer's bill requires access to a unisex restroom if a trans student does not want to use the restroom of their assigned sex.  This really hasn't been brought up a lot by trans people I know, and is likely what he was talking about when he pissed and moaned on Twitter that people were judging his bill as "transphobic" without understanding the whole story.

Here's the thing, though: Pretty much every version of these stories leads to Wisconsin failing trans students.  There is no way I can look at either of them and think "Oh, these cis administrators and politicians are clearly trying to do the right thing by trans students, and I'm just reading this wrong."  And quite frankly even as an adult I feel really antagonized by it, and that's in addition to the empathetic disgust I feel for the way my community's youth are treated.

First we need to talk about the very concept of unisex restrooms.  Gender neutral restrooms have long been a part of the fight in the trans community.  When I was at UW-Oshkosh I remember engaging in an action where a friend and I went from building to building signing over restrooms to designate them gender neutral (with a note explaining that there was a policy in place they were supposed to be following but were not).  That action pretty much flopped, but the point is that having space for nonbinary trans people as well as binary trans folk who aren't quite comfortable in public restrooms yet has been an important part of the fight.  But it was never meant to be a replacement for man and woman identified trans folk to use instead of men's and women's restrooms, at least not where they still exist.

I remember like ten years ago having a discussion with Debra Davis, who is somewhat well-known for having come out as transgender while being a public school librarian.  When the subject of unisex restrooms came up, she said "good, a place for people to go if they're uncomfortable with me being in the women's room."   This was an important moment, because for me it solidified a very important fact:  Trans men and trans women are not just fighting for bodily functions, we are fighting for validation.  Yes, it's important to just have a place to piss and shit, and unisex restrooms technically fulfill that purpose, but being told that I am not male enough to use a men's room is invalidating and insulting.  That's what Oshkosh West is doing to its trans students.  That's what Kremer is trying to do to the trans students of Wisconsin.

We also need to understand what a typical men's-women's-unisex restroom layout designed by cis people looks like.  It'll have a men's room with multiple stalls and urinals, a women's restroom with multiple stalls, and a handicap-accessible unisex restroom that is set up with about the same amenities you'd find in a typical household half-bathroom.  This means that in a facility where trans people are banned from using the right bathroom, not only all trans people--nonbinary, binary, all of us--but also people whose accessibility needs require more space or a caregiver or something like that and shy cis people who avoid multi-stall amenities, are all competing over one single-stall restroom (in such a case that there are two single-stall restrooms, they are often bafflingly labeled "men" and "women" even in the presence of multi-stall gendered restrooms).  This creates problems like what happened at Oshkosh West, but I'll talk about that in a couple paragraphs.

That's only one of the options this bill mandates.  The alternative--because forcing trans students to use the restrooms of their assigned sex is entirely transphobic and absolutely off-the-table as far as appropriateness--is to use faculty restrooms.   This has been a solution used by schools for many years now, and you know what?  It fucking sucks.  It casts students as pariahs, that weirdo freak who uses the teacher restroom, and that's if it's even accessible to them.  I've heard stories of trans students who had walked twice as far as other students to get to a faculty restroom only to find it locked if not in use.  Another fun fact?  Teachers usually aren't forced to use faculty restrooms, either.  A female teacher can use a girl's restroom.  A male teacher can use a boy's restroom.  A cis student who uses unisex restrooms for accessibility is not banned from using single-sex restrooms; for instance, a cis female student who uses a wheelchair may require the space and facilities of an accessible unisex bathroom but is not banned from girl's or women's restrooms if she can make it work in a pinch.  Forcing trans students to use unisex and especially faculty restrooms makes zero sense and it is absolutely transphobic.

You know what one of the reasons I stopped using those unisex bathrooms unless absolutely necessary was?  Even before I was on hormones or "passed" all the time?  I suddenly understood that I was often occupying what for a disabled person may be the only restroom they can actually use.  And it's not ten years ago anymore, trans people are coming out younger, so cases like Oshkosh West where there are plural trans people attending are not uncommon.  Trans people in general are not uncommon.  And in fact, the reason the student at Oshkosh West left the unisex restroom and entered the men's was because a teacher with a special needs student needed the restroom.

Which brings me to my second point.  If Oshkosh West's story is accurate and Cody Zitek's is exaggerated, and he was only given a detention for hanging out in the unisex room, Oshkosh West is still failing trans youth.  The only major difference between Cody's version of the story and the school's is that in Cody's a staff member asked an insensitive genital question and he got a detention for being in the men's room, in the school's he got a detention for loitering in the unisex restroom.

My question for Oshkosh West is this:  Why were four trans male students eating in a restroom?!

This part of the story actually punches me in the gut.  I got really bad harassment when I was in high school.  I wasn't out as trans yet--if I was I can only imagine it would have been much, much worse--but I was very badly bullied by both students and in some cases even teachers.  It was not uncommon at all for me to take my lunch tray into a restroom stall and eat there to avoid having to deal with the wide-open, underorganized, harassment-prone atmosphere of the school lunch room.  And I didn't have friends at school to help me deal with the harassment.  This is an entire group of trans students trying to separate themselves from a lunch room, who are admitting it's because they are uncomfortable in the lunch room.  Why?  What is going on in that lunch room for eating in a bathroom to feel like a safer alternative?

Bathrooms are only a part of this story when that sort of thing is happening.

Kremer claims that his bill is intended to make trans students safer as well as cis students, but this goes against pretty much everything else he's said and is pretty much a bald-faced lie.  His explanation is and always has been "all these people are caring about trans students' safety, but nobody is talking about safety for [heterosexual] students" (he means cisgender but as he is a bigot  he is conflating gender identity and sexual orientation).  Even after correcting the language, it still makes no sense:  Forcing trans students into unisex restrooms doesn't protect them--if their harassment everywhere else is being ignored--and trans students are not and never have been a threat to cis students.  Ever.

Everything about this is about vague and petty cis comforts and not trans student safety.  Kremer and every school that utilizes similar policies to the ones he is trying to codify in state law are not protecting trans students, they are antagonizing them and making them out to be potential criminals for needing to use a restroom like everyone else.