For Students, the Fight Against ‘Bathroom Bills’ Is About Far More Than Bathrooms

For Students, the Fight Against ‘Bathroom Bills’ Is About Far More Than Bathrooms

For Students, the Fight Against ‘Bathroom Bills’ Is About Far More Than Bathrooms

The movement for trans justice is—or can be—a movement for racial justice.


On September 26, Laila Nur, a queer black musician, took the mic at the North Carolina Pride Parade. The announcer gave her group two minutes to speak and warned her not to “say anything offensive.” Sure enough, within a minute, Nur got cut short. An event affiliate stepped on her foot, grabbed her arm, and ripped the mic out of her hand. The offense: calling out the whitewashing and policing of Pride, which the statewide Queer and Trans People of Color Coalition had also done at Greensboro Pride a week earlier. Later, demanding an apology, she wrote, “#ReclaimPride because that’s exactly what it’s all about: Standing up, starting shit and fighting back!”

Six months later, the state’s General Assembly pulled a similar move on QTPoC coalition member Qasima Wideman. As legislators heard testimony on the anti-trans, anti-worker “bathroom bill,” HB2, Wideman got escorted out after demanding time for trans people of color. “I have watched us be forgotten, ignored, pushed to the margins of the fight,” they wrote afterward, invoking Sylvia Rivera and the militant roots of gay rights. “But the truth remains: We started this movement.”

HB2 has stoked opposition everywhere—from the QTPoC coalition, which led a three-hour street takeover outside Governor Pat McCrory’s mansion following its passage, to Deutsche Bank, to even Donald Trump. In such a big tent, the meaning and long game of the fight are up for grabs. What if the complicated, messy connections between race, sexuality, and sexual identity were front and center, reframing the fight against one piece of legislation as a larger, longer-standing fight for a lot more?

In this post, four student activists lay out the relationship between racial justice and the current surge of “bathroom bills” and “religious freedom” legislation.

Trans, Latino, Southern, and Alive

Do you know where the gender-neutral restrooms are at the University of South Carolina? Our administrators aren’t so sure. The “bathroom brigade,” a project of the Trans Student Alliance, works to update the student body by mapping out single-stall, ungendered restrooms around campus. The administration cites a much higher number of these restrooms than we’ve located, likely accounting for single, gendered stalls as well as inaccessible dorm stalls. In reality, it takes 10 minutes to find a gender-neutral restroom from the center of campus, and there are none available in our main food court or library.

When we discovered that State Senator Lee Bright had proposed S. 1203, a bill that would have banned trans people from using the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity, we kicked into gear. Within a few hours, we had rallied together South Carolina’s trans community to create Trans United of South Carolina and the #NotThisTime campaign, which grew to include more than 20 organizations. On the second day of testimony, I delivered my speech to the body. For me, opposing the bill was a priority for my safety and the safety of others. The bill opens the door to discrimination based on the policing of appearance. It makes schools into more hostile environments, especially for youth, who should be encouraged to explore their gender identity and expression. Nobody should feel like they have to move out-of-state to feel safe. Three weeks later, after two days of testimony and ongoing protests at the statehouse, the bill died in the legislature.

We mobilized not only to defeat the bill but to rally a movement to continue organizing. On campus, this involves fighting to make the student experience trans-inclusive and accessible. In addition to restrooms, we are organizing to allow changes to our “CarolinaCard” IDs, which can out trans students and cause trouble with places like the student health center, classrooms, the cafeteria, and student events. Currently, students can’t change their names unless they have a court order, which can be prohibitively expensive, especially for trans students of color. We face discrimination on a number of other fronts: in healthcare services, sexual trauma services, and psychological counseling; in access to student housing, which doesn’t have affordable, single-room options in lieu of gender-neutral options; and with the police, who routinely ridicule and dehumanize trans students.

There are signs, however, that the climate for conversation is shifting. At the USC 2020 protests for racial justice in the fall, trans issues, including police issues, were included in students’ demands on the administration. Last spring, USC’s quarterly student magazine published a feature called “TransCarolina.”

In all facets of our organizing, we prioritize the voices of trans students of color. Many of us live at the intersections of racism and transphobia, neither of which can be fought without the other; I am both Latino and trans, not Latino or trans. We’re aware how trans people of color are silenced in the media and in general, despite being under heightened threat of discrimination, violence, and murder.

Overall, we strive to recognize the voices in our organization that are heard and those that are silent. We want people to walk into our space and feel like they have a home—where we don’t just talk about intersectionality but practice it by necessity.

What Does Religious Freedom Have to Do With the Confederate Flag?

Mississippi State prides itself on being the most diverse university in Mississippi, which our road signs refer to as the “Hospitality State.” What is diversity, though, if administrators don’t work to involve the range of identities on campus in the college experience? What is hospitality if it’s only for cisgender white men and women with visions of making America great again?

Over the past year, a friend, who is a trans man, had to deal with a coworker who consistently degraded him. She purposefully used female pronouns when referring to him and refused to acknowledge his wife when she came to visit us in the office. Under the university’s strict non-discrimination policy, he thought reporting it would help, but the coworker, a longer-term employee, won out. This incident, combined with the university’s lack of accommodations for non-binary and transgender students in housing and facilities, amplified his discomfort and unease as a student.

