Policed Queerness and Womanhood In A Time of Bathroom Bills

Updated March 26, 2016 2:39pm PDT
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Lately, I’ve had trouble leaving my house. 

I never wanted to write an essay like this, about my body and the spaces people say it shouldn’t be allowed to occupy, but those spaces are spaces are growing in number day by day, and it isn’t a figment of my imagination.

I live in Georgia, where right now, waiting on the desk of Governor Nathan Deal, are bills that impinge upon the already precarious notion that I am safe outside of any space I can call my own, HB 859 and HB 757: Campus Carry and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

Campus Carry was passed first, and has seen the most action. A union of teachers, administrators, campus police departments, and students has formed across the university system here in opposition to the bill, which would allow anybody, anybody, the ability—the right!—to carry guns on school property. Administrative buildings, teachers offices, dining halls, the classroom; unfettered access but for the rather arbitrary notion that a handgun doesn’t belong in a dorm room. 

Governor Deal raised some objection to the idea of allowing guns into daycares, but since the NRA piped up, he has been rather quiet as to whether or not he’ll veto the bill on those grounds.

Georgia’s RFRA, by now, is a bit of old news. When it passed by the House and Senate, nobody seemed surprised. This has become a familiar pattern in red states in the wake of marriage equality, the issue and passing of legislation that ensures good Christian businesses and business owners the right to hire and serve whom they please based on religious conviction, regardless of local ordinances that exist to the contrary. 

These laws have been around since the 1993 federal version passed by Bill Clinton, and while there is debate as to whether or not they allow carte blanche in discriminating against LGBTQIA persons, there is little doubt as to the symbolism of such gestures on a state by state level. With Governor Deal’s decision will come either the scorn of Georgians who believe the bill is necessary, or a mass boycott of the state by global entertainment conglomerates like Disney, who film The Avengers movies here, and the NFL, who may not bring a Super Bowl to Atlanta should the bill become law.

Beyond the worn out narrative of "Real Americans vs The Liberal Media Elite", I’ve become more interested in what the creation and passage of these two laws in tandem means for myself and others who I know in this state, who identify variously on both sexuality and gender spectrums. 

Right now, we live in a state where lawmakers believe and say with a straight face that guns have more of a right to be on a college campus than any of us deserve to eat at a restaurant whose owners might not like faggots, dykes, or trannies. 

I keep turning this idea over and over; if it were a stone, I’d have polished it smooth by now. But it’s legislation, and the only thing standing between it and ratification are forces of free market capitalism.

Nine months ago, swallowing my first dose of Estradiol, a sense of relief washed over me like I’d never experienced before. The kind of hatred I’m butting my head against now was hypothetical to me then, and I was a bad egg; I assumed that, while states would argue and bicker about things like marriage equality, such legislation would never be signed into law. 

It wasn’t a month before Indiana passed and signed their version of an RFRA bill, and a spate of anti-trans bathroom bills focusing largely on transgender women have since cropped up in various permutations, most of the rhetoric aimed at trans children and students, treating young transgender people as a kind of sexual superpredator. 

Watching testimony pour in from South Dakota, Washington, North Carolina, and elsewhere has been alternately encouraging (the veto of South Dakota’s bill, the state senate campaign of Washington activist Danni Askini) and exhausting. On March 23, as North Carolina HB 2 swept through the House and Senate and was signed by Governor Pat McCrory in less than a day, that emotional swing found bottom in complete, hopeless despair.

I don’t think I was being ignorant or willfully dumb to this point; I was just generally hopeful, the happiest I’ve ever been. Locked away in a small college town and trying to assert my identity after years of denial, I was not a good candidate for meaningful activism. I wrote about myself positively and tried to amplify the voices of other trans people who have been doing this longer and better than I ever imagined. 

That I was slowly becoming less and less of a public person, simultaneously elated that I’d “made it” and terrified of what that meant, hadn’t occurred to me until I started skipping out on everyday life because the thought of being seen in a crowd made me ill.

I started drawing things together, finally, just as North Carolina lawmakers were entering their special session.This week, a concerned mother from Alberta released a terrible rap video about trans bathroom laws in Canada, and acity councilman in Fayetteville, Arkansas accosted a cisgender woman he’d mistaken as trans and challenged her right to use the restroom, telling her that he could prove his manhood by lowering his pants and showing his dick to God and everyone. 

