My transition in the 1990s wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. I was cut off from some close family members for a few years. I experienced a long period of paranoia; it would take me 10 or 20 minutes of sitting in my car to work up the courage to enter a supermarket, worried that people would look at me and talk about me behind my back. Management at my job required me to use the men’s room, which was located in a strip mall and designated for public use. Two men walked in and caught me there one day. I was mercilessly taunted and menacingly threatened. I quit my job that day.
But I was one of the lucky ones. Transgender Americans face sobering odds: The unemployment rate for transgender people is more than double the national average; they are more likely to experience on-the-job discrimination; they are 41 percent more likely to commit suicide. Transgender men and women experience significantly higher rates of nonphysical and physical abuse compared with gay men and lesbians. But not me. I was fortunate enough to get a new job at an insurance company in downtown Seattle. I joined the staff as a woman and felt safe at work. I was allowed to use the ladies room without question. I still experienced nagging insecurity over using women’s bathrooms for a few years, but overall, I lived a relatively comfortably “stealth” existence. Like most trans people, I was happy to fly under the radar.
But something has changed. Since March, when the North Carolina “bathroom bill” was first introduced and a leading presidential candidate saw fit to launch his own crusade to net a few primary votes, I have experienced harassment unlike anything since I first transitioned in the ’90s. Any hope that this would be a passing phase has steadily eroded as state after state has chosen to double down on anti-trans legislation as a way to push back on President Obama’s directives. And now we find ourselves heading into what is sure to be continued vilification during the Republican National Convention, as the party puts forth the most anti-LGBTQ platform in history.
My first experience with bigotry began and ended before I even knew what was happening. It was in April, not long after the first bathroom bill became news. I was washing my hands in a ladies room when someone came up behind me and hissed, “You don’t belong here.” Startled, I turned around and saw the back of a woman as she hurried out of the restroom. I was too shocked to respond. As it dawned on me what had happened, my knees almost gave out.
The second time, about two weeks later, was much more confrontational. As I exited the ladies room at a local theater, I was met by two imposing men. One claimed to be the boyfriend of someone who had just used the bathroom and was upset because I was in there. I tried to just continue past them, but they persisted in their taunting. In desperation, I pulled out my driver’s license and showed them the “F” recorded on it. As I walked away, trying to keep some dignity in tact, one of them yelled, “That doesn’t prove anything.” To say I was humiliated doesn’t begin to describe my feelings.
Fortunately neither encounter was physically violent, but there are no guarantees that I will remain safe. I’m not exaggerating when I say I am afraid for my life now, in a way I haven’t been in years. There’s now the very real possibility of being confronted at any time, even when I am out with my granddaughters. Knowing that this happened in California, a supposedly “blue” state, only makes my experiences more unsettling.
Much has been written, justifiably so, about the negative impact all this publicity is having on trans students. But I haven’t seen much said about people my age. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said, “Some of you have lived freely for decades,” and it’s true. A lot of us have felt free to come and go without fear.
That’s changed in a profound way for me now. There are times I question whether I really need to use the bathroom or if it can wait until I get home. Instead of a normal exercise of bladder relief, a trip to a public women’s room now feels like running a gauntlet. I watch to see if any men are standing outside the door waiting for a wife or girlfriend. If there’s a line, I won’t go in. When I’m in a stall now, I listen to see if anyone else is talking about me. Afterward, I wash my hands and get out as quickly as I can.
One reason I have always considered myself lucky is that my features are soft enough to allow me to “pass” without incident. But I have two features that push me to the upper limit of informally accepted female stereotypes. I am tall (5’10”), and I am fat. In this new era of heightened profiling, this is now a problem. The fallacy in these bathroom bills is that they purport to be about genitalia, but in reality, they are being enforced by self-appointed vigilantes based on outward appearance and how it measures up to their preconceived ideas of womanhood. I now carry the fear that violence can occur against me at any time and anywhere. It’s an extremely difficult way to live.
This explosion of anti-trans bigotry has caught me by surprise, and I’m scrambling to build some defense mechanisms to cope with it. I’m not alone. This week, thousands of us will be unwilling observers of the repeated message that we are self-delusional perverts on the fringes of society, a message that will surely be front and center at the Republican National Convention. And our hearts will beat a little faster every time we walk into a restroom.