Guest columnist Laura Briggs: Fear and loathing in public bathrooms

Published: 11/5/2018 3:09:56 PM

Something happened that I can’t stop thinking about. I was in a public bathroom, and an older woman, in her late 60s or 70s, told me to go to the men’s room.

This has been happening more and more often in the past five years — and maybe once before in the previous 49 years of my life. It’s new. It’s not my appearance, it’s the moment. I am not transgender, but I don’t exactly wear dresses, either, and that is making it increasingly complicated for me to use public bathrooms.

It is hostility generated by the campaign around Question 3 here in Massachusetts, and nationally, by the transphobia of the federal government, from the banning of trans people from the military to the efforts to reverse the recognition and civil rights protections of transgender people under federal civil rights law.

It is the fear, deliberately stoked by the political right, of masculine-of-center people in women’s rooms. In the past, I’ve shrugged off comments that I don’t belong in the women’s room as a mistake because as soon as I speak, my harasser realizes that I’m female and backs down.

But here’s the complicated thing: This woman came up behind me and put one hand on the back of my neck and held my arm with the other — not violently, in fact quite gently, as she asked me why I wasn’t using the men’s room. It was the touching that made the whole encounter so memorably disturbing.

I’ve gone over and over the incident in my mind, and there is just no way she would have done that if she really thought I was a man. She simultaneously did and did not know I was female. And as long as I existed in that state of ambiguity for her, she could work toward my vanishing.

There is nothing new or original about generating fear about what happens in women’s bathrooms. In the 1970s, Phyllis Schlafly insisted that the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution — guaranteeing equal rights for women — would lead to unisex bathrooms and weaken laws against rape. Hers is the uncredited right-wing genius behind Question 3 in Massachusetts. This was a powerful argument in a successful campaign that did stop the ERA and swing the growing popular support for feminism — even in the Republican Party — to support for “traditional” gender roles. It worked before, so let’s try it again.

It’s back to the 1970s for the conservative movement and its campaigns for women in dresses and men in pants. No more high-spirited experiments about pregnant men or support for little boys who want to wear girl-clothes in public. The significant number of people who say they don’t identify strongly with either gender are proof-positive that this doesn’t go anywhere good.

If the dream of the 1970s was to somehow push women back into the home (even as we built an economy that demanded two wage-earners for most of us to stay in the middle-class), the conservative campaign of the current moment seems far more chilling: It’s the dream of our disappearance.

Campaigns to keep trans, queer, and androgynous people out of bathrooms are simultaneously about keeping us out of public space. If you can’t pee, you can’t go to school, travel, eat at a restaurant or go to a meeting at City Hall. You need to just vanish.

So this is what I suspect about this moment: that there is a right-wing project to clear certain people from public spaces, spaces that they think belong to them. This is what it means to talk about building a wall against immigrants or calling the police about black people in Starbucks. They think they can get back the spaces they imagine they’ve lost, even, or especially, the ones that were never really theirs.

Fortunately, in Massachusetts, we have an opportunity on Nov. 6 to vote against this campaign of fear and loathing. We can affirm gender diversity by voting “yes” on Question 3, which would uphold the law that prohibits discrimination in public places based on gender identity.

Let’s make it a resounding “yes.”

Laura Briggs is Professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of “How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump.”

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