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Today is Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Restrooms Bring Transgender Rights to the Forefront

Perhaps the most visceral issue concerning the transgendered community is the bathroom. Indeed, recent arrests, and both current and pending lawsuits concerning restroom usage, have brought the issue of transgenderism to the public fore. This, the most unlikely and private of places, has become the battleground between transgenders and the law.

Recent cases in New York and in Minnesota, illustrate the point.

Dean Spade, a female to male transsexual, was arrested in early February and held for 23 hours for using the men's room in New York City's Grand Central Station. Police followed him into the men's room, then physically dragged him out in handcuffs as bystanders watched.

When the case appeared in court, the judge dismissed all charges. It seems there is no New York law defining who may and may not use which restroom.

In a pending discrimination suit filed before the New York State Supreme Court by the ACLU, New York City's Hispanic AIDS Forum charges that it was forced to leave its location after their landlord of 10 years began eviction proceedings for 'improper' restroom use by its transgendered clients. The location in the Jackson Heights section of Queens was in the epicenter of the New York's GLBT Latino community, and critical to the agency's efficacy. Latinos account for 31% of all AIDS cases in New York City.

The landlord was allegedly unwilling to discuss ways to accommodate transgendered people following complaints from other tenants that the agency's transgendered clients were using 'wrong' restrooms and, instead, began eviction proceedings. As a result, the agency was forced to move to a location further away from the clientele it serves.

Decisions on restroom usage have serious implications for transgenders. The most crucial effects are loss of career and inability to work. Minnesota has two current cases that point in opposite directions.

On the state level, the Minnesota Supreme Court decision in Goins v. West Group ruled that employers may decide which restrooms transsexual employees are allowed to use. When female employees at the workplace expressed displeasure with Goins using the women's room adjacent to her workspace, the company insisted she use a specially assigned restroom further away. The Supreme Court's opinion concurred with that approach, overturning a lower court's ruling.

However, a federal court in Minnesota ruled that a transsexual may use the restroom appropriate to the new gender. Minneapolis high school teacher Carla Cruzan complained that allowing school librarian Debra Davis to use the women's bathroom violated Cruzan's religious freedom and created a hostile workplace.

In this case, none of the other co-workers had problems with Davis. The school decided to provide the complainant, Cruzan, with access to several other women's bathrooms, including single-person facilities, and the federal court agreed. Apparently Cruzan sought separate facilities for transgenders only, but found those same facilities unfair for herself. Cruzan is currently appealing the decision to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

Currently, the American public restroom is a confusing scene. Although women feel protected in their ladies room sanctuaries, not all jurisdictions have specific laws regarding who may use which restroom. Still, the cry, "There's a man in the ladies room," is likely to elicit a response from security guards or police, whether legally warranted or not. Yet a bearded man in a dress in the men's restroom risks physical assault.

Furthermore, what happens when the transgendered person is disabled or wheelchair-bound? "Many may rely on catheters and adult diapers to minimize the need to use a public restroom, but eventually catheters have to be emptied," said Rachel Newstead, a member of the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition (NTAC), "and there's no safe place to go to take care of that." Newstead, who has cerebral palsy, added that "a male-to-female transgender with a disability, forced to use a men's restroom, is in even more danger of being harmed than an able-bodied transgender."

Thus, the question begs: where does one go when nature calls?

Where should American society draw the line? Might the spread of
transgender rights lead America to the multi-stall unisex restrooms of Europe and the Ally McBeal show? Or will legislators continue running ever faster away from the problems that arise, in order to spare themselves the controversy of the issue?

Meanwhile, as America draws lines, and crosses lines, and erases lines between gender and conformity ... someone waits patiently for the next available stall.

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