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How I feel, as a non-binary person, going to a public bathroom

Lola Olson, a non-binary person born with a rare condition that stops male and female sex hormones, reflects on transphobic bathroom laws

How I feel, as a non-binary person, going to a public bathroom
Lola Olson
Lola Olson writes about transphobic bathroom bills

I approached my first gender neutral bathroom in a bar in Dalston Junction, north-east London with a mixture of excitement and disbelief. But as I grew nearer, my stomach twisted. I don’t ‘look’ trans and going to female loos doesn’t bother me, so going to the loo has never been dangerous. But this time, I was seen by someone. It made that simple trip to the restroom so much more terrifying. And that was because I became visible. I became obvious. When people can see you, you’re a lot easier to hit. I tried and used the gender neutral loo, but for the most part, the visibility it gave me was more scary than validating.

Visibility is a big thing in non-binary communities. A lot of non-binary people feel ‘invisible’ in a society where formally declaring our existence is impossible. Everything is gendered. Not just pronouns but labels on forms, titles, places of worship and, you guessed it, bathrooms.

Visibility is not simple for all non-binary people, though. I am ‘invisible’ because I don’t ‘look’ trans, but some non-binary people do. Not all non-binary people face the same threat of violence. Not all of us look or seek to look ‘gender non-conforming’. But one thing is for certain, whether we’re binary or non-binary identified, visibly crossing the lines of gender can lead to violence. After Transgender Day of Visibility, I felt like my own invisibility and the privilege it grants me to avoid violence is painfully obvious.

Trans women and trans feminine people in particular don’t often have that luxury and face the majority of violence for just existing.

Recent legislation in North Carolina has once again brought the issue of bathrooms to the forefront and along with it cringing memes about how trans people who would appear to ‘pass’ according to society’s standards feel awkward being forced to use the wrong restroom. While I get the general tone of this type of ad and do think it may hold sway with more ignorant people who can’t envision a trans person who might look like them, bathrooms are actually the most unsafe for trans people who may not ‘pass’.

I wonder if Trans Day of Visibility is more for cisgender people than for transgender people — because cis people need to see that there are plenty of people that are trans who may not ‘look’ it, that trans people can be just like them! I see parallels with “coming out” as bisexual, lesbian or gay. The assumption that everyone is straight hangs so heavy one needs to declare that they aren’t, just as everyone assumes certain people are cis. And in both cases, this type of visibility can be incredibly important for young LGBT people who can’t find any examples of themselves reflected in media.

But the problem inherent in both of these narratives is the lack of acknowledgement of those trans people who are very visible. It’s their visibility that makes it difficult for them to get jobs. It’s their visibility that makes it difficult for them to live without daily harassment. And it’s their visibility that makes them targets for murder and rape. Trans women of color are killed at an astonishing rate more than anyone else in the transgender community. And their visibility in this society has a lot to do with it.

Hypervisibility is something that a lot of marginalized people share. Being read as a woman can make you hypervisibile. Femininity can make you hypervisible. Being a person of color can make you hypervisible. Anything which society doesn’t see as a default makes you hypervisible. In some ways I am visible, and others not. It’s not say that being invisible is smooth sailing, but it’s even more important during times like these for us to realize how hypervisible those in our community are and how all of these markers of visibility intersect to make trans women of color more vulnerable.

Over the past year, I’ve been fundraising for a reduction, openly talking about how my want for surgery is connected to my non-binary identity. In order to get the funds for this, since I can’t afford it myself, I’ve had to be visible in multiple major news organizations. As a result, I’ve had an outpouring of negativity, criticizing my need for surgery, insisting I don’t actually need it.

People think that visibility means power and that I’d willingly choose that over somehow finding a means to fund my surgery myself. Transgender Day of Visibility can inadvertently reinforce the idea that it pays to be visible. While being visible has got me to reach my goal more than halfway and got people who have been thankful to see themselves in me, it has come with a price. More paranoia. More negativity. More fear. More stress.

I risk now my name being Googled by future employers who might be less open minded than I’d like. I’m a writer looking for an agent who may have ruled out agents who don’t want someone so public about their difference because it might be harder to sell books. I’ve put a lot on the table because I’ve run out of options. I’ve made myself visible because I’ve had no other choice.

So when we think about visibility, let’s not just rejoice in the diversity of the trans community. Let’s remember those who were murdered for their visibility. And for cisgender folks looking to do something different, think today not on how many people around you who could be trans without you knowing. Instead, think today on those people who you can already see and how you can make their lives safer and longer.

What you can do to help

There are loads of worthy organizations you can help to extend and better the lives of trans women of color. In the UK, there is Stonewall Housing and the Albert Kennedy Trust which both address the issue of LGBT homelessness overwhelmingly impacting TWOC.

Or support the Sylvia Rivera Law Project or the Trans Women of Color Collective in the US, or pitch in to help surviving activists like Miss Major who had a hand in the Stonewall Riots.

If you’d like to support me, you can donate to my surgery fundraiser.


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