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Dispelling the Myths Behind “Bathroom Bills” and Other Forms of Transphobia

Understanding the origins of these myths is step one.

Laura A. Jacobs and Laura Erickson-Schroth. (Photos courtesy of Beacon Press)

Part of the Series

The 21 myths and misconceptions about trans and gender-nonconforming people dealt with in “You’re in the Wrong Bathroom!” range from pernicious lies used to justify harmful legislation (“Trans People Are a Danger to Others, Especially Children”) to preconceptions regarding how much social and legal progress has been made (“Getting Hormones and Surgery Is Easy” and “Laws Support Trans People”). They also include generalizations often made by well-meaning allies that do not encompass the full range of trans and gender-nonconforming experience (“Trans People Are ‘Trapped in the Wrong Body'”).

In the following interview, the authors told Truthout about why they wanted to write a book that could enable allies to educate themselves, why it’s important to remember that the trans community is not a monolith, and why they believe that understanding the origins of myths is “the first step toward dispelling them.”

Joe Macaré: What prompted you to take the specific approach of “You’re in the Wrong Bathroom!”? Why structure the book around common myths and misconceptions?

Laura Erickson-Schroth: Because of the many myths about trans people that permeate our culture, we felt that structuring a book of essays around these myths could be an easily accessible and fun way to learn about trans lives.

Laura A. Jacobs: The book is part of Beacon’s “myths” series and so follows the same format. As someone trans- and genderqueer-identified, my personal mission has been to expand services to trans and gender-nonconforming people, to educate those in and around our communities, and to deepen understanding of gender worldwide. I do this as a psychotherapist with clients, through appearances and writing in media, in lecturing at conferences and organizations, and by improving health care policy and access as chair of the board of directors for the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in Manhattan. To me, these all constitute forms of activism.

I was struck by the compassion and benefit of the doubt the book extends toward non-trans families, loved ones, friends and would-be “allies.” How deliberate was this, and if deliberate, why do you think this is important?

Jacobs: No one transitions alone. We each exist within a web of connections, and the lives of those around us change as well. Though the burden is on allies to educate themselves, they are still individuals with opinions, feelings and needs.

There is no evidence that trans people are a threat to others in public restrooms.

In my work with clients, it is clear that centering the trans person while simultaneously addressing the needs of all involved reinforces those bonds for the benefit of all. Families grow closer. Friendships deepen. Our allies develop a more nuanced understanding of us as individuals and our lives as trans people, and we all gain from increased support, openness and compassion. And poking a potential ally in the eye with a sharp stick rarely improves the relationship.

Erickson-Schroth: We deliberately wrote the book with friends, family and other potential allies in mind, knowing that increased knowledge and exposure can change minds. Trans people, just like everyone else, need family and community support to live fulfilling lives, and we would love to help increase the number of people who can fill these roles.

You make the point that “bathroom bill” legislation relies on scaremongering which ignores both the lack of instances of trans persons being arrested for sexual assault in a bathroom, and the fact that public bathrooms are places in which gender is already highly scrutinized. Are these bills motivated by ignorance or plain cruelty?

Jacobs: Laura … and I may have different positions on this. If a friend and I — me being trans and genderqueer — go to dinner where we relax, enjoy drinks, then head to a movie, eventually my bladder will demand emptying. In a state with “bathroom” legislation, I may risk violence, fines or imprisonment to address a basic body function (trans people urinate much like every other human), or I may squirm uncomfortably through the rest of the film, clenching my knees as tightly as I can.

What happens the next weekend? Since I’m unwilling to risk my well-being for a cliché rom-com, I may instead stay home with Netflix and ultimately will feel a pressure to leave the area altogether.

There is no evidence that trans people are a threat to others in public restrooms, and overwhelming documentation of trans people being subject to physical and sexual assault in such settings.

There is a misconception that children are being started on hormones at early ages.

Much like “separate but equal” water fountain laws constraining African American people into the shadows in the 1950s, if I cannot pee in public, I cannot be in public. It seems a deliberate repetition of history. To suggest this is merely an unfortunate consequence of “safeguarding women and children” seems naïve.

Erickson-Schroth: There are, of course, those who purposefully do what they can to strip others of their rights, but I think that, for the most part, the majority of supporters of anti-trans bathroom bills simply have not been exposed to trans people or to knowledge about trans lives.

Interestingly, much of the language around bathroom bills relates to fears that if transgender people are allowed to use bathrooms that match their gender identities, then cisgender (non-transgender) men will dress as women in order to enter women’s bathrooms. This type of argument makes it clear that the real fear is about cisgender men, and not trans women. In fact, there are no documented cases of trans people attacking others in bathrooms, and many reported cases of trans people being the victims of assault. Trans people, like everyone else, need a safe place to use the bathroom.

The ideas of people like Ken Zucker continue to get a media platform under the pretext of concern for young people or those who later regret their decision. Can you talk a little about why these ideas are both harmful and discredited?

Erickson-Schroth: The topic of gender-nonconforming children is a hot-button issue. Studies have shown that children do best if they are supported in exploring their identities, but there are still some practitioners who attempt to use “reparative” or “conversion” therapy to change them. Some states have outlawed this type of treatment, as there is evidence that it can be harmful.

There is a misconception that children are being started on hormones at early ages, when in fact experts agree that the best approach for young children is to support social exploration of gender. Adolescents can be started on puberty blockers, which are a safe and effective way to delay puberty until a teen and their family are ready to consider adult hormones.

Rates of regret and “detransition” remain extremely low.

Jacobs: More and more studies consistently document that when we get support, we thrive. Trans youth in encouraging environments — including schools, families, social groups, and so on — perform equally well in school as their cisgender (non-trans) peers. But it is the youth in uncooperative environments — where the schools do not use their preferred name and pronoun, where they are subject to bigotry and bullying, where families reject their identities — that demonstrate extremely high rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. The environment is the difference.

