There's a little girl, 4 years old and as tomboy as you can be, with bug jars and cowboy boots. One day, she comes home from preschool crying with her pants soaked in urine.
Her mom asks what happened and she responds that the other girls stopped her from using the girl's bathroom because she wasn't like them, and her teacher had already told her she couldn't use the boys'.
She didn't know what to do – she had had two cups of red juice and couldn't hold it any longer. She was 4 years old and already had learned there was no place for a person like her to relieve herself, that not having a bathroom to use would be a constant problem for the rest of her life.
By the age of 4, the other kids had been taught to exclude children who weren't just like them.
This anecdote, from author and artist Ivan Coyote, describes only one kind of person harmed by overly rigid bathroom rules. Such rules force people to use bathrooms based on their sex rather than their gender. Sex refers to biology, while gender refers to identity.
In 2015, under Gov. Mike Pence, Indiana passed the controversial Senate Bill 101, which allows for discrimination against LGBT people in the name of religious freedom. Groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom use SB 101 to encourage schools to prohibit transgender students from using the bathroom they identify with.
SB 101 and laws like it cause many more problems than they “solve,” harming trans Americans and others alike. In one of the largest studies ever conducted on trans and gender nonconforming people and bathrooms, the Williams Institute of Law at UCLA found that 70% of these individuals have been “denied access, verbally harassed, or physically assaulted” when trying to use public bathrooms.
Another study by the institute found that Massachusetts laws prohibiting gender discrimination in bathroom use did not increase the incidence of privacy or safety crimes. Laws like these hurt no one.
Transgender people are not a threat. They are like anyone else: they have careers, partners and children. The only thing that makes them different is that they grew up realizing they had a mind that mismatched their bodies.
For those who have transitioned, laws like SB 101 leave them unable to use any bathroom outside their house that isn't one of a few public unisex bathrooms that they have come to know by heart.
The problem is trickier for people who are gender nonconforming. Among them are non-binary and androgynous people as well as feminine men and masculine women. While trans people can ideally feel at home in a gendered bathroom, gender nonconforming people cannot. Often their choice is between being potentially assaulted physically in one bathroom or verbally in the other.
For them, as for trans people, rigid bathroom rules lead to emotional exhaustion, high anxiety, dehydration, and – when people have to choose to hold it – high rates of urinal tract infections.
According to a Human Rights Campaign study, a third of transgender people have avoided food or water due to restroom discrimination. Hate-driven attacks and murders of trans people are rising, with 26 people murdered in 2018 and 13 already this year.
Really, trans and gender nonconforming people, like that little girl, are only looking for a place to relieve themselves. They are hoping to not have a confrontation – every time they go into a bathroom, they just hope they can get out.
Some easy improvements can come if we keep an open mind and have a little faith in others. We can convert gendered single-stalled bathrooms into gender-neutral ones with taped temporary signs. We can stop needlessly sorting Porta Potties at city festivals into male and female ones.
The bottom line is that everyone should be able to leave the house and not worry about when they can relieve themselves. No one should be forced to stay home because public restrooms aren't accessible to everyone in our society.
Gender-neutral single-stall bathrooms are essential to the dignity and safety of trans and gender nonconforming people. When it comes down to it, bathrooms are just bathrooms. We all deserve equal access to them.
Phoebe Grayson Toole is a 2019 graduate of Canterbury High School and will attend Haverford College in Pennsylvania in the fall.