Editor's note: This article was updated on February 12, 2018, to reflect current events.
Over the last couple of years, many misconceptions about transgender identity flourished as states and municipalities across the country contemplated so-called "bathroom bills." What often gets lost in the discussion is the simple truth that transgender people go to the bathroom to relieve themselves, just like everyone else. The ideas that distract us from this basic fact of life are grounded in the following six myths. Educators committed to inclusion and safety for all students—including those who are transgender—can help by learning to separate misunderstanding from fact.
This is especially necessary in the wake of what appears to be the Department of Education's stated position on the subject: According to BuzzFeed News, department spokesperson Liz Hill confirmed the office will not hear complaints from transgender students facing discrimination in using bathrooms or locker rooms that match their gender identity. In the absence of official guidance and support, school leaders more than ever must lead the way on dispelling myths in their schools and communities and advocate for transgender students.
MYTH: Transgender-inclusive bathroom policies put non-transgender students at risk of sexual assault.
FACT: School districts all over the country—including Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the nation—have permitted transgender students to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity for years. Not one of these schools has seen an increase in incidence of sexual assault or other problems in bathrooms and locker rooms. Similarly, numerous states and municipalities have enacted transgender-inclusive laws and ordinances without any rise in sexual assault or violent crimes.
It is also important to note that transgender individuals are frequently the targets of sexual violence—not perpetrators. Half of transgender individuals are sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lives.
Advocates for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors should follow the lead of the more than 250 sexual assault and domestic violence organizations that have opposed the passage of laws restricting transgender individuals’ access to restrooms and other gender-segregated facilities. For example, according to the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, “Forcing [transgender people] out of facilities consistent with the gender they live every day makes them vulnerable to assault.”
MYTH: Permitting transgender individuals to use the restroom or locker room that matches their gender identity violates the privacy rights of non-transgender people.
FACT: This myth relies on two false assumptions. The first is that transgender individuals enter sex-segregated spaces looking for sexual gratification. The second is that seeing anatomical features typically associated with another gender violates privacy.
As discussed above, the first premise is factually incorrect. Transgender individuals, like everyone else, are simply using the locker room and restroom to shower, change clothes and go to the bathroom. Schools, municipalities and states that permit transgender individuals to use the facilities consistent with their gender identity report no increase in sexual assault or violent crimes.
The second premise—that seeing anatomical features typically associated with another gender violates your privacy—relies on an interpretation of privacy that exceeds its accepted meaning. Privacy is generally thought of as a right to keep certain information or aspects of ourselves from being disclosed. It is not a right to never see bodies that are unfamiliar or look different from one’s own.
When people raise privacy as an argument for limiting transgender access to facilities, they’re often revealing an emotional truth that many people share. Young people are told throughout their upbringing that their bodies are private, and they may not have previously seen bodies that are typically associated with another gender. When they do see bodies that look different from their own, they may be curious and ask questions that make adults uncomfortable. Do these students have a right to privacy? Yes. Do these students have the right to prevent others from using the facilities? No.
Most people agree that it’s OK to have separate men’s and women’s locker rooms; permitting transgender people to use locker rooms consistent with their gender identity does not disturb this principle, as long as one accepts that transgender women are women and transgender men are men. And support for this idea is strong: Medical experts have explained that gender identity is one of the determinants of biological sex, along with chromosomes, hormones and internal and external reproductive anatomy.
Schools committed to inclusion and safety should allow any uncomfortable student—transgender or not—to have access to alternative restrooms, such as those for individual use. These options should be voluntary for all students seeking additional privacy—not a requirement for those who identify as transgender, nonbinary or intersex.
A related myth troubling some school leaders is that cisgender boys will exploit inclusive bathroom policies to harass girls. But this doesn’t happen—school districts with inclusive restroom policies like the Los Angeles Unified School District have shown that. And, even if it did happen, the school’s disciplinary or anti-harassment policy would apply, regardless of where the harassment took place.
