Transgender Students Are At Higher Risk Of Sexual Assault In Restrictive Bathrooms

by Amber Leventry
Originally Published: 
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Using the bathroom is something that should be a no brainer. We find a toilet, do our thing, wash our hands, and then leave. But having access to do everyday, mindless tasks is often taken for granted. For transgender and nonbinary people, it’s unnecessarily complicated.

When we need to use the bathroom, the fear and anxiety of what bathroom to use adds to the urgency of the situation. A new study reports that transgender teens at schools with restrictions on what bathroom they can use put them at higher risk for sexual assault. Restrictive access is a fancy—and discriminatory—way of saying trans and nonbinary people are not allowed to use the bathroom or locker room that aligns with and affirms their gender identity.

Just so we are on the same page, denying someone the right to use a gender appropriate bathroom is transphobic. If you think someone should use a bathroom based on their genitalia and not their gender, you are confused about sex and gender—they are not the same thing. If you are policing people by how they look when they enter a bathroom, you are holding onto a lot of biases that are making you look like a bigot. If you think it’s safer for people to use bathrooms based on what is between their legs, you are holding onto unfounded fears.

It’s never been about the bathrooms, friends.

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People often think gender neutral bathrooms or laws that allow a person to pee where they feel most comfortable based on their gender identity will increase the risk put on women and children when it comes to sexual violence. First of all, if someone wants to do something awful, no sign is going to stop them. And despite people’s ignorance, allowing transgender women to use the women’s bathroom will not encourage men to dress as women to attack women and children. They are willing to do that without disguise. Since 2004, hundreds of bathroom sex crimes were done by cisgender men who did not try to pass themselves as women in order to gain entry to an all-female space.

Also, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, reports that 8 out 10 victims of rape knew their perpetrator. And 96% of people who sexually abuse children identify as male—cisgender males.

Transgender and nonbinary folks are not pedophiles. We are not rapists. We are not dangerous. But bathrooms continue to be a place of danger to us. Transgender kids and adults who are not allowed to use the bathroom that aligns with their identity are at risk, not the other way around.

According to UCLA’s Williams Institute, “70% of transgender people said they had experienced verbal harassment in a situation involving gender-segregated bathrooms, while nearly 10% reported physical assault.”

In the online LGBTQ Teen Study published in Pediatrics, of the 3,673 13-17 year old students who answered the survey, 25.9% of the LGBTQ-identified students reported having been sexually assaulted in the last year. That number jumped to 36% for the transgender and nonbinary students who also reported having restrictive access to the bathroom of their choice.

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Gabriel Murchison was the lead author of the study and is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He said, “Research has shown that restrictive policies draw unwanted negative attention to trans and gender-nonbinary teens, but until this study, it wasn’t clear whether there was a connection to sexual violence.”

It makes complete sense to me, sadly. The LGBTQIA+ community is a marginalized community. We face higher rates of stigma and discrimination. Those alone put us at a higher risk for sexual and physical assault. Hate-motivated crimes are often sex crimes. And internalized homophobia and transphobia cause people to act out of confusion, fear, and anger.

The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that 47% of transgender people are sexually assaulted in their lifetime. If a school asks a transgender student, who is likely already being verbally (if not physically) bullied to enter a semi-private and unmonitored space that does not match their gender identity or gender expression, the school is turning them into a target.

I know this sense of danger well. I am nonbinary; I don’t identify as being either male or female. My biological sex is female but my gender is not. My gender expression is masculine. I am constantly being misgendered. If I enter a female bathroom, I am told I am in the wrong spot. The same goes for the men’s room. There is an extra layer of risk in doing that, though. Cisgender men are more likely to act out of violence when their masculinity is threatened or when they feel as though their spaces are being invaded by imposters.

When I am out in public, I look for a gender neutral, unisex, or family bathroom. However, unless there are more than one and in convenient locations, they are virtually useless. My time is valuable too, and a bathroom where I need to be may not be an option. Waiting for that one unisex bathroom also points out that I am not using the “regular” bathroom, also putting me at risk for negative attention. And my bladder is not as strong as it used to be.

This is another issue when transgender folks are afraid to use the bathroom either at work or school. Some teens will not drink enough fluids in fear of having to pee or they will hold it until it causes damage to their bladder and urinary tract. Impacted bowels can occur too.

What part of “restrictive access” seems like a good idea? Cisgender students are not made safer, yet transgender students are put in harm’s way.

Do the research, folks. Transgender and nonbinary folks do not cause risk to people in the stall next to them, so knock it off with the fear-based excuses and transphobic discrimination. We just want to do our thing and leave. Going to the bathroom shouldn’t include rape or any other form of assault.

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