What It's Like to Use a Public Bathroom While Trans

"Some people just take bathrooms for granted, but over history, the bathroom has been a place where rights are fought"

North Carolina recently passed a law effectively making it illegal for trans people to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. Credit: Kendrick Brinson/Redux

For most people, going to a public restroom is no big deal. Aside from long lines at the women's restroom or a dirty stall in the men's, they never have to think about it.

For trans people, however, using a public bathroom is complicated, and often dangerous. A 2013 survey from UCLA's Williams Institute found that nearly 70 percent of trans people had experienced negative interactions in public facilities — from dirty looks to snide comments to physical violence.

A bill recently passed by the North Carolina state legislature put the issue of trans restroom access back in the national spotlight. On March 23rd, Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law HB 2, which effectively made it illegal for trans people to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. The legislation also overturns existing nondiscrimination ordinances in the state. The passage of HB 2 follows the failure of Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) last November, which was voted down after conservative critics argued it would give "sexual predators" a free pass to prey on children. To date, there's never been a single reported case of a trans person attacking someone else in a public facility.

Rolling Stone talked to trans people across the country about the North Carolina law, as well as their experiences with using public restrooms. Here's what they had to say.

Lara Americo
31
Raleigh, North Carolina
She/her

On running into the bathroom to avoid harassment:
"Early in my transition, it was hard because I didn't blend in well as a female, but I really didn't look like a male either. So I didn't get to use any bathrooms. When I did, I had to sprint into it and wait in a stall until everyone was gone, and then run out as fast as I could.

"You stand outside the bathroom for maybe a minute or two to make sure no one is coming out or no one is coming in. Then you go inside and if you hear someone, you just look down and hope they don't look at your face.... You run into the stall and you lock the door as fast as you can, and then you do what you have to do. If you hear someone walk in, or you hear someone else in there, you have to wait until they leave. Once you hear that they are gone, you can run out. Washing your hands is a difficult situation because it takes time, so hopefully you brought disinfectant."

On the idea that trans people pose a threat to others in public bathrooms:
"It's funny because I'm afraid of [non-trans people], and I think I'm more afraid of them than they are of me. It's a strange feeling to have someone who can hurt you so severely — emotionally, physically and even economically — and they're afraid of you. It's like the lion being afraid of the mouse."

Erica Lachowitz
40
Charlotte, North Carolina
She/her

On her first experience being attacked:
"I was 19 when I had my ribs broken. They stomped on me and they beat me so bad they tore my dress off, they tore my panties off [and] they ripped my brand new wig.… They chased me and my two friends. They caught me because I had heels. They were strappy. I would have thrown them away. I wouldn't have cared. They were probably in their mid-20s. Three men, drunk, very large. They kicked me so many times in the ribs. I tried to cover my face to protect my face. As I'm laying there, pretty much lifeless, a guy whips out his penis about to urinate on me. That's disgusting.

"People did come to my aid. The police came. The EMTs came. They put a tube in my throat. The police officer says, as I'm sitting in the gurney, 'This never would have happened to you if you weren't wearing a dress and trying to fool men.'"

On being denied access to the women's changing area:
"There was an incident in a dressing room where I was shopping for clothing. Here's a place I have gone to for years. A woman there knew I was in transition. She said to me as I was about to walk into the women's dressing room like I always do. I was dressed as a woman.... She said, 'Stop for a second, there are real women in the dressing room. Let me show you where there's another dressing room you can use.' She pointed to the men's section."

Brynn Tannehill
41
Springfield, Virginia
She/her

On how she survived using public bathrooms:
"The worst part was the dirty looks and people doing double takes at me coming in there. I've had the 'What are you doing in here?' question. Honestly, the only thing that saves me is that I've had enough voice training that they're like, 'Oh, never mind.' But seriously, my voice training saved me.

"[These situations] happened to me early in my transition. After I grew my hair out and after I'd been transitioning a while, [they haven't] happened since. A lot of times I think there's a perverse irony in that the only people [the North Carolina bill] is going to be targeting are the transgender people who are already the most vulnerable, the ones who are early in their transition, or transition later, or the ones who don't look a particular way. It's dangerous and it's sad that we're targeting people based on how they look."

On why she's still scared use the restroom in public:
"There's always in the back of my mind that anything I do, especially if I'm in someplace where people know I'm trans, if I even blink wrong, if I look the wrong way, if I spend too much time in the bathroom, [or] if I do anything besides get in and get out, that somebody is going to accuse me of something. My bathroom visits are surgical strikes… you do one thing without collateral damage."

On what it would be like to be forced to use a men's bathroom in North Carolina:
"My choices are: Go to the women's room and probably be OK and break the law, or go into a men's room until someone realizes why I'm there. After they've worked so very, very hard to label sexual predators, God only knows what happens when I walk in or when I walk out.

"If you walk in and you're presenting as female, even if you have passing privilege, you walk into the men's room and you've immediately identified yourself as a lost cisgender woman… or you walk in and you stay and that immediately marks you as transgender.… Last year, we had 22 or 23 trans women murdered. And we've got North Carolina legislators... having beat the drum that transgender people are perverts and have no rights. You walk into a bathroom, you've announced yourself as transgender and everyone in that bathroom has been told that you're a child-molesting, subhuman monster. Whatever compunctions they have against violence have been significantly lowered."

Alaina Kupec
46
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
She/her

On how the North Carolina bill brought up old fears:
"I transitioned three years ago. Shortly after transitioning, you have this paranoia, this fear that they're reading you and they're seeing you in your old gender, not the one that you're presenting in. For the past week, I've gone through all those feelings again. Now when somebody looks at me, it's that fear of 'Are they reading me as a transgender woman?' or are they looking at me as they always looked at me before. I'm tall, I'm 5'10". In heels, I'm six feet tall.

