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A few years ago I attended an advertising conference in the South of France. I stayed in a glitzy hotel on a glittering boulevard along the Cote d'Azur. I was in business clothes, a pair of navy blue pants. On my way to a meeting, I entered the women's restroom in the lobby. Then I heard heavy footsteps and a breathy voice saying in French, "There's a man in the bathroom!"
"Sir, sir," said another voice. My stall door creaked as a fist slammed into it from outside.
"I'm a woman," I replied in French, using the most feminine intonation I could find, frantically gathering my pants around my ankles to get off the counter as quickly as possible.
The woman who knocked on the door, a security guard, looked skeptical and waited until I left the counter to be sure. Confused as I was, I stepped out and smiled the politest smile I could muster, displaying my hairless chin as proof that I belonged in this room, despite my manly cut suit and closely cropped hair. As a cisgender lesbian who is occasionally mistaken for a man, I have sometimes found bathrooms to be busy places. But never to this extent. It was terrifying and humiliating.
I was reminded of the moment on Wednesday when Florida governor and near-certain Republican presidential nominee Ron DeSandis signed several new bills directly targeting the freedom and dignity of queer people. Surrounded by laughing children, DeSantis wrote his signature on onemany draconian new laws, including a sweeping one that would require people in government buildings — including state universities, prisons and public schools — to use restrooms associated with their sex at birth. Anyone who fails to comply can be charged with an offense that could lead to jail time.
When such a law was passed in North Carolina in 2016, it sparked an angry outcry. The majors have announced they will halt expansion plans in the state. N.B.A. and the N.C.A.A. conveyed important events elsewhere. North Carolina faced potential losses of billions andhe finally retractedCount.
Not,bathroom billsis back, part of a relentless assault on trans bodies that's gaining momentum with each passing day. Florida's new bill targets many aspects of transgender life, expanding school "Don't Say Gay" policies for older students, banning gender-affirming medical services for children and allowing the state to jail children of parents who allow them to receive such services. Care. The laws also prohibit schools from recognizing a child's preferred name or pronoun.
The new bathroom law is particularly harsh and unreasonable. Politicians say these measures are aimed at making bathrooms safer. But I have yet to see any of these lawmakers produce a shred of credible evidence that transgender people pose a threat to the safety of cis citizens in restrooms.
What is clear is that they subject trans people to harassment, intimidation and surveillance. About 10 states havelaws passedban transgender children from using the restroom of their choice. So far this year, there are more than30 accountsaims to restrict transgender bathroom use, according to the Human Rights Campaign, more than any other year on record. But none went as far as Florida, that isnow the only statecriminalize using a toilet that doesn't match your birth sex.
Bathrooms have long been China's crucibles for our deepest fears and anxieties. It is hardly necessary to open the collected works of Sigmund Freud to understand why there were sites of oppression and humiliation in the service of imposing hierarchies.
Perhaps it's because few human experiences are truly universal, and the profound discomfort of needing a bathroom and not being able to find or use one is one of them. And there are few places where people feel more vulnerable: the bathroom is a place where we expose our most sensitive parts and fulfill our most intimate needs. It is therefore not surprising that police access to facilities to meet basic physical needs has long been an effective method of enforcement.
"A lot of things about gender, sexuality and identity that people are worried about or don't want to talk about come out in the bathroom," she said.Sheila Cavanagh, a sociology professor and psychotherapist who has written extensively on the politicization of baths.
During the civil rights movement, segregationists advancedshocking (and absurd) claimsthat white girls could get STDs from bathroom seats shared with black girls. Restrooms are a place where we reinforce class hierarchies, from old-fashioned executive toilets to the disgraceful exclusion of delivery people from using the toilet in restaurants (a practice nowprohibitedin New York). Amazon package delivery drivers havementiontedthey have to pee in bottles because of the intense time pressure the company put on them.
In the film "The Help," which is about black domestic workers and their white employers in Mississippi in the 1960s, a central conflict is over whether the maid has access to a bathroom used by the white family that employs her. She protests the violation of her dignity by serving her boss a chocolate tart with a secret scatological ingredient.
Women also had no access to toilets. Only in 1992 the Senate decided to build a specialtoiletfor women elected to the chamber. Toclosed decadesforcing female senators to run down and line up with the hoi polloi in the public restroom.
onarticleabout the ultraconservative Regger family increasingly dominating Montana politics, I came across a surprising anecdote about an early priority for Matt Regger, the state's chairman. At a meeting, he raised the issue of how to manage the chamber's bathrooms with the arrival of a transgender MP, Zooey Zephyr. Even to a fellow Republican, this seemed like an odd area of focus, but it was decided,The Times reported it, that a lock would be placed on the front door of the multi-station women's toilet to avoid the possibility of someone sharing it with Zephyros.
Regardless of its stated purpose, Florida's bill appears designed to intimidate and humiliate transgender people.
Author and activist Erin ReedHe wrotein theaccount"Effectively replacing cisgender individuals as gender enforcement officers and tasking them with identifying and reporting transgender suspects for arrest and subsequent gender testing."
Imagine, Reid asks, if he was passing through an airport in Florida, a state-run facility that could be covered by the bill, and he had to pee. "As a post-op transgender woman who consistently identifies as my correct gender, I will never be able to safely use the men's restroom," she wrote.
You don't have to look far on any social media platform to find outscary examplesof transgender and non-conforming people being harassed in toilets. These videos are terrifying in their ubiquity and terrifying in their cruelty. These new laws will make what happened to me look like child's play.
Since adolescence, I've been somewhere on the more masculine side of the boy spectrum. This created a lot of weirdness in my life. But what happened in France was something else. It was a stern reprimand that delivered an unforgettable message: your appearance makes you suspect. The authorities have the right to inspect your body and assess your suitability to occupy this seat.
It didn't matter that I was a guest at a five-star hotel, an editor at one of the biggest news sites in the world, a director of a huge American company. A random woman in a bathroom thought I didn't belong there and I was subjected to humiliating tests as a result.
When I think about that bathroom in France, I feel a little embarrassed about how I reacted. My goal was to get out of the situation as quickly as possible – a reasonable response to a horrible experience. And yet my method of escape—proving that I belonged and that I was innocent rather than rejecting control—felt deeply familiar.
It was the same impulse that I learned silently, without ever being explicitly taught, as a young black man in America, that when I was in a store, I should keep my hands out of my pockets and avoid anything that looked like stealthy movements. so as not to be accused of theft. As most black children do, I had to learn to live with the knowledge that I was subject to increased surveillance because of the color of my skin. I have long since abandoned these reflexive fears of my race. But old habits die hard, and in that bathroom they came back with a bang when it came to sex.
There is a wonderful euphemism in Nigeria for the need to use the toilet: "I want to relieve myself," goes the cheerful phrase. What I like about this expression is that it artistically captures what you are looking for in the bathroom: relief, safety and above all lightness.
The flood of bills targeting transgender people for investigation, surveillance and prosecution is reason enough to reject them as an affront to human dignity. But my experience tells me that these laws are really about something else: a step toward strict enforcement of gender norms, roles, and presentation. It's about the routine humiliation and degradation of people who look or behave in ways that a bigoted minority wants to punish. They won't stop until someone who doesn't fit their strict definitions of identity loses the right to feel comfortable.
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Lydia Polgreen has been a New York Times Opinion columnist since 2022. She spent a decade as the Times' Africa and Asia correspondent and won Polk and Livingston awards for her coverage of ethnic cleansing in Darfur and resource conflicts in West Africa. She also served as editor-in-chief of HuffPost. @polar green
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