Many who claim to be “experts” cling to older data and outdated notions of gender or transgender identity, demanding trans-identified youth and adults prove their transness only through failure to live cisgender lives before being allowed to transition. Others proceed from the unspoken belief that transgender people threaten society and that trans lives can and should be avoided. These “experts” only continue a legacy of mainstream professionals believing they know what is best for marginalized communities, imposing their beliefs on others.

Rates of regret and “detransition” remain extremely low.

When individuals who misuse data or who profess bigoted beliefs as “facts” are legitimized, it only serves to maintain them in power and to further stigmatize individuals in pain. It confuses those who would otherwise help, raising unnecessary doubt and imposing unreasonable burden to receive care. It is my belief that such “professionals” are dinosaurs on the wrong side of history, and should immediately step down. Ultimately, these philosophies only inflict more harm on those already suffering.

How did you approach those myths where there is an element of truth (such as the challenges of dating you mention in chapter 11), or where you wanted to avoid stigmatizing those for whom something is true while dispelling the myth that it applies to all trans people?

Erickson-Schroth: One of our goals in writing this book was to dispel the myth that all trans people are the same, and to emphasize the diversity of trans communities. That is why so many of the myths in the book have some element of truth to them — because trans people are not made from cookie cutters. We also did not want to be unrealistic about the difficulties that many trans people face because of societal stigma. We want the book to be positive but truthful.

Science is susceptible to the same biases and missteps as any other field.

Jacobs: The trans community is not a monolith. There are people who feel terms like “transsexual” describe their identity. There are others, mostly younger activists, who view the word as outdated and discriminatory. Is one or the other group more “right”?

The trans community is a vibrant, diverse collection of people with a broad variety of identities, opinions and beliefs. Disappointingly, we have witnessed horizontal oppression common to so many marginalized groups — members of the community attacking or shaming other members due to perceived slights or differences in perspective. We can make space for all.

Several of the myths you debunk apply more broadly to current societal ideas about gender and biology. What are some of the misconceptions about their own bodies and genders that cis people should realize are based on junk science?

Erickson-Schroth: Science, although we think of it as objective, is susceptible to the same biases and missteps as any other field. There are whole industries built around books like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, but in reality, there is very little evidence that biological differences lead to the polarized society that we live in. All people have both testosterone and estrogen in their bodies, and men’s and women’s brains are, for the most part, indistinguishable. Additionally, intersex people — those whose bodies can be categorized as neither 100 percent male nor 100 percent female — make up a larger percentage of the population than most people think.

The notion of a clear gender binary is anything but proven.

Books like Rebecca Jordan-Young’s Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences highlight the motivations of researchers (often to “prove” a biological basis for gender differences) and the limitations inherent in approaching science through the lens of culture.

Jacobs: Trans and gender-nonconforming people have an opportunity not afforded to most: to investigate an area of life largely ignored by our culture. In transitioning, we can actively question the assumptions of society around gender, sexuality and the body, often concluding that the stereotypes we were taught are artificial. Other societies have understood gender and sexuality very differently, making plain that Western notions are no more “inherent” than any other.

The notion of a clear gender binary is anything but proven. Were one to unscrew the top of someone’s head and look down, the brain would not be pink or blue, nor would it be easy for a neuroscientist to identify it as male or female. Genetics, hormone balance or the role of environment are similarly unclear.

Given the diversity of trans communities, there are typically a variety of opinions on any given issue.

Gender, considered separable into two distinct categories, need not be limited by the stereotypes of “Barbie” and “Ken,” not merely for those of us trans and gender nonconforming, but for everyone. We demonstrate that gender is multidimensional, nuanced and relevant for us all.

It’s clear you attempted to include as much nuance and be as comprehensive as possible while still keeping this a very accessible book. What were the particular challenges when dealing with shifting debates or contested issues within communities, and how did you address those challenges?

Jacobs: The one piece that might be relevant is: I approach gender with no judgments. I firmly believe in body and identity autonomy. I make clear to each of the clients that seek me out for gender-related therapy that they never need to prove to me that they are trans. They may have known from birth or they may have come to that conclusion recently. They may have a binary identity or their sense of self might defy norms and even definition.

The only thing I seek from clients is that they demonstrate thoughtfulness. So long as they are making thoughtful decisions, I will support whatever choices they make. I take a similar approach when writing or speaking.

Erickson-Schroth: Given the diversity of trans communities, there are typically a variety of opinions on any given issue. For instance, many trans people oppose gender-related diagnoses in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) because they feel they are stigmatizing. However, there are trans people who support the continued inclusion of these diagnoses for various reasons, one of which is that they can sometimes be helpful for health insurance coverage. There are certainly issues we took a hard line on, but when possible, we attempted to point out that there are multiple sides to each issue.

Unfortunately, there are still a vocal number of individuals pushing transphobic misconceptions in the media — not just in the right and centrist media, but even in purportedly feminist, progressive or left media. Can those voices ever be educated out of these misconceptions, and if not, what do readers need to remember when they encounter these myths?

Erickson-Schroth: It is likely that there are people who cannot be reached, no matter what we do, but for some, meeting and interacting with trans people can humanize a group that may have seemed too different to connect with. When these things fail, and we encounter myths or misconceptions about any group, including trans people, it can be helpful to think about why the myths persist. What purpose do they serve? What kinds of fears do they prey upon? Understanding where myths come from is the first step toward dispelling them.

Jacobs: We are long past the day when we considered it appropriate for outsiders to lead a marginalized community. Unfortunately, many in society and media still listen to cis “experts” over members of the trans community itself. It’s time that changed.

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