Arrested for Using the Bathroom?
When transgender woman Tyjnae Moore was arrested in Houston on Nov. 17 for using the women’s restroom at the city’s public library, the news shocked many. The city’s lesbian mayor, Annise Parker, issued an executive order earlier this year that reaffirmed a 2001 ordinance that protects its residents who use public accommodations consistent with their gender identity and expression. And the measure specifically indicates trans Houstonians are legally allowed to use the restroom of the gender with which they identify.
Cristan Williams, executive director of the Houston-based Transgender Foundation of America, said Moore should have never been arrested, even without the ordinance, because she did not enter the restroom with a criminal intent. Williams added both the police officer who arrested Moore and the security guard who alerted him had done so in error.
Williams anticipated Houston’s City Legal, which is now handling the incident, will issue an apology for arresting Moore, who was subsequently jailed in a male cell and allegedly addressed using male pronouns by officers despite her telling them she identifies as a trans woman. Williams said she pleaded guilty at her jailor’s advice. She hopes to return to her home state of Minnesota. And a civil rights attorney has shown interest in the case.
"We hope and expect to hear that Ms. Moore had every right to use the restroom on city property," Williams told EDGE. "I think it’s a shame. No minority group needs to be put in such a position that they have to get out of town or else, but that’s the exact situation she has been placed in."
Activists insist while trans people arrested and incarcerated for using the restroom is unusual, similar cases have happened. Helena Stone was arrested on three separate occasions in 2005 and early 2006 for using women’s restrooms inside New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. Prosecutors eventually dropped all the charges.
More common-and often ubiquitous-for many trans people is harassment that sometimes leads to physical violence while using restrooms. This remains the case regardless of whether a given city or municipality has passed a non-discrimination ordinance like Houston’s-as others have done.
Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights and a board member of the Transgender Law and Policy Institute, described bathroom harassment as "a very pressing problem for a lot of transgender people." In battling unlawful arrests, Minter said he is confident no court would criminally prosecute a trans person for using the bathroom that is consistent with their gender identity.
"There’s absolutely nothing criminal about a trans person living their lives consistently with their true gender," Minter told EDGE. "To arrest a trans person following their medically prescribed treatment... is really cruel and very inhumane."
While the law appears to stand on the side of the trans people on this issue, Minter acknowledges much more public education is necessary to avoid the traumatizing treatment Moore experienced in her arrest. "Being able to use the restroom if you need to is the most basic part of ordinary life in our society," he said. "It’s something trans people should not have to fight so hard for, but sadly we’re still at the point where we need to fight very hard for even the most ordinary things."
While widespread data on the issue is difficult to come by, but the National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s National Transgender Discrimination Survey found 22 percent of respondents have been denied access to appropriate bathrooms in their workplace.
Opponents of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act and other non-discrimination measures have repeatedly cited trans people using bathrooms, describing such proposed legislation as "bathroom bills."
In order to protect trans people’s safety, activists in many cities have launched grassroots campaigns to delineate between businesses and organizations that offer safe spaces for restroom usage and those who do not. Genderqueer Chicago is one of several groups that recently began lobbying local businesses to sign pledges indicating they offer restroom facilities welcoming of customers of all genders. These businesses receive a window decal designating their establishment as a safe space for trans customers.
In Washington, D.C., activists with the DC Trans Coalition have been working with the city’s Office of Human Rights to target businesses that are not compliant with the District of Columbia’s non-discrimination ordinance.
Sadie-Ryanne Vashti, an organizer with the coalition, said progress has been "slow but steadily moving forward." Starbucks recently designated single-occupancy restrooms as gender neutral in more than 50 locations throughout the District.
Vashti describes access to restrooms for trans people as "an issue of human rights". Harassment has most commonly reported to the coalition by those who identify as gender queer, those just beginning to transition or those who are low-income and either cannot afford to medically transition or otherwise choose not to. "We’re talking about a community of people who are some of the most discriminated against and oppressed in our country and who often have to live in daily fear of not being able to leave the house because someone will make fun of them at best or physically assault them at worst," added Vashti.
In addition to working to recognize private establishments that provide safe environments for trans people, Minter described the issue as representative of the breadth of work still ahead for those wishing to foster broader awareness of even the most basic of concerns.
"Unfortunately in the trans movement, we are still, in many ways, at the level of literally trying to create a space where people can survive and not be crushed out of existence," Minter said. "We have to do more to help people understand who we are, and our need to be included and respected so that we can do the same things other people do, to be ordinary, contributing members of society."