Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.
By: Gabriel Watson
“I stand before you an artist and an actress, a sister and a daughter, and I believe it’s important to name the various intersecting components of my multiple identities because I am not just one thing, and neither are you,” said Laverne Cox. Like most folks growing up in this country, I lacked access to encountering transgender representation. This leads to a lot of misunderstandings about my community.
First, transgender identity does not grow out of mental illness. A lot of trans folks do attend counseling because of constant, ceaseless pain felt when folks misunderstand us. Counseling sessions also create opportunities to access live-saving medications. The difference between many of us accessing hormone therapy is life or death. A study entitled Suicidality Among Transgender Youth: Elucidating the Role of Interpersonal Risk Factors found that 82% of transgender people consider suicide, and 40% have attempted suicide.
Second, transgender folks have historically been criminalized for normal identity development because of the perceptions of and associations with mental illness. One example from the 19th century comes from a comparison to the Daniel Sickles Trial. Sickles, a congressman, caught his wife having an affair with Burton Key. He shot Key several times in Lafayette Square, after seeing his wife signal Key with her handkerchief from a hotel window. Sickles received the benefit of doubt and a temporary insanity defense. Around the same period in 1848, Columbus Ohio passed an ordinance criminalizing mainly transgender people appearing “in dress not belonging to his or her sex.” A man killing his wife for cheating received grace; someone perceived as a man wearing women’s clothing did not.
Third, transgender women typically do not fantasize about impregnating women, and transgender men typically do not fantasize about pregnancy. Within the popular Netflix show Call the Midwife, a man received a punishment where he had to take estrogen after being caught engaging in gay sex. The fictional court intended to stop him from getting erections. Gay men and transgender women are not the same. The point is to note a biological reality of estrogen’s effect within bodies of people assigned male at birth. Similarly, transgender men often experience our highest feelings of body dysmorphia during times of increased breast development. For me, this felt like the moment when the carefree part of my life ended. For an additional understanding of rallying fears of the other in protection of daughters, the Leo Frank trial from 1913 helps to illustrate part of this history. Leo Max Frank moved from New York to Georgia to work for his uncle’s pencil company, and a jury found him guilty of killing a 13-year-old former worker. The Ku Klux Klan rallied for years in support of hanging the Jewish man from The North to vindicate Mary Phagan.
Finally, two historical Supreme Court cases help to inform us on how limiting transgender people to only using gender-neutral restrooms falls within precedent. The Court ruled against Homer A. Plessy in 1896 when he rode a train from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana in the whites only section. In 1954 the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education overruled Plessy v. Ferguson, recognizing, “in the field of public education the doctrines of separate but equal has no place.” Granted, a gender-neutral restroom gives gender non-conforming people a safe option in a world often confused by transgender people. During a transition folks may look in-between male and female, so neither bathroom may feel safe. However, a suggestion for folks to only use bathrooms corresponding to assigned birth sex puts those who have already transitioned in danger. After a few years of hormone treatment, most transgender men do not look markedly different from cisgender men. Requiring transgender men to use the women’s restroom would result in a serious safety risk when folks panic seeing a man in the women’s restroom. Transgender women experience similar dangers in these situations. Additionally, research associates forcing transgender teenagers to use bathrooms corresponding to assigned sex at birth with increased transphobic attacks as well. A requirement of only using bathrooms corresponding to assigned birth sex or a gender-neutral restroom thus turns into a separate but equal argument for many transgender people. The only safe facility to use in these scenarios for many transgender folks becomes a separate one. Fear-based arguments for separate facilities do not align with research regarding transgender folks using restrooms corresponding to our known gender identities. Additionally, transgender people do not always transition; their perspectives are no less valid.
A professor once noted, the smartest student in the room admitted what she did not know in a room full of future attorneys—a bold move for her to make. A couple of past cases and my own knowledge of my community can begin to sort through common misconceptions. When I took sexuality studies, the highest missed questions on exams fell within common transgender experiences. Missing these realities is not an indication of lack of intelligence but a common unknown. Instead of shaming ignorance we can begin to admit, I am not a monster, and neither are you.
About the Author: Gabriel Watson is a transgender-male student at the University of Arkansas Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law.