In less than two weeks, Houston voters will consider Proposition 1, deciding whether the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) will become law. Its opponents have made many incendiary arguments targeting transgender women, but their claims have a glaring hole: transgender men.
HERO would create sweeping nondiscrimination protections for the city, which, unlike most cities across the country, has no such law protecting any class. And though it protects multiple identity factors, including religion, race, military status, disability, and pregnancy, opponents of the bill have focused on a very narrow aspect of its sexual orientation and gender identity protections — specifically, demonizing transgender women as sexual predators.
Opponents of HERO, identifying themselves as the “Campaign for Houston,” have blanketed the city with billboards, radio ads, television ads, and other forms of messaging, all of which focus on the singular message: “No men in women’s bathrooms!” The “men” refers to a distorted understanding of transgender women, individuals who were assigned male at birth but who have the inherent gender identity of a woman and would find protection from discrimination for that identity under HERO.
One ad misleadingly claims, “Any man at any time could enter a women’s bathroom simply by claiming to be a woman that day.” The campaign has also referenced “gender-confused men,” whose use of women’s facilities is, as one ad described it, “filthy, disgusting, and unsafe.”
As trans editor and writer Mitch Kellaway explained to ThinkProgress, these tactics “are actively intended to attack trans women, who they see as the primary ‘threat’ to womanhood.” They erase and stigmatize transgender women’s identities, disregarding the fact that they even are, in fact, women — all the time. They also ignore the fact that, as HERO’s supporters have pointed out in their commercials, “indecent exposure, harassment, and assault in bathrooms is already illegal.” Most importantly, transgender women are not predators; they are individuals who, like everybody else, simply want to pee in peace.
But Kellaway is also concerned that these ads highlight “the passive transphobia that follows trans men in our society: our erasure from existence. We aren’t even fathomable to most people.” Masen Davis, co-director of Global Action for Trans Equality, echoed that sentiment to ThinkProgress. “So many of the arguments against HERO are based on fear and misunderstanding of transgender people,” he explained, but “they also depend on a lack of visibility of transgender men.”
Indeed, none of HERO’s opponents could provide ThinkProgress with the answer to a simple question: when it comes to bathrooms, what about transgender men?
Who are transgender men?
It’s true that transgender women seek the use of women’s restrooms; not only does using the restroom that matches their gender identity spare them from stigma, it also keeps them safer. Even when equipped with robust gender identity protections like HERO would create, transgender people face high rates of harassment and discrimination when attempting to use the restroom. Though some transgender men face these same safety issues, they can often have the opposite problem as well.
Transgender men, people assigned as female at birth but who identify as men, are less often profiled as being trans. Thanks to the effects of testosterone, such as the growth of facial and body hair, lowering of the voice, and redistribution of body fat, they are often more readily perceived to be the men that they are. New research suggests testosterone therapy can even change their brain structure in masculinizing ways. As they are transitioning, these changes can put them in the position of being in a female-space but perceived as a man — particularly in the absence of non-discrimination protections guaranteeing them access to the proper facilities.
Kellaway dealt with just such experiences, describing how he avoided problems in public facilities during his transition by being “strategic”:
When I first started medically transitioning and was still often perceived as “female” in public, I’d use the women’s restroom, despite the emotional costs from experiencing gender dysphoria; when I was perceived as androgynous (sometimes male, sometimes female), I would hold my bladder rather than use a men’s restroom out of fear of violence or make sure a female friend was with me at all times to somewhat “legitimize” my presence in a women’s restroom; and now that I am perceived universally as male, I still remain vigilant in public men’s rooms — that worry just doesn’t go away 100 percent, because there are few feelings more vulnerable than having your pants down in public.
Senior Airman Logan Ireland, who now serves openly in the Air Force, faced a unique yet similar set of circumstances during his transition. Though the Pentagon is in the process of lifting the ban on transgender military service, Ireland still faces the risk that he could be discharged in the meantime. When he first enlisted in the military, he identified as a female, so when he began to transition a few years later, he had to hide himself.
