Bathroom Saviors: A Critique of Exploitation, Racism, and Sexism in Trans Politics
The buzz and concern around transgender bathroom access has been reignited since Trump took office, particularly since his administration announced their decision to rollback the previous presidency’s guidelines surrounding Title IX, which protects transgender students’ right to access facilities consistent with their identified, rather than assigned, gender.
I don’t think this comes as a surprise to anyone reading this, especially in light of policies in North Carolina and proposals throughout the country.
The bathroom wars have been raging for over a year now, and while there have been some truly damaging policies and laws passed throughout the country (especially North Carolina), I’ve noticed some particularly dangerous tropes come up in the response to these regressive demands from politicians and conservative commentators.
Under the guise of promoting “trans rights”, many mainstream narratives have invoked cisnormativity, white privilege, and classic misogyny as methods by which to gain these rights. In this assimilationist game, it is my opinion that young (white) trans girls are being exploited in a narrative that has potentially dangerous consequences.
Perhaps the most prominent of these young transgender girls is Corey Maison. At time of writing, she’s got nearly 62,000 followers on Facebook. But Corey is still a teenager, and was just 14 years-old when her photo went viral, almost always attached to the same question: Would you send her to the men’s room?
It is by no accident that, of all the trans people that could be chosen, Corey, a cisnormative, gender conforming white girl, has become the face of the movement.
What does it mean to elevate cisnormative bodies & voices over all others? Where do we represent genderqueer teens, teens who do not pass as cisgender, teens who do not want to pass as cisgender?
Corey Maison isn’t the only example. Essentially all of the transgender people who have entered stardom in this new wave of trans visibility have been cisnormative, or at least, have closely approximated cisnormative beauty standards.
Laverne Cox. Jazz Jennings. Janet Mock. Caitlyn Jenner. Andreja Pejić.
These are aesthetics that, for the most part, are relatively easy on the cis palate. Cisnormativity is easily consumed, and even trans-positive folks perpetuate the notion that cisnormativity makes a trans person more valid or that this proximity to cissexuality is why (some) trans people deserve human rights and access to public accommodations.
This is just one example that recently went viral — featuring Laverne Cox — in which an anti-trans activist is repeatedly seen hedging the question — Should Laverne Cox use the men’s room?
Yet, many trans folks do not look like Corey or Laverne. Many trans folks don’t have access to hormone therapy, clothing, and/or surgeries that make one more binary-congruent. Not all of us have the immense privilege of transitioning as minors and young adults.
When you use cisnormative privilege to fight for trans rights, you further marginalize those that have already been marginalized.
And to clarify, this isn’t limited to popular representations of transgender women. Transgender men are also highlighted in this.
Is this really the message we want to send? A whole social media campaign painting transgender men as predators who could potentially victimize your (white) daughters. This is toxic masculinity, and it’s just as toxic promoted by trans men as it is by cisgender men.
Should we be encouraging this fairy tale narrative of the white knight who sweeps in to give (some of) us rights and protections?
The whiteness of this narrative, like the cisnormativity, is also by no means a coincidence.
White women, and particularly young white girls, are consistently shielded from the violence that black women and girls experience daily.
The drive to “save” our white women & girls has been used as a guise for extensive racial violence, including the murder of Emmett Till. When we, as white women, perpetuate this trope, we participate in racialized violence.
The disparity in how our society treats young black girls and young white girls is quite clear. In Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected, the authors show that school-age black girls are even more impacted by racial disparities than black boys, that their schools are failing to respond to bullying and sexual harassment, and heightened school police presence makes them feel unsafe at school.
In a society that so tightly polices, criminalizes, and underprotects every aspect of black girlhood, I have to ask: If Corey Maison were black, would she be the face of bathroom activism? Would people be willing to save her, or would she be perceived as aggressive, hostile, or predatory?
There is no savior for girls who don’t fit this cisheteronormative, white supremacist mold.
However, perhaps most concerning for me, as a trans woman who transitioned in her late teens, is how we’ve elevated young trans girls like Corey Maison and Jazz Jennings to international levels of scrutiny, all to push a narrative that is incredibly problematic for trans girls living further at the margins.
Should a 14 year old’s photo go viral online in order to provoke a man’s misogynistic “urge to protect” innocent little girls? Should she be objectified, used as a bargaining tool?
Not all trans girls are innocent. Not all girls in general are innocent. And they needn’t be.
Girls stumble, they falter. The celebration of their innocence, fragility, and lack of power is misogyny, and it’s racialized misogyny more often than not.
Innocence in our society is fundamentally tied to whiteness.
Where is the youthful innocence for black girls? Or for the girls that don’t pass, regularly painted as predators? This game has clear losers, and it’s playing out in a world where black transgender women and girls are being murdered at terrifying rates.
To be here for trans girls, we have to be here for all trans girls. Including black trans girls, visibly trans girls, queer trans girls, and every intersection. The LGbt activism of the 90s and 2000s made these same mistakes: centering cisheteronormativity and whiteness in a desperate grasp for a piece of the (assimilationist) pie.
We need a radical rethinking of this dangerous narrative. We need strategies that decenter whiteness, cisheteronormativity, and class privilege. We need strategies that turn society on its head.
What does this current state of affairs do for young children struggling with racism, classism, ableism, and abuse?
What does this do for black trans lives? I can think of nothing.