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Let Me Be Perfectly Queer: The politics of peeing

Restrictive washroom policies around trans issues do not actually protect women because they were not created in response to an actual problem — women simply aren’t being attacked in public washrooms by men pretending to be trans women

Washrooms are a common focus of political and social debates about trans people. Some people are worried that allowing trans people to use the washroom that matches their gender identity (instead of the sex they were assigned at birth) will put cisgender women at risk of violence. 

Based on how common this argument is, you would think there was a long history of women being assaulted by men who dress as women to gain access to women-only spaces. That is not even close to being the case. 

In this column, I show that gender-inclusive washroom policies (allowing trans people to use the washroom that best matches their gender identity or where they feel safest) are completely safe for ciswomen and much safer for trans women than restrictive policies that dictate which washroom a trans person must use based on arbitrary definitions of gender.

Pierre Poilievre enters the washrooms debate

Last month, Federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre weighed in on this issue, saying “female sports, female change rooms, female bathrooms should be for females, not for biological males." The argument seems almost reasonable at first glance; of course men should not be allowed to play women’s sports or enter women’s change rooms. 

However, when you break down the argument, his logic falls apart. For instance, what does he mean by “biological males”? And how different is the statement when we replace that term with what he really means: trans women? Poilievre is actually saying that women’s washrooms are for cis women, not for trans women. 

The term “biological males” is not a medical term, so we don’t know exactly what he means by it. What criteria is necessary for Poilievre to consider you to be a biological male? Is it having XY chromosomes? A penis and testicles? Higher levels of testosterone than most cis-women? All of the above?

This question may seem trivial, but knowing who is a “biological male” is important in figuring out which washroom a trans person is supposed to use under Poilievre’s hypothetical restrictive washroom laws. For instance, if biological sex is based on chromosomes, a trans woman with a vulva but XY chromosomes could be forced to use a men’s washroom. If it is based on genitals, a trans man with a masculine appearance and full beard could be forced to use a women’s washroom. 

And which washroom would Poilievre allow intersex people to use? Someone with androgen insensitivity usually has a vulva, a very feminine appearance, and may not even be aware that they produce testosterone, have undescended testicles, and XY chromosomes. Are they biologically male? And who gets to make these decisions when the answer isn’t as clear cut as we, as a society, tend to think it is? 

What we know from American washroom policies

In the United States, there are a variety of state laws governing washroom use for trans people. This has allowed researchers to make comparisons between states with restrictive policies and those with more inclusive policies. The results are very clear; 

  1. Ciswomen do NOT experience increased violence with inclusive washroom policies; and;
  2. Trans people experience higher rates of violence when forced to use washrooms that do not fit their gender identity. 

No increased risk of violence with inclusive washroom policies

The argument we often hear about abusers using inclusive policies to enter women’s spaces is entirely fabricated. If a man wants to enter women’s spaces to harm women, a bathroom policy is not going to be the barrier that prevents them from committing a violent crime. 

Researchers have debunked almost every claim of men entering women’s spaces dressed as women to harm them. There was one highly publicized case in India in 2023 where a man wore a hijab and entered a women’s washroom. However, this was a single incident on an entirely different continent that did not have inclusive bathroom policies. If this was happening in North America, it would be in the news. 

I looked for evidence that this was happening in Canada. The Greater Sudbury Police told me that they have not received any reports of gendered bathroom incidents and I have not found any substantiated reports in the news. 

After thoroughly investigating any claims of violence against trans people in gendered spaces, the Advocate noted "There has never been a verifiable reported instance of a trans person harassing a cisgender person, nor have there been any confirmed reports of male predators 'pretending' to be transgender to gain access to women's spaces and commit crimes against them." The research is clear: there is no link between inclusive washroom policies and the safety of ciswomen in women-only spaces. 

Trans people face higher rates of violence under restrictive washroom policies

Trans people are already four times more likely to be victims of violence than their cis-gender peers. As many as 70 per cent of American trans youth reported being harassed or even assaulted when trying to use a public washroom. Recently, a 16-year-old non-binary student died in hospital two days after being attacked in a school washroom. 

Trans people face increased safety issues in public washrooms with restrictive washroom policies than when inclusive laws and policies are present. When laws dictate what washrooms they are allowed to use, trans women entering men’s spaces are at a higher risk of violence from men already in those spaces. Trans men forced to enter women’s spaces face violence, as they can be mistaken for cis men trying to prey on women. 

The presence of trans men in women’s spaces can also make cis women feel unsafe because trans men can have beards, deep voices, and can be almost indistinguishable from cisgender men. 

Restrictive washroom laws aren’t just dangerous to trans people; cis women who are tall or have broad shoulders or a deeper voice also face safety issues under restrictive washroom policies, as they are sometimes accused of being a man illegally entering women’s spaces. There are also increasing reports of lesbian women being mistaken for trans and facing violence while using the washroom throughout North America.

Women’s actual safety in public washrooms

When women are attacked in public washrooms, it is almost never by a stranger, but by somebody known to them, such as a spouse, former partner or an acquaintance. The best way to prevent this from happening is to increase resources for programs that help prevent domestic violence and help people leave abusive relationships. 

Restrictive washroom policies do not protect women because they were not created in response to an actual problem. The idea that strangers are entering women-only spaces to hurt women has become this boogeyman used by conservatives to limit transgender people’s access to public space. If you do not have a place to pee at school, work, or in public spaces, you cannot spend very much (if any) time in those spaces. 

Maybe someone should tell Poilievre what the evidence says about restrictive washroom policies? 

As a politician running for a major political party, Poilievre has access to all of this information as well as researchers and experts to explain it to him. I cannot claim that he intends to cause violence against trans people by perpetuating these myths, but it is clear that winning a few extra votes in the next election is more important to him than the safety of trans people in Canada. 

By stoking a moral panic, conservative pundits and lawmakers like Poilievre have essentially given ordinary people the permission to police and harass those around them simply wishing to use the public washroom. 

Framing this as if there is some reason to debate banning trans women from women’s spaces is making the violence worse. Comments like Poilievre’s are directly responsible for an increase in anti-trans sentiment, hate speech, harassment, and physical violence. Just let us use the washroom in peace; we promise, we don’t want to be in there any more than you do.

Dr. Laur O'Gorman (they/them) is the co-chair of Fierté Sudbury Pride, former professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality studies, parent, writer, and activist. They currently work in the field of mental health. Let Me Be Perfectly Queer is a monthly column about issues that impact 2SLGBTQ+ people in Sudbury as well as their friends, family, neighbours and co-workers; why queer issues matter to everybody. O’Gorman uses the word “queer” as an umbrella term that includes understandings of gender, sexuality, romance, and families outside of what is most common in our culture. If you have any questions relating to 2SLGBTQ+ issues, please send them to [email protected].

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