Over the past few months, officials in states throughout America have been fighting to curtail the rights of transgender citizens by passing so-called "bathroom bills," which force people to use restrooms that align with the gender listed on their birth certificates.
Those opposed to the bills see them as ways to legalize discrimination. Those in favor say they protect cis women and children; in their eyes, a mythic male predator could take advantage of the law to access to young and vulnerable women by posing as a woman himself. It's an argument that trades on fear and, according to one 9-1-1 dispatcher, has nothing to do with reality.
In a series of impassioned tweets, user @deathtodickens pointed to the flaws in the pro-trans bill argument.
Dickens uses the moniker to keep her art (she's an illustrator and writer who explores identity) separate from her profession, preferred it be used in lieu of her real name for this story. She told me more about how her time as a 9-1-1 dispatcher has affected her view of anti-trans legislation. In an email the self-described "average queer WOC in her 30s" wrote that she's spent nearly nine years fielding 9-1-1 calls in California, and that her work has "only enhanced my support for the transgender community at large and against transphobic bathroom bills."
During her years as a 9-1-1 dispatcher, Dickens can remember only three calls about transgender women. In each case, the woman was in danger.
On two occasions, trans women called 9-1-1 to report an assault. "One of those women had a shotgun pulled on her by the man she was on a date with, not their first, after she'd revealed to him that she was transgender," Dickens recalled. "They were in a moving vehicle, he threatened to kill her, and refused to let her out. Not until they were in the middle of nowhere did he stop and let her go. She was able to call 9-1-1 but he had already gone."
In the third case, the trans woman told Dickens that she was "newly transitioning, dealing with intense and unwanted opinions on her transitioning, and threatening self-harm."
That's not to say that police officers don't receive calls reporting trans individuals. They do, but in Dickens' experience, those calls are often fueled solely by prejudice. "We receive so many calls about suspicious persons and activities wherein the extent of the suspicion doesn't move past the physical description of the suspected," she wrote in an email. "Too often we have to question why people are wary of a particular person and too often we are met with unfiltered commentary that is biased, prejudice, and uncalled for."
A comparable case garnered national attention in November. Meagan Taylor, a trans woman, was checking into a hotel in Iowa when an employee called the police to say that the gender on her ID (male) didn't align with her appearance. Police arrested Taylor and she was held in prison for eight days.
Dickens experiences align with what a number of groups have found: The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), the Human Rights Campaign, and the ACLU argue that there's no data justifying laws that prevent trans women from using women's restrooms. In an email to Mic, a representative from NCTE said that the group has "not heard of a single instance of a transgender person harassing a non-transgender person in a public restroom," adding, "those who claim otherwise have no evidence that this is true."
The hateful conversation surrounding trans rights has broad ramifications. Dickens writes that, in addition to spreading transphobic myths, the virulent debate serves as a distraction from real threats faced by children.
"Almost every day we receive calls about children being abused by straight cis men and, more often than not, these men are close to them," Dickens explained. "Relatives, stepparents, teachers. People they know, people they are supposed to trust. We teach our children not to trust strangers from a very young age but rarely do we teach our children to question the adults in their lives."
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (or RAINN), 93% of sexually abused children know their attacker.
California is not considering an anti-trans bathroom bill—in fact, it's moving to make more bathrooms gender neutral. Dickens says that the state's commitment to protecting trans rights has meant that even in her conservative neighborhood, LGBT individuals can feel safe. That's what sensible laws do.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.