Thanks to North Carolina’s transphobic HB2 law, bathrooms have gained status as the battleground for the debate over treatment of transgender Americans. President Obama’s announcement today that all public schools must support trans’ students bathroom choices further reenforced the view that bathrooms are where trans people experience the most harassment.
But for transgender youth, harassment is everywhere. And studies suggest the fixation on bathrooms takes too narrow a view of the obstacles trans youth face.
First, the numbers. In 2011, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force surveyed 1,876 students who expressed a transgender identity or gender non-conformity in grades K-12.
Here’s what they found: 78% reported being harassed at school by students, teachers and staff, while 12% said they’d been sexually assaulted.
American Indian (24%), multiracial (18%), Asian (17%), and Black (15%) and male-to-female trans people reported the highest rates of sexual assault. A full 84% of female-to-male respondents, meanwhile, said they’d been harassed.
The findings of mistreatment by teachers and staff, as opposed to students, are particularly worrisome given the roles they are supposed to play as guardians. Latinos and multiracial students reported the highest rates of such abuse.
Nor does harassment stop when these students reach college: 15% said they dropped out as a result of their transition.
Such pervasive harassment cannot be occurring solely in or outside a school bathroom. Rather, as a landmark study published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2001 found, harassment for transgender youth is essentially ubiquitous.
“Our findings reveal that a surprising amount of harassment occurs in public areas such as hallways, classrooms, lunchrooms, athletic fields, and school buses,” they said.
Indeed, the bathroom was often the place transgender students went to avoid harassment. Chantelle J., fifteen, told HRW, “I’ve gone to school dressed as a girl since I was thirteen. I would just stay in the bathroom the whole time during lunch.” Asked about her experience at school, she replied, “I wasn’t able to do any work. I was harassed, a lot. I couldn’t concentrate.”‘
Even going to the library to check out a book on gender identity presented another obstacle, HRW found:
Some students will never be comfortable using their school library as a source of information about issues related to sexual orientation or gender identity. “I think it’s really hard to go to the library and get a book on gay life,” said Paul M. “You’d be scared to go up to the counter to check it out. “386 “You cannot go to the library to check out books,” the Georgia teacher stated. “It’s too dangerous. People can see you, somebody has to check out the book to you, people can see your name on the card and tell you’ve checked the book out. “
And, then of course, there’s gym class and locker rooms.
“I’d skip,” Anika P., a transgender girl, told HRW, saying that she was once beaten with a bottle during gym class. “I had to use the boys’ locker room; I’d have to shower in the boys’ shower.” The school eventually put her in a special education class. “They didn’t know what to do,” she recalled. “They said it was for my own safety.”
Perhaps the most unsettling finding from HRW was that in many cases, school was still safer than the wider world of social youth beyond school walls:
“It’s mostly outside school that you end up feeling scared. There’s nothing you can do at all,” Chance M. said. For instance, many students are harassed on their way to and from school. “You’ll have people throwing things at you on the bus,” said Ethan J., sixteen.”‘ We heard similar accounts from students who rely on public transit to get to and from school.’ The same was true of those who walked to and from school.
Solving the bathroom problem is an important step in accepting America’s transgender citizens. But as the above findings show, it is in no way a sufficient substitute for the need of universal acceptance of the trans community.