Trans Activist on Why Fights Over Bathrooms Are Just the Beginning

"There are so many causes that we have to champion. We can't just pick one," says Cherno Biko

The Obama administration recently released guidelines to keep young trans men and women from being forced to use a bathroom that does not correspond with their gender identity. Credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

Cherno Biko was forced to grapple with the grave consequences of even the most basic decisions early on in life. "I come from Ohio, which is one of the worst states for trans rights," says Biko, co-founder of Black Trans Lives Matter. As a 15-year-old, "I went into the men's restroom and I was beat up, and so I went into the women's restroom and someone called the police on me and I was arrested."

On Friday, the Departments of Education and Justice together released a set of guidelines intended to keep young trans men and women from being forced into a similar situation. The guidelines guarantee trans students equal access to sex-segregated facilities — the right to use the bathroom that suits their gender identity. The Human Rights campaign hailed the move as "groundbreaking," but Biko is, largely, unimpressed.

"I fear that it's just too little too late," Biko, who uses the pronoun "they," says.

Of course it should be a priority to protect equal access to bathrooms, they say, and to housing, and to employment opportunities — but no one should be congratulating themselves for taking a step that is, in the grand scheme of things, very, very small. "We have to confront a society that can murder 25 black trans women in the span of a year, not say anything about it, not care, and then when white folks can't use the bathroom, that's when President Obama gets involved," Biko says.

The federal guidance, they add, is proof "the mainstream LGBT movement is continuing to lag behind and continuing disregard and neglect our most vulnerable."

Biko wants to see Obama and his attorney general Loretta Lynch turn their attention to more pressing issues facing the trans community: preventing violence against trans individuals, decriminalizing sex work, decriminalizing HIV status and reforming immigration. All of these, Biko says, are problems members of the trans community have to grapple with disproportionately compared with other groups.

"We're profiled by the police as sex workers," Biko, the co-chair of New York City's Young Women's Advisory Council, says. "If you're just standing there on the street, an officer based on what you're wearing, based on on the color of your skin, based on what time of day it is, can arrest you for 'loitering with the purposes of prostitution.' It's really what stop-and-frisk looks like for the trans community."

Biko points to statistics that show trans immigrants are disproportionately detained and deported. (An investigation by Fusion found that 20 percent of confirmed cases of sexual abuse in immigration detention facilities are against trans detainees, as well.) They point to statistics that show trans women have some of the highest rates of HIV in the country, and to instances in which individuals have been prosecuted for their HIV status. 

"There are so many causes that we have to champion. We can't just pick one. That's what intersectionality means," Biko says. "We have to hold space for all of these identities."

In a perfect world, Biko would sit down with Obama and Lynch and "really find out what can be done in this last year [of his presidency] — not just to make these overarching statements but to ... figure out what we can do to ensure that black trans lives matter now and in the years to come."

"We have to complicate this conversation beyond just bathrooms. It's not just about the bathrooms. It's so basic to say: trans women should be able to use the women’s restroom, trans men should be able to use the men’s restroom," Biko says. "Of course they should be able to use that restroom!"