Regardless of the success or failure of a state’s individual trans-excluding legislature, this is the environment the political right is enabling—one where straight, cisgender individuals are granted permission to act as vigilantes against visible queerness.

As a visibly queer educator living in Georgia, the passage of Campus Carry and RFRA are inextricably linked. They are attacks on my academic freedom and my personhood. No matter what I wear, no matter how I look, and regardless which bathroom I use at work, I hold no illusions of safety. 

I can trace this back two a few months, to a night when a confluence of miserable things piled up as they sometimes can. I was at a houseparty, weathering casual and non-threatening misgendering until I overheard somebody in the room who knew me and knew I was trans making jokes about trans women’s penises. I got drunk enough to endure the night until my friends were ready to leave, and halfway home we stopped at a Waffle House. 

Our table of four looked pretty queer but in reality only two of us were—me and my friend Caroline, a cis, bisexual woman.

I won’t describe Caroline here, nor will I describe myself; it hardly matters. Caroline went to use the restroom and some guy in another booth piped up, accusing her of being a man and telling her not to use the women’s room. She used the women’s room and, on our way out, told the guy to fuck off. I turned around to look at him and he gave me the jerk-off hand motion, the overly long, exaggerated one cisgender white men use in reference to the cocks they wish they had, and in return I shrugged and kept walking towards our car. 

This was enough to escalate the guy inside the Waffle House, though, and he followed Caroline, myself, and our two male companions out to our Toyota Prius, calling me a faggot and asking if I wanted to suck his dick. 

Exhausted and drunk, I launched into an extended lecture on gender and sexuality, which only made the guy call me a faggot that much louder.

It was the middle of the night, miles away from anything identifiable as a city. He started cocking his fist to punctuate his responses. He was spoiling for a fight, and I was deep enough into the evening’s self-loathing to want him to throw a punch. While the two men I was with watched, Caroline stepped in front of me and talked him down. He told us that the Toyota Prius was a car for pussies and went back inside. 

I woke up the next morning and started to modify my behavior. I don’t get drunk in public anymore. I don’t leave Athens or go anywhere in town that I’m unfamiliar with. I’ve largely disengaged from my social groups, preferring not to be seen in public. And yet, I consider myself fortunate: How different that evening would have turned out had that man, like many white men in the state of Georgia do, been carrying a gun.

I regard how this has bled over into my personal and professional life, how it has cast an anxious shadow over my ambition to teach or lead even a modest public life—this isn’t at all the person I want to be. There’s not much difference between Councilman La Tour and my Waffle House antagonist: Both men were reacting viscerally to visible queerness, something which our culture has ceaselessly moved against. 

If I want to stay inside, that is my right. But I’ve never felt this impotent before, physically or rhetorically, and I can hardly stand it. My body—fat, trans, and obvious—and bodies both like and unlike mine are being ideated as weapons with dangerous potential from statehouse to statehouse. 

Increasingly, those weapons are being turned against us. Before I can resolve to steel myself and endure, I need to admit how tempting surrender is.

When I was a child, I used to have a recurring dream where I’d sneak out of the house at night and walk to the mouth of a cave. Sometimes I woke up, sometimes I walked in. Nights when I walked into the cave I’d just wander and wander, the distance between myself and my home growing by degrees of darkness. There was no way back; I didn't want one. What I wanted was to disappear completely, to secret myself away so invisibly that the only evidence of my existence was the breathing from the heart of that cave. 

I looked at hormone replacement therapy as a victory over that desire—then state lawmakers began the process of legislating against an existence I was just starting to enjoy. I live in a bubble, I realize, but it’s hard to look at the fight ahead and the rhetoric trans women are going to be forced to swallow to win this fight without wanting to fortify that bubble.

Where I go from here is a question I’ve been trying to answer for some time—I’m nowhere close to an answer. I feel like the only option I have while I’m living here is to wrestle my bodily autonomy away from those who would use my body against me. To put on my shoes, walk to campus, and get back to the work of existing. 

I endured two decades of self-negation for this, and I need to believe I can endure anything, that my personhood can’t be legislated out of existence. 

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Colette Arrand is a trans essayist, poet, and critic living in Athens, Georgia. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Establishment, Autostraddle, and a number of literary magazines.