Op-Ed

A transgender child's dilemma: When to go, and where

I remember the trembling fear that engulfed my body. I would hold my pee for hours; I normalized lower belly pain because it was less uncomfortable than choosing a bathroom. It was a constant dance, one that consumed my mind and eclipsed my lessons: how to be able to pee, when to pee and where.

There was a boys’ bathroom on a lower floor, for second graders, that I figured was less risky than the fourth-grade one, because those kids wouldn’t know me, or think that I wasn’t supposed to be in there. I didn’t question why bathrooms were segregated, I just felt, in my tensed muscles, that being caught in the “wrong one” would be deeply shameful, humiliating, disgusting.

I went to a very liberal public elementary school in the West Village of New York City. The legendary drag festival, Wigstock, happened mere blocks from us, and New York’s annual pride parade came past the front door. My school couldn’t have been better positioned to foster tolerance of a transgender child, but still, I got punched in the face and pressed into concrete steps because kids didn’t know for sure what I was.

I was 9 years old — my feelings of shame and stigma were not political. I had no concept of liberalism or conservatism. I was only aware of the burning feeling when I understood that I was different, and that the way I was different had to do with parts of my body it would take me years to get acquainted with.

My teachers knew the situation, because the attendance sheet told them I was assigned female at birth. But the little boy sitting in front of them posed a complex set of issues. Where would he sleep at camp? What to say to confused classmates asking for clarification about rumors swirling in the gym?

I had a kid bound up the stairs one day and grab my throat and crotch, then proclaim to his friends, “He’s got an Adam’s apple and nuts!” (Perception is an interesting thing.) My world was an uncomfortable thicket of questions, kids relentlessly pursuing answers they felt they had a right to.

Mostly I spent time alone. There was no one else like me in a school of many hundreds of hyper liberal kids. No one understood, and neither did I.

Regardless of how amazing my parents and teachers were in allowing me to make my own way, they couldn’t offset the deep aloneness that came with being so out of the ordinary. I operated in a bubble of fear that my anatomy would be discovered. One of the only ways to concretely “find out” is in the bathroom, so all day, every day, as my peers bounded thoughtlessly to the bathroom and back, I sat at my desk and calculated, desperate for a time when everyone would be occupied and I could take a moment to pee in a safe place.

Now I’m 31 and I have acclimated myself to a lifetime of stares, no matter which bathroom I use. My friends are protective and accompany me when it feels risky, and I sigh with sweet relief when I see a “family bathroom” (the occasionally available gender neutral option).

Whenever a new progressive norm is at stake, American conservatives argue that children will be harmed. They claimed interracial marriage was a threat to American families , that women voting would destroy the family structure, and that gay marriage would erode the institution of marriage itself. Now President Trump has rescinded federal protections allowing transgender people to use bathrooms that match their identities, opening the door to state-by-state discrimination and to real harm to trans children.

As a nation, we have proved again and again that progress on civil rights does not come from asking people to overcome misinformation and fear, it comes from legal protections for those too marginalized to protect themselves. Social acceptance may or may not follow, but no one’s safety should be dependent on their ZIP code.

The facts show that dictating bathroom use based on birth certificates is an unjustified act of discrimination. Transgender people don’t attack or interact inappropriately in the public restrooms they choose to use. The disproportionate violence involving trans people goes the other way. It is we who are attacked and murdered.

Trans children must not be punished, in the most intimate way, because of fantasies about people being harassed in bathrooms. Trans people must not be punished because others find us weird or frightening. When people are afraid, they lash out, and passing laws based on such responses only endorses the violence.

A country that does not nurture and defend all its children is no country at all. Forcing trans children to use the bathroom of their birth-certificate biology is cruel, an act of callous ignorance and a blatant example of myopic, obsessive bigotry in action.

iO Tillett Wright is a Los Angeles-based artist, speaker, actor and activist. His memoir, “Darling Days,” was published last year.

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