“When I went on hormones, I still had to use the female restrooms,” he told ThinkProgress. “It bothered me, but it didn’t bother me, because those were the rules, living that double life.” He didn’t specifically have any fears of his own, but he recognized the impact he had on the other women using the facility.
“Every single time that I had to use the female restroom, of course I felt uncomfortable. I was out of place. This was wrong,” he explained. “I felt bad for the other females around because they know something was out of place and I knew something was out of place. I tried to make that situation on them as easy as possible, and those incidents were few and far between.”
Now that he’s living openly as a man, he can use the male restrooms, and “that’s effortless and not a problem.” His current workplace even has unisex restrooms, but everywhere else, when he uses the men’s restroom, “no one bats an eye.”
Who decides who uses which restroom?
Kellaway told ThinkProgress that gender policing and stereotypes are a very real threat to transgender men. “When we use the women’s bathrooms we’re ‘supposed’ to use” — according to opponents of trans equality measures like HERO — “we’re seen as predators,” and that perception can lead to violence toward trans men.
“The only escape in this rigid gender system is for trans men to fit into society’s concept of what a man ‘should’ look like and be perceived as such while using a men’s room — which is a possibility for some men, but leaves many other vulnerable.”
As a 40-something year old man who is bald with a big beard, the last thing anybody wants is me in the women’s room.
For Davis, gender policing isn’t just a problem for transgender people. He shared with ThinkProgress that he was often profiled by women in the women’s room before he even began transitioning, and his experience was not unique. “It’s not actually transgender people who make people the most uncomfortable in restrooms,” he explained. “It’s anyone who doesn’t fit definitions of gender, anyone who doesn’t look like a manly man or a feminine woman. Often women who are not as feminine are the ones who are most likely to raise eyebrows in the restroom. These are women who are not transgender and who just need to use the restroom like everyone else.”
Davis doesn’t have problems using restrooms now, but he knows he would if he were forced to use the women’s room. “As a 40-something year old man who is bald with a big beard, the last thing anybody wants is me in the women’s room. It would be just inappropriate across the board.”
Who really wants men in women’s restrooms?
Outside of the Houston fight, conservatives have tried to push back on transgender rights by proposing legislation that would force transgender individuals to use facilities that match the gender they were assigned at birth. Just such a policy was proposed this week in Texas, attempting to limit transgender student athletes from playing on the team that matches their identity.
In all such cases — just like with HERO — the argument goes that by enforcing these “gender by birth” policies, it will protect women and girls from having to share facilities with people who were assigned male at birth. It was this idea that led Mike Huckabee to joke earlier this year that if there were trans protections when he was a kid, he would have pretended to be a girl so he could “shower with the girls.” Never, however, are transgender men considered, nor the impact of forcing people who identify as (and look like) men to use women’s facilities. As Davis reasons, “If you are telling transgender women they can’t use the women’s room, you’re telling transgender men they need to use the women’s restroom, and that’s going to cause more discomfort.”
But in fact, none of HERO’s political opponents has an answer to the question of which facility transgender men should use.
On Tuesday, ThinkProgress reached out via email to the leaders and outspoken advocates trying to defeat HERO with that simple question: “Which locker room do you believe transgender men should use?” Each inquiry referenced a specific comment that organization or leader had made opposing “men in women’s restrooms.” This included:
- The Campaign for Houston itself, which is responsible for the ads like the latest about men who could simply claim to be a woman on any given day.
- Lance Berkman, the former Houston Astros baseball star who recorded an ad for the Campaign for Houston claiming that Proposition 1 would “allow troubled men to enter women’s public bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms.”
- Bob McNair, owner of the Houston Texans football team, who donated $10,000 to the Campaign for Houston.
- Lt. Gov Dan Patrick (R), who posted a video this week claiming that HERO is about “allowing men in women’s locker rooms and bathrooms.”
