“I don’t care who you are; if you’re not angry, you should be.”
That was the caption I added to a Facebook post sharing an article about the Florida bathroom bill – a bill also recently proposed in various forms in Canada, Texas, Kentucky, and Missouri – which would make it illegal for trans people to use public bathrooms that do not correspond with their “assigned sex at birth”.
Hopefully, I shouldn’t have to explain how ridiculous and potentially dangerous it would be to force trans women and other amab (assigned male at birth) trans people to use men’s bathrooms, and trans men and other afab (assigned female at birth) trans people to use women’s bathrooms. One attempt to highlight the absurdity of the bill is a selfie campaign started by Brae Carnes, a trans woman who took photos of herself applying makeup in men’s bathrooms while confused-looking men use the urinals in the background.
The reasoning is clear: of course those men are confused! She’s a woman! She looks like one! She has a feminine face, a female haircut, she’s wearing a dress, and she’s putting on lipstick! Cisgender people, filled with sympathy for the plight of a person who – on the surface at least – perfectly fits their category of womanhood, will flock to Brae’s defence. How could this person, who nobody would dream of reading as other than female, be made by law to use the men’s bathroom?
And the fact that this reaction is so typical among ‘open-minded’ society in general means that Brae’s logic is, basically, sound. It’s hard to think of a better way to turn public opinion against the bathroom bills than her campaign. As such, Brae herself cannot, and should not, be the one to shoulder the blame for the horrendous cissexism that this campaign reinforces.
But reinforce it, it does.
It seems to routinely escape the attention of the world at large that transgender identity is not dependent on appearance or presentation. Granted, the average cis person on the street could almost be forgiven for believing otherwise, given that aesthetic transformation is sensationalised in almost all media presentation of trans people – especially women. TV shows and movies are obsessed with depicting trans women in the act of putting on makeup and heels, without any suggestion that the short-haired, pyjama-clad person with five o’clock shadow is just as much a woman as when she’s wearing lipstick and a dress.
Despite this, the fact remains: gender is not a performance for the comfort of cis people. Some trans people present in a manner that could be seen to align with society’s expectations of their gender. Some do not. Neither are more or less valid. Neither are more or less ‘real’. And neither are more or less deserving of the right to use the correct bathroom (where the concept of ‘correct bathroom’ even applies).
If you’re shocked and appalled at the indignity of Brae being made to apply her lipstick surrounded by cis men with their dicks out, have a think about your reaction to trans people who don’t fit your standard of male or femaleness. Consider the trans people whose mirror selfies would go unnoticed, because despite their discomfort, despite their knowledge that they do not belong in the bathroom of their assigned gender, their appearance doesn’t fit the arbitrary box that would cause their presence there to be shocking. Still outraged on our behalf? You’d better be.
We don’t exist to make you comfortable. I know I belong more in the men’s than in the ladies’, so when I feel like I can overcome the fear of potentially being asked what I’m doing there (or asked for ID to “prove” my gender, and then kicked out – thanks, Cindies bouncers), that’s where I go. And if I want to touch up my lipstick in there, then I damn well will. In the long term, using the perceived ridiculousness of someone wearing makeup in the men’s bathroom as a tool to play on cissexist ideas of gender helps nobody – all it does is reinforce harmful, pointless binary gendering of objects and body parts.
This categorically does not mean that I’m condemning those involved in Brae’s campaign: they’re terrified. And honestly, anything that can be done to prevent trans people in Canada, Florida, and Texas from being put in even more danger than they already face is justifiable. The people I am condemning are those who will only defend the rights of trans people to use the correct bathroom on the condition that those people conform to their ideals of binary gender.
So, trans or cis, binary or not, I don’t care who you are: if you’re not angry, you should be. But not just on behalf of trans men with full beards or trans women in dresses and lipstick. Get angry for all of us. Get angry that we’re societally obligated to conform to bullshit presentation standards to be accepted. Our validity does not depend on adherence to your binary boxes. And if that makes you uncomfortable, it’s your problem. Not ours.
Em Travis (GR. Comment Editor)