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Points of View: Transgender Restroom Use

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Transgender individuals identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth based on their physical characteristics. Transgender people have been part of human society since ancient times, and they have often been persecuted or marginalized for failing to conform to gender norms. One of the major controversies affecting the transgender community in the 2010s involves access to public restroom facilities. The issue has arisen on high school and college campuses and in workplaces in which transgender individuals (both those who have had sex reassignment surgery and those who have not) want to use facilities that correspond to their gender identity. Others argue that restroom access should be based on biological sex to avoid the danger of sexual abuse, to avoid psychological stress for cisgender (non-transgender) restroom users, and to protect individuals from being exposed to the genitals of individuals of the opposite sex.

Understanding the Discussion

Cisgender: An individual who is not transgender, that is, whose gender identity aligns with the gender they were assigned at birth based on their physical sex characteristics.

Gender: The psychological, social, and cultural traits associated with being either male or female.

Gender dysphoria: A condition in which a person experiences psychological distress regarding the gender identity they were raised with based on their sex.

Sex: The physical state of being male or female, based on chromosomes, reproductive organs, and secondary sex characteristics.

Sex reassignment surgery: Surgical techniques used to change an individual's sexual characteristics, including genital reconstruction, plastic surgery, and hormone therapy; also called "gender confirmation surgery."

Transgender: Pertaining to people whose gender identity or expression differs from the gender they were assigned at birth based on their physical sex characteristics.


Scattered evidence suggests that transgender individuals have been part of human society for thousands of years and, in most societies, such individuals were often abused or marginalized for failing to conform to mainstream gender roles. The 1966 book The Transsexual Phenomenon, by sexologist Harry Benjamin, helped introduce the techniques of sex reassignment surgery to the general public and helped inspire a transgender rights movement within the larger LGBT rights movement. Beginning in 1980, "gender identity disorder" was included as a diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual to describe the psychological distress experienced by transgender people; the diagnosis was renamed "gender dysphoria" in 2013.

Controversies and legal challenges surrounding the transgender phenomenon include the issue of whether transgender individuals should be allowed to alter their gender classification on official federal records and to what degree transgender individuals should be allowed to participate in gender-segregated groups, activities, or organizations. Tennis player Renée Richards, who underwent male-to-female sex reassignment surgery in 1975, sued the US Tennis Association for denying her permission to play professional tennis as a woman. In 1977, the New York Supreme Court ruled in her favor, thus establishing a legal precedent for the right of a transgender individual to participate in associations based on their gender identity rather than sex at birth.

In the twenty-first century, one of the major controversies in the transgender rights movement concerns whether or not transgender individuals have the right to use restrooms, locker rooms, and public showers that align with their gender identity. There have been numerous reported cases of transgender individuals being subject to police scrutiny, abused, or subjected to violence no matter which bathroom they use. In general, United States law has supported the rights of individuals to use restroom facilities based on their gender identity.

Among the earliest legal challenges involving transgender bathroom use was a 2002 case in which schoolteacher Carla Cruzan sued the Minneapolis Special School District for religious and sex discrimination for allowing a transgender coworker to use the women's faculty bathroom. Cruzan felt that this policy violated her religious and personal privacy rights. The Minnesota courts found no merit in her case, especially as the Minnesota Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity, and Cruzan had access to alternate restroom facilities.

The 2014 case of Doe v. Clenchy, decided by the Maine Supreme Court, concerned teenager Nicole Maines, who has been asked not to use girls' restrooms at her elementary and later middle schools because she was a transgender girl. Maines was given access to a unisex staff bathroom and later brought suit against the Orono School District for discrimination. In 2014, the Maine Supreme Court ruled that the schools had violated Maines's rights under the Maine Human Rights Act.

Between 2010 and 2013, the increasing phenomenon of transgender individuals suing for discrimination after being segregated or forced to use restrooms corresponding to their sex at birth rather than their gender identity motivated the introduction of legislation that would settle the issue one way or the other (depending on the state) by either outlawing discrimination based on gender identity or establishing that restroom use is to be based on biological sex. Though the transgender bathroom issue concerns both adults and children, cases involving teens and younger children have received the most nationwide attention due to perceptions that failing to segregate restrooms by sex might have deleterious psychological effects on children. As the debate over restroom rights has intensified, a number of activists and commentators have argued for a third position, that unisex restroom facilities are more egalitarian overall and encourage acceptance by promoting an understanding of gender as a spectrum rather than a binary.