On April 12, more than 50 people filled Drill Field, encouraging passersby to sign a petition to remove Phil Bryant from office. Two weeks earlier, Bryant signed House Bill 1523, which extends “religious freedom” protections to those who deny services from LGBTQ people. For three hours, I stood with the Pride flag wrapped around my shoulders to show that I am not a second-class Mississippian. As the summer approaches, we are working with the Holmes Cultural Diversity Center and the Title IX Coordinator to conduct outreach to staff, faculty, and students about the effects of the bill—and protesting at the capitol.

The day after our action, we were back at Drill Field. Students and faculty marched to the steps of Lee Hall, where MSU President Mark Keenum’s office is housed—this time, to remove the most glaring sign of oppression on campus, the state flag. After months of discussion with university officials, the flag still stands, making us the only land-grant research university in the country to fly a symbol that says, “Black lives don’t matter”—or, “We matter more.” Keenum’s response has been to wait until the bicentennial, December of 2017, to address the issue further.

The Lucky 7, the group that organized the protest, delivered a list of demands for institutional change, including hiring more people of color as staff members, creating campus spaces for black students, and implementing gender-neutral bathrooms. This last demand came from months-long collaboration among black and LGBTQ students, myself included, to assess the ways to accommodate and include all groups on campus. After collaborating in the fall over a counter-protest against Bible-beating preachers, we’ve raised the discussion of common demands at meetings and social gatherings.

At Lee Hall, I held hands with people I had never met and hugged the necks of my closest supporters. For close to four hours, students and faculty chanted to remove the flag from the four stances it takes on our campus. In the face of adversity, we’re here to show our university that we will not be silenced—and to let our state and our country know that we are all equal and should be treated as such.

“It’s Just a Toilet”—and More

At a Gay Straight Alliance meeting at South LA’s Santee Education Complex in January, we brainstormed ideas to improve our school and hold it to its mission as a “safe, supportive and caring institution.” Gender-neutral restrooms were a common idea on the table. Restrooms are already a place where many students get bullied and trans students face constant harassment. From there, we launched the “It’s Just a Toilet” campaign.

Throughout the spring, we educated ourselves, our peers, teachers, and staff on gender-neutral restrooms. Some people asked: What if people have intercourse or smoke in them? We reminded them that these things happen at any school anywhere. When others asked why you can’t just use the nurse’s restroom, we responded that no one should be kicked to the side.

Two days after going out with 10 blank petition pages, we filled them out and released 20 more. We made classroom presentations. We gave out lollipops with the campaign slogan at lunch and put up posters. In February, we presented at our school council. In April, we won. After rallying outside, students went up to the second floor and put a gender-neutral sign on the door of the bathroom. Since then, GSA members at other schools have communicated with us to take on similar campaigns—and a handful of protesters from an outside church have already shown up to tell us that we’re going to burn in hell.

“It’s Just a Toilet” helped highlight oppression faced by students in many forms—for being queer or trans, or black, brown, or female. When someone brings you down, you need a supportive community to bring you back up. At a school with mostly black and Latino students, the GSA has been a space for us to explore intersectionality.

As a woman of color, I’ve seen how the restroom campaign and the ethnic studies movement in LA have inspired each other. I wish my school provided more avenues for learning about my roots and my people’s past, but ethnic studies is currently only offered to freshmen. We’re lucky that Santee is one of the few high schools in LAUSD that even offer a class. When our dean took some of us from Santee to the school board meeting in April, we were told that ethnic studies would be an elective class in the fall.

We will keep organizing until we get what we want—a requirement. This fight puts the larger movement for social justice at Santee in perspective: In a way, “it’s just a toilet,” but to some of us, it may be more, and we hope our victories with gender-neutral bathrooms and ethnic studies create a domino effect for everyone.

The History of HB2

Usually, the intersection of Franklin and Columbia in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is blocked only twice a year, for rushing after the Duke-UNC basketball game and for the Halloween celebration. This year, we had other plans. On March 29, after House Bill 2 passed, hundreds of students and community members took to the streets to show our displeasure with the bill, which is a snowball of restrictions on marginalized communities, in particular black trans people. The bill is best known for its violent demands that the gender binary be upheld in public restrooms, directly targeting trans and gender-nonconforming people across the state. Furthermore, it serves as a comprehensive discrimination bill, suppressing the minimum wage and removing what little protection North Carolina’s workers were afforded with previous anti-discrimination legislation. The bill hits home on campus, as President Margaret Spellings has stated that UNC campuses must follow it.

The night of its passage, we rallied, we marched, and we reclaimed the street—singing and dancing, allowing our joy and magic to manifest, despite the pain. The chants of “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “You can’t stop the revolution!” rang out in the air. We opened the space to allow trans people of color to be heard and be seen by the rest of the community. We held the space for hours, until we could barely speak, let alone chant.

HB2 is nothing new for the black queer and trans organizers whose resistance is as simple as breathing and living to see another day. The university system is not made for us, and our survival calls for the decolonization of all realms of life: recognition of our pronouns, community-support systems that are otherwise unprovided, and acknowledgement of our history in university curricula. Moving beyond mainstream LGBT organizing, we also work to challenge those who are uplifted and celebrated. The most visible target of our organizing is “Silent Sam,” the Confederate monument at the center of campus, a symptom of the oppression and colonization that is pervasive in this university space. From reenacting the unveiling ceremony to holding 24-hour slave narrative readings on site, our actions have worked to contextualize the monument with the voices and stories of the people whom it oppresses.

Similarly, in the streets, we are working to center black trans people and make spaces that are our own—free from fear of the oppressor and full of the joy of the community, which is otherwise a myth. We are creating a space that sees us, acknowledging us and our people’s history as it operates.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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