- Steve Hotze, head of the Conservative Republicans of Texas political Action committee, who promoted a radio ad for the Campaign for Houston, claiming that HERO would “allow perverted men to use female public restrooms, shower facilities and locker rooms, placing our wives, sisters, daughters and granddaughters in harm’s way.”
- Texas Values/Texas Values Action, a conservative organization that issued an ad this week — stolen from a similar campaign in Anchorage, Alaska — claiming that the fictional gym owner Steve “will be forced to open the women’s locker room to anyone who claims a female identity.”
- Rev. Kendall Baker, a candidate for Houston City Council who recorded an ad for the Campaign for Houston in which he claimed, “The bathroom ordinance is shameful. It will allow men to freely walk into places where women are most vulnerable and violate their privacy.”
The only response ThinkProgress received was from the Texans’ senior director of communications, who indicated that McNair was traveling and would not be able to respond.
On Thursday, ThinkProgress attempted to connect with these same HERO opponents again by phone. This prompted only Texas Values Action to respond. Despite being directly asked, “Which locker room does Texas Values believe transgender men should use?”, Executive Director Jonathan Saenz offered this response:
We agree with legal experts, faith leaders, business leaders and Houstonians of numerous racial and ethnic backgrounds that this ordinance is a [sic] bad for business, a threat to public safety, and is intolerant of a diversity of religious views. We don’t need more subpoenas for pastor sermons and government hostility towards the free market. Houston local prop 1 should be voted down.
In other words, not a single opponent of Houston’s LGBT nondiscrimination protections could provide any answer about the implications of not allowing transgender men to use the men’s room.
What does “men in the women’s room” actually look like?
Allowing transgender people to use the restrooms that match their identities does not lead to sexual assault. Plenty of other cities — even in Texas — have approved the protections and the supposed consequences have not occurred. Moreover, how opponents of HERO portray sexual assault isn’t even accurate. Cassandra Thomas, a national leader on sexual violence research and advocacy who works with the Houston Area’s Women Center, explains that sexual assault is overwhelmingly carried out by people the victim knows, not by strangers pretending to be transgender in bathrooms.
Still, women might be uncomfortable seeing a man in a women’s restroom, and that’s why Michael Hughes started his #WeJustNeedToPee campaign. A trans man, Hughes staged photos of himself taking selfies in women’s restrooms with women in the background. He had previously lived “stealth” — no one knew he was trans — but he felt compelled to challenge conservatives who opposed a transgender-inclusive policy for Minnesota school athletics.
Hughes doesn’t worry about his safety in a women’s bathroom, but he definitely worries about transgender women being forced to use men’s facilities. That’s why he carefully staged his photos. As he explained to The Advocate earlier this year, “I didn’t want to encounter women who didn’t know me and make anyone feel vulnerable.”
Davis thinks that if people tried to match up people’s picture with what bathroom they should use, “it would be very clear that people should use the restroom that matches their identity and how they move through the world.” The anti-HERO ads, he noted, “don’t actually include the faces of transgender people or the real lives of those impacted by the law.”
The #WeJustNeedToPee hashtag continues to serve as a forum for transgender people to share their own stories of bathroom harassment and rebut conservative efforts to enforce discrimination against them.
The Home Stretch
With the vote on Proposition 1 coming up on November 3, both sides are working to make the cases for and against HERO. The Family Research Council, an anti-LGBT hate group, posted the latest ad opposing the measure through its Faith Family Freedom Fund, again claiming that people will be fined up to $5,000 for “simply objecting to a man using a woman’s bathroom.” In a break from the Campaign for Houston’s messaging, the ad also admits that wedding vendors would no longer be able to discriminate against same-sex couples.
Houston Unites, the campaign working to pass Prop 1, is likewise working to show that HERO is not just about bathrooms, but about protecting all of Houston’s citizens from discrimination.
Opponents remain insistent about defining the debate with bathrooms, but it is they who support forcing men to use the women’s restroom by allowing discrimination against transgender men.