Why you need to know about the gender-neutral bathroom debate

You might have noticed a lot of bathroom talk in the media lately. Concerts have been cancelled because of it, celebrities have been weighing in on it, and teachers are up in arms about it. But why?

Going to the toilet is something most of us do without a second thought. Yet, for many trans people, using a public toilet often involves choosing between a space that either matches their gender identity or the gender they were assigned at birth. With that comes an increased risk of discrimination, harassment and even assault.

More than one million people in the United States have signed a petition promising to boycott the department store Target because it recently announced it would allow transgender people to use bathrooms and fitting rooms that correspond to their gender identity, not the gender on their birth certificate.

According to the American Family Alliance that organised the petition, the new bathroom policy would allow sexual predators much easier access to their victims.

The action follows a law passed by the state of North Carolina (the first American state to do so) requiring trans individuals, including students, to use only bathrooms that match their biological gender. This prompted a number of celebrities, including Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr and Bryan Adams, to stand up in support of transgender people and oppose the laws.

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There are numerous studies showing how trans individuals are subject to harassment, sexual assault or other physical violence when they are required to use a gendered bathroom, especially in schools. The Williams Institute found that 68 per cent of participants in a survey on the topic were likely to experience homophobic taunts while trying to use a bathroom, while 9 per cent experienced actual physical violence.

In America 70 per cent of trans people reported being denied entry, harassed or assaulted when trying to use a bathroom.

In places like the United Kingdom trans people are legally allowed to use whichever public toilet they feel most comfortable in. In Australia, the forewarning of ‘bathroom intruders’ came in debates over the Safe Schools anti-bullying program.

Bathroom panic‘ is seen as the new focus in the progress of LGBT equality.

One of the key issues is the physical and emotional security of trans people. Those wanting to restrict people from using the bathroom of their gender identity feel they are protecting citizens from people who want to do bad things. However, there is no statistical evidence of violence that exists that would warrant such a response according to the Transgender Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign.

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By denying trans people access to safe toilet facilities could be seen as exacerbating their feelings of segregation, isolation and depression. The rate of attempted suicide in the trans community is significantly high with 46 per cent of men and 42 per cent of women trying to take their own life. A bathroom bill could have an even greater impact on the mental health of trans people.

You might think the right to choose a male or female bathroom is inconsequential, but there are wider issues at stake.

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