MYTH: Transgender identity is a mental illness.
FACT: Transgender identity is not a mental illness. The word transgender describes a persistent and authentic difference between a person’s gender identity and the sex they were assigned at birth. For some individuals, this difference results in pain, discomfort and distress.
The good news is transgender individuals can relieve this pain and discomfort through authentic expression of their gender. For some individuals, physical interventions such as hormone therapy aid in achieving a sense of well-being and authenticity. For others, wearing hairstyles and clothing that are more comfortable helps to alleviate distress.
Although transgender identity is not itself an illness, transgender people may experience mental health issues because of discrimination and disapproval. Some transgender young people lose friends, families or a place to sleep when they begin to live authentically. They may be subject to abuse at home, at school or in their communities. Years of surviving rejection and stigma can take their toll, causing anxiety, depression and other psychological disorders. But these illnesses do not cause—nor are they caused by—transgender identity. They result from social exclusion and stigma.
MYTH: Children aren’t old enough to know their gender identity.
FACT: In reality, many children know their gender identity from a very young age. Rather than interrogate our young transgender children or students about their gender identity, we should support them and encourage them to explore this facet of their identity.
When youth begin to express a desire for medical interventions, it is recommended that parents or guardians take their child to medical and mental healthcare professionals who have experience working with children and adolescents who identify as transgender. These professionals may recommend fully or partially reversible medical interventions such as puberty blockers or hormone therapy if children insistently, consistently and persistently express a gender identity that differs from their assigned sex. A variety of interdisciplinary gender identity clinics exist all over the country to holistically serve these young people. In addition, emerging research suggests that social transition “may be associated with better mental outcomes among transgender children.”
MYTH: Transgender women are not “real” women, or transgender men are not “real” men.
FACT: Designating individuals’ gender identity as “real” or not reflects a lack of understanding about the difference between gender identity and assigned sex. Gender identity refers to a person’s deep-seated, internal sense of being male, female or another gender. Gender identity is one determinant of biological sex, along with a number of other factors including chromosomes, hormones and internal and external reproductive anatomy.
A person’s gender identity can differ from the sex a doctor designated on the birth certificate (assigned sex) or the way they were raised. This difference gives rise to a transgender identity.
It’s common for people unfamiliar with gender identity and assigned sex to insist that there is no difference; however, scientists, psychologists, advocates and educators who have studied gender for decades offer clear evidence that, for some individuals, there is a difference, and that difference is beyond individual control.
Ultimately, we should honor individuals as they identify themselves to us. The alternative causes harm by perpetuating stigma, negative stereotypes and essentialist notions of gender.
MYTH: Someone is not transgender unless they medically transition.
FACT: People can be transgender even if they don’t take hormones and even if they haven’t had surgery. For some people, gender-affirming healthcare such as hormones or surgery is necessary to achieve a sense of well-being and authenticity. Other transgender people do not require any gender-affirming healthcare in order to live authentically. For still others, gender-affirming healthcare may be unaffordable or advised against by a medical professional.
Transgender individuals often face serious barriers to high-quality, affordable, culturally competent healthcare. Many transgender people avoid seeing medical providers for fear of discrimination, and half report having to teach their doctors about transgender care. Especially in light of these barriers, it is inappropriate and inaccurate to judge the legitimacy of someone’s transgender status based on what medical interventions have been performed.
Although some transgender people do not medically transition, it is not merely cosmetic for those who do. For many people who are transgender, medical transition is an integral part of living an authentic and happy life. In fact, numerous courts have held that gender-affirming healthcare is medically necessary.
Be an Ally
These myths survive only so long as non-transgender people fail to educate themselves and others about the facts. Be an ally to transgender individuals by offering these truths in response to misperceptions you hear among students and staff. Together, we can strengthen the fabric of our community by ensuring all individuals are valued for who they are.
Mula is an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by the Mansfield Family Foundation.