Restroom Risk: a Patriarchal Reversal

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. That being stated, there is a suspiciously one-sided absence of evidence regarding violence towards trans persons using the restroom. Specifically, there are no documented cases I could find of transwomen or gender non-conforming (GNC) men being assaulted inside the men’s restroom.

(Please, prove me wrong. I actually like it when that happens.)

I am not speaking of physical opposition, or threats, or verbal harassment.  The type of incident I am speaking of is assault and/or rape, such as the assault of a trans boy (EDIT: trans boy recanted claims of assault) in the men’s restroom at Hercules High School in San Francisco, or the trans man who had “it” carved into his chest (EDIT: some debate over whether this was a hoax or not) while using a men’s restroom at Cal State Long Beach. Even if I were only speaking of general abuse sustained by trans persons who choose to use the restroom aligning with their self-identity, the available evidence suggests these incidents occur at a higher rate to trans men (quote, pg 68: “People who were transitioning from female-to-male reported problems at a much higher rate than people who were transitioning from male-to-female”).

Additionally, I am not unaware that documented cases exist of transwomen being attacked in, or in the context of, restrooms. However, the restroom in question is not the men’s, it is the women’s (here, here, here, here and here). Theoretically, this could simply be because transwomen are largely careful to avoid the men’s restroom. The paucity in reports of GNC men being attacked in the men’s restroom could be due to the unwillingness of these men to report the incidents out of fear of harassment by police.

But really…no documented cases whatsoever?! This simply cannot be a coincidence, not when documented cases of trans men being attacked in the men’s restroom exists. So far, the evidence suggests that transwomen are more in danger when using the women’s restroom.

So why is there an assumption within the trans community that the individuals most at risk of using the restroom aligning with their reproductive anatomy are transwomen? Michael Hughes, a trans man famous for posting a selfie of himself in the women’s restroom under the hashtag #WeJustNeedToPee, is quite positive that this is the case:

“If these laws were to come to fruition, “I know we’ll see a rise in violence against trans women,” Hughes predicts. “That’s one of my main motivators — I’m not concerned for the safety of myself in a women’s bathroom — but I keep thinking of them trying to force women into the men’s room and how dangerous that is.”

Yet, the available evidence indicates that trans men are the ones most at risk. Why is this not given the same attention as the danger that transwomen are suspected to face? Is it because trans males were assaulted using the restroom that aligns with their declared gender identity, rendering such instances politically unusable by trans activism?

The statement by Hughes, and many trans activists, show that the trans community is aware of at least some of the danger that men pose to women. So why the disparity in reports of restroom violence between trans men and transwomen? What’s missing from the picture?

The viewpoint of the agents of violence. Namely, people who were socialized into the male sex caste by virtue of being born with a penis of “normative” size.

The violent men who attack trans males in men’s restrooms do so because they view trans men as women. They see them as women overstepping their bounds, encroaching on male territory. These same violent men do not attack transwomen because they see them as men. Specifically, they see such transwomen as gay or sexually deviant men. Yet, this still does not answer the question of why no documented cases seem to be available.

Men are weird about restrooms. Other men know what I’m talking about – there is a pervasive aura of homophobia at play in areas where bepenised individuals interact with their own genitalia around other men. A study in 2012 by Moore and Breeze that observed 20 public restrooms posited a theory concerning this weirdness:

“The theory Moore lays out is that, in public, the gender hierarchy makes women the ones who are watched (under the “male gaze,” as it were). But in the bathroom, sans women, men worry about being the object of another man’s gaze, a feeling they don’t often confront in other places. This can make them fearful, even if there’s no real threat present.”

Men, generally speaking, are afraid of other men thinking they are gay. Considering how common it is for gay men to be beaten and killed in horrific ways, this is no surprise. Men know how violent we are. Even being seen speaking to a gay or gender non-conforming man (which is how transwomen are viewed by homophobic men) is likely to make other men assume you are also gay.

Interacting physically with a gay or GNC man, even violently, may also be seen as an indicator that the aggressor is himself gay, or somehow associated with homosexuality.

It doesn’t have to make sense – remember the pervasive fear that Moore and Breeze observed in their study. There are cases of men being attacked by other men inside restrooms (here, here), but again, no documented cases of men attacking people for being GNC men or transwomen inside a men’s restroom. Fighting is a masculine act which proves one’s “manhood,” but it seems that anyone perceived by these men to be a gay or sexually deviant man are themselves the cause of fear – at least in the microcosm of the men’s restroom. The men most likely to enact violence are, I strongly suspect, also the ones most likely to be in fear of having their masculinity questioned.

Which explains why trans males are attacked in the men’s restroom. It isn’t considered un-masculine to enact brutal violence upon those seen as women, especially if they are seen as deviant women, which is assuredly how these men see their victims.

In fact, men attacking women to keep them in line is a rich and storied patriarchal tradition. What better way for a man to prove his “manhood” to himself and other men?

If the issue is primarily centered upon safety concerns, why does the trans community: 1) largely ignore the dangers trans men face using the men’s restroom; and 2) insist that transwomen are safer using the women’s restroom? Centering safety issues is more politically viable than asking for validation of one’s self-identification. The safety narrative is a strong one, and is clearly able to steamroll over the available evidence (and the absence of evidence).

This narrative does not help the trans community. It is a reversal that prevents trans people from realistically gauging their risk level, because this risk level requires attention to male violence and its roots. Attention to safety is essential, and if the real threats to trans persons are made invisible in order to promote a political narrative, then that narrative is transphobic.