"You always live in fear of your personal safety being in jeopardy."

On her reaction to the North Carolina legislation:
"At the end of the day, I don't plan on changing my behavior whatsoever. Because the law, as it's written, is completely unenforceable. How are they going to know? If they ask me for my driver's license, my driver's license has my gender as a female. If they were to accuse me of being transgender, who's to accuse me of being transgender versus anyone else in that restroom? Any woman using the bathroom is subject to the same laws I am. Who is going to the physical inspection? Who is going to do the pat down?

"It just goes to the absurdity of this legislation: It's completely unenforceable. It doesn't solve any needs that are out there. It does nothing but jeopardize my personal safety.… The last thing I thought about before going to sleep at night every day for the past month has been dreading that this was coming. Last night, I had a nightmare that I was assaulted in a men's bathroom.... I woke up from where I was beaten up and not taken seriously because I was forced to use the men's restroom. I never had to think about that. For the past few years since I transitioned, I never had to worry about that. Now I have to live wondering if people are looking at me, if I'm going to be forced to use the wrong restroom, and if it's going to jeopardize my personal safety."

Alok Vaid-Menon
24
New York City
They/them

On "holding it":
"I did not use a single public restroom at all until the age of 18 or 19. Like a lot of trans people — this is anecdotal — I have a urinary tract infection or condition from having to hold because so many of us were too afraid to even use the restroom that we just did not. That's where I start: Even before this flurry of bills, there's been a long history of many of us not using restrooms because we were too afraid of what would happen in them....

"I don't remember how I did it. I don't think I could do it now. In high school, I never went to the bathroom. I just held it."

On how their relationship to the public restroom has changed:
"Now I have a different relationship to bathrooms. I actually feel like it gives me power. I'm an activist, I'm committed to social change. The only way we make people change is by making people uncomfortable. The reason people are uncomfortable with feminine gay men, non-binary trans people like me, and trans women is that they have this myth that if you're assigned male at birth, you have to be super macho. That's awful, wrong and destructive. I like that my body makes people uncomfortable and means that they have to cover their children's eyes because it showing me that I'm creating another possibility for something that people have repressed inside of them.

"I think a lot of anti-trans violence is motivated by cis peoples' repression. I think a lot of cis people take their own gender anxiety, trauma and insecurity and project that on us. But it's really about them. If you really were confident in your own gender, just like if you were confident in your own sexuality, you wouldn't need to police other people. I feel bad for them mostly."

On the populations most affected by the North Carolina legislation:
"It's going to be certain types of trans people who are most directly impacted by this. It's going to be communities that were already disadvantaged and already criminalized. It's going to be poor trans people, homeless trans people, sex workers [and] black trans people. They're going to use this legislation as a way to justify calling the police on people. I think it's really crucial when we talk about trans issues to name that race doesn't just magically go away. It's predominantly trans people of color and trans feminine people of color who are facing the brunt of this bathroom policing. "

Andrea Zekis
37
Portland, Oregon
She/her

On why bathrooms are so important:
"Some people just take bathrooms for granted, but over history, the bathroom has been a place where rights are fought. It's something that touches me deeply because of being a transgender woman…. I live in this country the United States and I wonder where my protections begin and end. I think it's important to state that these issues build a culture of violence. Transgender people are often misunderstood.… We need to talk about our stories and they need to be able to get to know us. When they get to know us, this is going to go away, but it's going to be awhile before that happens.

"We pay taxes and we live our lives and we work and we have families like everyone else. I want people to see us for who we are. We're Americans; we're living an American story."

On what message North Carolina's bill sends:
"The message from the governor to folks is that transgender people are different and people to be feared. The message is not about public facilities, it's that you're supposed to fear transgender people. What it says to me is that the governor is condoning behavior that could hurt transgender people. When you have a message that says you're different and that message is being supported by your government, I could see that as a barrier for folks to want to come out. I could see it as a barrier for people wanting to travel or live their lives. It really puts a target on transgender people."

Mitch Kellaway
27
Somerville, Massachusetts
He/him

On the threat of violence:
"The funny thing is that the fear hurts you. It's the not knowing if something else is going to come up the next time you go to the bathroom, it's the vigilance that affected me and my well-being more than anything, more than the attacks that never materialized. It was the anticipation of the possible attack. And I still live with that when I go into men's rooms.

"You're separated by a metal wall. Your pants are down. Your naked body. You can't predict what someone would do if they knew there was somebody on the other side of the wall. You feel vulnerable. It is impossible not to. I'm always thinking about it when I'm sitting down and I'm peeing, because I'm sitting down. Are these guys going to mess with me because of it? Sometimes the lock on the door doesn't work so I'm holding the door shut.

"Right now, I happen to be menstruating. So I'm opening a tampon when I'm in the bathroom. Are they going to hear that? Are they going to see it?"

On what it means to feel safe in public bathrooms:
"When I know I don't have to worry about going to the bathroom, my energy that I would spend worrying about that is able to be put back into my life in order to enhance my life. When you're able to freely move out in public without fear, it's life-enhancing.

"When we say, 'Can I just live?' it's really about: let me be so I can figure out who I am and work toward my potential rather than spending so much time and energy worrying about what you're going to do to me.

"It's hard to quantify and pin down. It's not just bathrooms. It is locker rooms. It is getting misgendered by your professor. It's all sorts of little worries you have throughout the day that have this cumulative effect of dampening your zeal or making you more tired. It cramps your potential when you have to spend so much time thinking about how other people might or might not hurt you. We will never know, right now, the full potential of trans people in our society because we have to spend so much time living, just trying to survive."