You have to pee.
If you're like 99% of America, you look at pictograms, predictable gender binaries, to guide you toward the appropriate toilet. A person in pants on the left. A person in a dress on the right. If you're a woman, it's irrelevant that you have a vagina, are wearing jeans and can't recall the last time you donned a triangle dress to a dinner party. You know to hang a right, while men go left. The signage isn't literal, it reveals how culture wants your gender to look. It reveals what door it wants you to walk through.
The bathroom is a bastion of segregation. It's where we sort people. Civil rights battles have been fought there before — over blacks, over women, over people with disabilities. Now, with North Carolina and Mississippi passing laws that ban transgender Americans from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity, another battle has begun.
Proponents of anti-trans bills, which are sweeping the country, purport a twofold argument about safety: 1. A man is a man no matter how he dresses, so letting him into the women's bathroom is absurd. 2. Male perverts and pedophiles disguised as women (faux transgender people) will troll women's bathrooms and sexually assault our wives and daughters.
But the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Human Rights Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union say there is no statistical evidence of violence to justify the laws. They argue the bills are irrational, conflict with federal law and veritably endanger trans people. A slew of corporations, from Target to PayPal, agree.
So what is the crux of the issue?
"The anxiety isn't men in women's bathrooms, it's about masculinity in the wrong place," said Katherine Franke, director of Columbia Law School's Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. "It's portrayed as a threat to women, but on a much deeper level, it's about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman."
Transgender people have entered the public consciousness. Janet Mock. Laverne Cox. Caitlyn Jenner. But the National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that transgender people make up less than 1% of the population. We understand transgender people exist, but we don't understand who transgender people are.
The American Family Association, a conservative Christian activist group, has gained nearly 1 million signatures from people pledging to boycott Target over its inclusive transgender bathroom policy announced this month. A statement from the AFA, which is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, says the policy means "a man can simply say he 'feels like a woman today' and enter the women's restroom... even if young girls or women are already in there."
What's unconscionable to trans activists is that while a label-preoccupied America grapples with the enormous perceived threat of sexual ambiguity and gender fluidity (despite a national love affair with the late Prince, who irreverently transcended gender norms) these anti-trans laws pose a ferocious threat to the safety and dignity of not only trans men and women, but to anyone who doesn't conform to traditional gender roles. In other words, a butch lesbian may face more discrimination in a public restroom than a fully transitioned trans woman, who can go about her business without anyone being the wiser.
North Carolina's House Bill 2, which eliminates local non-discrimination protections for LGBT people and forces trans people to use the bathroom that matches the sex on their birth certificate in schools and publicly-owned buildings, doesn't contain an enforcement plan. How do you stop someone who looks like a woman from walking into the ladies' room, and vice-versa? One imagines potty police checking birth certificates at restroom doors.
Payton McGarry, a 20-year-old transgender man, is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, that challenges HB2. The UNC Greensboro student knows the perils of trying to use a bathroom that doesn't match your gender identity.
"In high school, as my body started masculinizing, I would walk into a female bathroom and I would be screamed at," McGarry said. "I would be pushed and shoved and even slapped. I do not look female. I do not belong in that bathroom."
McGarry was eventually approved to use a faculty bathroom.
The bathroom wars have, unsurprisingly, made their way into campaign rhetoric. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have condemned HB2. Donald Trump asked why we were changing something that isn't a problem, especially when states enacting the laws are suffering economic punishment. John Kasich said he probably would not have signed the law. Ted Cruz was the outlier. “It doesn’t make any sense at all to let grown adult men — strangers — to be alone in bathrooms with little girls," he said.
Conversations about safety are paramount. But trans advocates and civil liberty groups say these kinds of bills don't protect anyone, and, in fact, they put trans people in danger. A study published in the Journal of Homosexuality found that when people are denied access to a school bathroom for being trans, they are more likely to attempt suicide. A paper by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found that in Washington, D.C., 70% of trans survey respondents reported being denied access, verbally harassed, or physically assaulted in public restrooms.
Mara Keisling, a trans woman and the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, says trans people use the bathroom that causes the least amount of ruckus. While protesting North Carolina's law this week, Keisling used the ladies' room at Gov. Pat McCrory’s office.
"There was no ruckus when I used the bathroom," she said. "And I guarantee you, had I used the men's room in front of all those police officers, there would have been."
Threats against transgender people are pervasive, and even made by elected officials. When North Carolina took up HB2, it convened a special session that cost $42,000 a day to pass it. Justifying the expense, North Carolina State Senator David Brock said, “You know, $42,000 is not going to cover the medical expenses when a pervert walks into a bathroom and my little girls are there.”
Liberty Counsel president Anita Staver last week threatened to bring her gun into Target bathrooms to protect herself from transgender people.
It appears trans Americans labeled as predators may have some predators of their own.
"I think people get so focused on genitals that they totally lose perspective that they're talking about a person," said Cathryn Oakley, senior legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign.
Schools across the U.S. are also embroiled in the debate as they contend with how to create safe spaces for transgender students.
Andrea Peyser wrote in a New York Post column this month, "The thought of allowing anatomical males inside public school facilities used by young girls is enough to keep you up at night."
Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the ACLU's LGBT & AIDS Project, says the solution to the modesty problem is not to expel people from public spaces, but to do a better job with privacy protections.
"We can take measures to protect privacy in bathrooms and locker rooms and other public spaces for the people who, for any number of reasons, including young people who have experienced trauma, need it," Strangio said.
Sex is biological. Gender is cultural. How we understand it, how we apply it, it isn't destined. Challenging the sanctity of sex segregation in the bathroom may rattle our ideas of masculinity and femininity, but what happens when it begins to erode our humanity?
Tyler Beebe, a 27-year-old trans woman who lives in Brooklyn, said she would prefer a world that didn't judge genitals so harshly.
"Trans women are killed for using the men's restroom, and they're jailed for using the women's restroom," she said. "In the end, what choice do we have?"