The Washington Post recently reported that a cisgender woman confronted staff at a spa in Los Angeles because she had been “traumatized” when she saw a penis while in the women’s changing area. The story has been updated to indicate that the event may have been a stunt. The transgender woman who was discriminated against has not been publicly identified, so there is speculation about the truth behind the attacker’s story. But this fact remains: Too many cisgender folks falsely anticipate or claim violence and trauma when they know (or think) they may be in the presence of transgender people. You are doing more damage to us than we have ever or will ever do to you, so kindly knock it the fuck off.
Every day transgender people and our bodies are scrutinized. We are looked at as oddities and with inappropriate curiosity in some cases, and in others we are told we are disgusting and dangerous. Our bodies are sexualized and stigmatized. Our lives are put at risk because too many cisgender people believe that our existence is an excuse to deny us basic health care needs, access to housing, jobs, and bathrooms. Transgender women especially are threatened, attacked, and killed by the hands of cisgender people who use transphobic excuses as their defense.
The woman at the Los Angeles spa was playing on the common and unfounded fear that transgender women in public spaces, specifically women-only spaces, are dangerous. They do this for several reasons. They don’t believe that transgender women are women; they believe predatory men will dress up as women to gain access to prey; they believe all transgender women have penises; they believe cisgender bodies and genders are the “correct” bodies and are the only bodies worth protecting.
These beliefs are products of a lack of education, social constructs and biases around gender, religion, and negative representation of transgender people in the media.
In many cases, like the one at the spa, the cisgender woman couldn’t — and wouldn’t — verify that the transgender woman was being threatening or inappropriate. If the sight of a penis was threatening to the customer, that is because cisgender men have used their dicks as weapons; not because transgender women are dangerous. The spa worker defended the transgender woman’s right to use the women’s changing area and any part of the spa because she is a woman. Period. She let the cisgender customer know that if she was uncomfortable, she was welcome to leave.
That is also a big reason why folks jump to fear and harassment when they think their personal space is being threatened by transgender people: they mistake discomfort with being unsafe. Plenty of things make us uncomfortable (math, traffic, a new job) but that doesn’t mean that we are unsafe. Discomfort shouldn’t get in the way of taking stock of what we need to learn about ourselves and others so that we can extend respect and understanding to those around us.
What would help, too, is if schools provided better and inclusive sexual health and reproduction education. These topics are told as if everyone is existing in binary, cisgender identities. They are also taught through the lens of heterosexual relationships that define sex as penetration from a penis into a vagina. This foundational, default setting is wrong. It’s like building a house on the beach and wondering why it collapses. Cisgender people like the woman in the spa are the hurricane to transgender bodies and queer relationships.
Not all women menstruate. Some men do. Not all boys have penises. Someone women do. Breasts and body hair exist on all genders.
Educate yourself. And parents, please educate your children. In the rare event that schools try to make their curriculum LGBTQIA+ inclusive, some parents will claim that they’d rather have those conversations with their kids than allow schools to be introducing something they don’t think is “age appropriate.” That’s another excuse for saying y’all don’t want to talk about it and a fancy way of saying “don’t talk about it that way.” Not talking about sex, bodies, and identities outside of the heteronormative is what perpetuates unfounded fears and crimes done to queer people.
I recently bought a book called “Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide To Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human.” It’s a graphic novel for teens to discuss sex and relationships, and is one of the first genuinely inclusive books I have found. I bought it to read and have ready for my children when we start talking more about dating and adding layers of meaning to consent and healthy relationships. Most of the content isn’t relevant for my 10- and 8-year-old children, but the images of the different types of bodies and the discussion of ways bodies might experience puberty are perfect for them. We are a queer family and while the representation of queer relationships and transgender bodies is important to us, it’s equally important — if not more so — for cisgender kids and non-queer kids to see and understand too. Another inclusive book that is geared for younger folks but also appropriate for teens and adults is called “Sex Is a Funny Word: A Book About Bodies, Feelings, and You.”
Do yourself a favor and watch the Netflix documentary “Disclosure“; it is hosted by Laverne Cox and features other transgender actors, activists, and humans who talk about the portrayal of transgender people in the media. The film will show you why you carry around the biases you do, and will teach you the damage you contribute to our lives by buying into harmful tropes and stereotypes.
Transgender folks know our bodies are valid and normal; we need everyone else to know this so that we can live our lives in peace and without the constant risk of harm. The folks who feel entitled to cisgender-only spaces are not the ones in harm’s way; the real people in danger are the transgender folks just trying to live their lives.