What It's Really Like To Be A Trans Woman Using A Public Bathroom

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Editor's note: Hannah Simpson is a transgender advocate. The views expressed here are her own.

It seems hard to believe now because of how far I have come, but I only began living “full-time” as a female, at age 29, two years ago. I had grown my hair long, been taking prescribed female hormones for over a year, and was finally ready to reveal myself to the world. I was also in my second year of medical school in Harlem. My ambition was to help future trans children and adults with the compassion and competence that I waited decades to find for myself.

But instead, transphobia and ignorance have placed my dream of becoming a doctor on hold, if not shattered it completely, as the stress and process of reacting to even modest attacks against me proved a distraction from my studies. I was unable to advance with my classmates, nor feel safe returning to school later. That's why the latest twist in the debate over North Carolina's bathroom laws for trans people hits particularly hard for me.

The conservative American Family Association (AFA), which has organized a boycott of Target because of its inclusive stance, has also reportedly sent men into women’s restrooms for the sole purpose of “testing” the boundaries of transgender-affirming policies, according to an interview AFA spokeswoman Sandy Rios gave to Breitbart News. (When I reached out to the AFA for comment via email, AFA representative Deborah Hamilton wrote that the group "would never do this.")

If true, I believe that this group's actions are not only creepy, but that they represent the kind of harassment and ignorance I have experienced firsthand. So I will do my best to explain just how hurtful and dangerous this kind of bigotry is as a young woman who has lived through it, in a medical school of all places.

I will never forget how a school official later responded when I reported this assault. 'How much of this are you just going to have to take, as students adapt to your situation?' he asked.

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Once, a female student in my class approached me in a school hallway and squeezed my left breast. She then pressed me, “When are you going to get me estrogen?” I was livid and embarrassed.

I will never forget how a school official later responded when I reported this assault. “How much of this are you just going to have to take, as students adapt to your situation?” he asked. I thought, Why was he shaming me?

In medical school, we were being trained to harness the power of touch — diagnostically and therapeutically — and so we were supposed to know appropriate touches from the other kind. Despite corridor cameras, the pressure was tremendous to make the situation go away. If the school dismissed her, or if I pressed charges, other students might be afraid to interact with me at all, I was warned. I would become a pariah.

When another administrator asked me, 'What do you plan to do about bathrooms?' I politely replied, 'I fully plan to continue using them.'

Not long after, I was sitting in a circle of other students around a male physician faculty member. In front of everyone, he brought his hand to my leg, and he tugged. “You wear stockings now?” he joked. The others laughed. I approached him directly the next day to explain how completely disgusting it was that he felt my trans status gave him such privilege over my body. I didn’t even bother involving the administration, seeing what had happened the previous time I'd tried.

When another administrator asked me, “What do you plan to do about bathrooms?” I politely replied, “I fully plan to continue using them.” She pushed on further, asking which ones. “The ones that flush,” I said, exasperated. I refused to dignify a question no other student was being asked. A male student government member also weighed in, asking me to avoid the locker rooms while the school’s conservative Jewish and Muslim students changed.

His request was as unexpected as it was unnecessary, I felt. This student seemed to feel the need to speak up allegedly on the behalf of these students, not realizing that many of these religious students were the first ones to acknowledge the sincerity with which I approached my own femininity, and were my friends. I requested his concerns in writing. He declined to follow up, but the damage was done — from then on, I watched my back regardless.

My ambition was to help future trans children and adults with the compassion and competence that I waited decades to find for myself.

These are just snapshots of day-to-day life as a transgender woman. This was my school. It could as easily have been my workplace. The scary truth is that, despite having lost my career goal of becoming a doctor, and accruing tremendous debt with little to show for it, I am among the tremendously fortunate. I have not lost my family. I have not been beaten, attacked, or left for dead. I cannot say the same for too many of my transgender sisters. A vast majority of students and faculty did support me overtly, but that was not enough to counter the ramifications of the few who found my existence problematic.

The hardest part about watching groups like the American Family Association in action is having to juxtapose the reality of living amid micro- and outright aggressions against trans individuals while simultaneously being painted as the aggressor myself.

The only way to further paint me and other transgender women as deceptive men invading women’s spaces — rather than accept us for the women we are — seems to be to actually send men into those spaces themselves. Some will get caught, some may even make the news. But the only goal of the people who are doing this is to confuse and mislead the public further, which will only amplify the dangers I — and other trans people — face. Shame on them.

Simpson, a transgender advocate, marathoner, and unabashed nerd, appeared in
Refinery29’s Trans America series. She frequently comments on trans issues and was recently featured as a guest with Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC, as well as on WNYW Fox 5's Good Day New York. You can follow her on Twitter at @hannsimp.
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