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The Transgender Bathroom Battle

What do we know about the consequences of equal access?

Several states and school districts are filing a lawsuit protesting the Obama administration’s directive that transgender students may use the bathroom of their choice (and otherwise be granted equal access). As these cases work their way through federal appeals courts, it seems increasingly likely that the Supreme Court may ultimately decide the debate over transgender bathroom laws.

Prior legal precedent has established that transgender individuals may use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity (Lambda Legal). In support of this, the Obama administration recently issued a directive clarifying that transgender students be granted access to gender-appropriate facilities—that is, to facilities that match their gender identity, rather than the sex they were assigned at birth. Nevertheless, North Carolina’s House Bill 2 (HB 2), the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, mandates that individuals use bathrooms and locker rooms concordant with the sex listed on their birth certificate. Several additional states and school districts are challenging the Obama administration’s guidelines ensuring equal access. Not surprisingly, this has sparked a contentious debate.

In my next post I will investigate why this issue has become so contentious—that is, why there is such strong opposition to equal access for transgender women and men and how this is motivated by commonly-held societal beliefs about sex and gender. In this post I address the surface concerns over safety and practicality.

What about safety?

Transgender students are safest when schools treat transgender and cisgender (non-transgender) students alike, allowing both to use the locker rooms and restrooms that correspond to their gender identity (Lambda Legal). What is more, allowing or preventing transgender individuals from entering the bathroom of their choice has no impact on the safety of cisgender women and girls (or cisgender men or boys, for that matter). Being transgender does not make someone an abuser. Many transgender individuals “passing” as cisgender are already using their preferred bathrooms without co-users being any the wiser. In the states which already protect transgender individual’s equality, there have been zero reports of transgender individuals assaulting or harassing other occupations in bathrooms (Frank 2016). Like cisgender bathroom users, transgender users are really just there to use the facilities.

Another common concern is that laws permitting people to enter the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity will allow cisgender men to claim a transgender identity in order to enter a women’s bathroom and rape, ogle, or harass women. But if a cisgender man is determined to molest women, it seems unlikely that he would be deterred by laws forbidding biological males to enter women’s bathrooms. Would such a man be unwilling to commit a lesser crime by entering the bathroom when he is intending a more serious crime once inside? It seems very unlikely.

Broad benefits

Another advantage to letting individuals select the bathroom of their choice is that gender non-conforming cisgender women and men would face less discomfort. Currently, anyone (including cisgender men and women) whose gender presentation deviates from narrowly-defined conventions faces difficulties in public restrooms where their right to access may be challenged (Lucal 1999). For example, a cisgender woman who is sometimes mistaken as male may experience confrontations over her right to use a women’s restroom. Recognizing individuals’ right to select the restroom appropriate for themselves equalizes access for anyone outside the conventional gender binary, transgender or cisgender.

An additional solution is to make more bathrooms unisex. As I discuss in an earlier post, there is already a movement advocating making all single-user restrooms unisex. (A smaller movement is advocating making multiuser restrooms unisex but this seems unlikely to enjoy wide support.) Unisex bathrooms are not divided by sex or gender, so the distinctions between cisgender, transgender, gender-conforming, and gender-nonconforming are irrelevant. Unisex bathrooms would also equalize access to family-friendly accommodations such as diaper changing tables—the frequent absence of changing tables in men’s public bathrooms institutionalizes unequal parental responsibility for one of the least-pleasant care tasks. Fathers have long been demanding equal access to baby-changing facilities (Pawlowski 2014). Similarly, parents of older children, particularly fathers with daughters, face difficulties when a family restroom is not available (, Of course, making more restrooms unisex would not reduce the importance of ensuring equal access to gender-appropriate segregated facilities, such as multi-user restrooms and locker rooms (nor would it reduce the importance of placing changing tables in men’s restrooms).

Consequences of Equal Access

Concerns that the safety of cisgender users would be compromised by equal access are unfounded and transgender users are safer when granted access to gender-appropriate facilities. Moreover, permitting individuals to use the bathroom that best suits their gender might have broad benefits, making public restrooms more inclusive for gender-nonconforming cisgender users, as well as for the transgender population. As a separate but related issue, removing unnecessary sex/gender segregation, as in single-user facilities, might also benefit many users. Overall, the consequences of equalizing bathroom access are unambiguously positive. So what is driving the opposition? As I will discuss in my next post, opposition to equal access is likely motivated by ideological discomfort with transgender users, rather than by any tangible considerations.

Check out my website or follow me on Twitter @ElizaMSociology. (I post about new blog postings for PT, new publications, upcoming presentations, and media coverage of my research. At most one tweet every 2-3 weeks.)


Lambda Legal. “FAQ: Answers to Some Common Questions about Equal Access to Public Restrooms.”

Frank, N. 2016. “Liberals: How Strong Is Your Support for Transgender Equality?”…

Human rights campaign. “Restroom Access for Transgender Employees.”

Lucal, Betsy. 1999. “What it Means to be Gendered Me: Life on the Boundaries of a Dichotomous Gender System.” Gender & Society 13(6):781-797.

Carlson, Brady. 2016. “Before North Carolina, There Were Other Contentious 'Bathroom Bill' Fights.”…

Pawlowski, A. 2014. “Potty Parity: Dads Fight for Diaper-Changing Tables in Men’s Rooms.”……

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