Transgender Restroom Use Today

Between 2013 and 2015, Florida, Arizona, Texas, and Kentucky attempted to enact "bathroom bills" restricting bathroom use to biological sex. Arizona took an alternate approach, passing a bill that exempted businesses from discrimination litigation for restricting bathroom use to biological sex. Opponents have argued that such measures are unconstitutional because they violate an individual's right to privacy by forcing individuals to reveal their sex to gain access to restroom facilities.

Proponents of segregating restrooms by sex at birth cite the right to privacy and the potential danger of sexual predators posing as transgender people to gain access to restroom facilities used by the opposite sex. Opponents argue that access to gender-appropriate restroom facilities reduces discrimination and abuse of transgender individuals and aids in the sociocultural integration of people who live the rest of their lives conforming to their gender identity rather than their sex at birth. A number of cities, including San Francisco, New York City, and Hollywood, California, have responded to the issue with legislation increasing the number of single-use gender-neutral restroom facilities within city limits.

As of February 2016, a Virginia bill restricting bathroom use to one's biological sex was rejected by an 8-13 vote in a Virginia House of Representatives subcommittee meeting. A similar Florida bill also failed to reach a congressional vote. In March 2016, North Carolina became the first state to enact a law requiring students at state schools to use the bathrooms that correspond to their birth sex; the law, HB2, also forbids local governments from passing LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances. Almost immediately, legal challenges to the law were mounted by the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal, and other groups. The state was boycotted by the NCAA as well as numerous other companies in protest.

On March 30, 2017, the North Carolina legislature passed House Bill 142 formally repealing HB2 and also stipulating that public multiple-occupancy facilities could not be regulated except by the state legislature and that local governments could not regulate public accommodations or private employment practices. The law was set to expire in December 2020. Legal ambiguity over use of the "wrong" bathroom in North Carolina remained, however, and neither social conservatives nor trans activists were satisfied.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of April 2017, sixteen states had considered bathroom bills that would require transgender individuals to use multiple-occupancy public accommodations matching their sex at birth, while legislation was introduced in six states that would overrule local regulations on the matter. More than a dozen states sought to restrict transgender students' use of public school facilities.

In May 2016, the Justice Department and Education Department under President Obama issued guidance to schools that students be allowed to use facilities according to their gender identity. The following February 22, the Donald Trump administration backed away from that guidance. In March, the Supreme Court vacated the case G. G. vs. Gloucester Country School Board, returning it to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals for review because of the change in federal guidance. The plaintiff, Gavin Grimm, is a transgender boy who was denied access to the boys' bathroom at his public high school when the local school board ruled that transgender students use separate facilities. Grimm argued that this was a discriminatory Title IX violation; however, the applicability of Title IX, which specifically protects against sex discrimination, to issues of gender identity remains at issue in the courts.

About the Author

Micah L. Issitt is a biologist and freelance writer specializing in sociology and cultural issues. He is the author of several books on subculture formation and manifestation, religious myth and history, and pop culture.

These essays and any opinions, information, or representations contained therein are the creation of the particular author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of EBSCO Information Services.

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"For Transgender Americans, Legal Battles over Restrooms." New York Times . New York Times, 27 July 2015. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.

Steinmetz, Katy. "Everything You Need to Know about the Debate over Transgender People and Bathrooms." Time . Time, 28 July 2015. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.

O'Connor, Lydia, "South Dakota Is the First State to Pass a Transphobic Student Bathroom Bill." Huffington Post ., 16 Feb. 2016. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.

Wheeler, Lydia. "Supreme Court Declines to Hear Major Transgender Rights Case." The Hill , 7 Mar. 2017, pp. 12-13. Points of View Reference Center , Accessed 11 May 2017.

Websites and Digital Files

Kralik, Joellen. "'Bathroom Bill' Legislative Tracking." NCSL , National Conference of State Legislatures, 12 Apr. 2017, Accessed 11 May 2017.


By Micah L. Issitt

DMU Timestamp: March 29, 2019 18:11

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