Tag Archives: transgender

Transgender people and Texas bathrooms: the ’80s and now

By Phyllis Frye and Thatcher Combs, for the Houston Chronicle


Phyllis Frye, the nation’s first transgender judge, now presides over a Houston municipal courts. Before that, she was a transgender activist, and as a lawyer, represented many people in the LGBT community. In the wake of voters’ rejection of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance, and as a 13-year-old Dallas ordinance protecting transgender rights came under fire, she writes:

In 1980 I was a law student at the University of Houston, doing an internship at the Harris County District Attorney’s office. Even though my office was on the tenth floor of the DA building, the only restroom the DA’s staff allowed me to use was on the second floor. Each time nature called, I had to get by a guard, since the second floor was secure, then walk past a long row of secretaries.

So I did not use it. The results were many “accidents” and, by the end of that semester’s internship, blood in my urine from a bladder infection.

As to the current hate campaign of Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, I remain puzzled why few pro-HERO commentators mentioned the then and now, still applicable, city restroom ordinance which reads as follows:

City of Houston Ordinance Sec. 28-20
Entering Restrooms of the Opposite Sex:
It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly and intentionally enter any public restroom designated for the exclusive use of the sex opposite to such person’s sex without the permission of the owner, tenant, manager, lessee or other person in charge of the premises in a manner calculated to cause a disturbance.

Clearly each offender depicted in the recent bathroom TV ads did “knowingly and intentionally enter any public restroom designated for the exclusive use of the sex opposite to such person’s sex” “in a manner calculated to cause a disturbance” and was in violation of the existing city ordinance.

In the early 1990s, the Houston police were arresting many transwomen for using the women’s restroom. I advised any who contacted me to “set it for a jury trial” and to testify to the jury that they were only entering to urinate in a locked stall and not to cause a disturbance. Each was found not guilty, and the police quit the arresting of transwomen for that offense.

I also remain puzzled why few mention the state criminal statues that made each offender depicted in the recent bathroom TV ads a criminal. The crimes of indecent exposure and public lewdness, and unlawful restraint (especially of a child) range in punishment from 180 days in county jail to two years in a state jail facility.

There is too much hate in the air over a person’s need to lawfully empty their bladders or bowels in a private and locked bathroom stall.

Thatcher Combs, a transgender graduate student in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, writes:

The bathroom issue might strike many as a trivial matter, but for many trans people, myself included, choosing which bathroom to use is not trivial at all. This decision usually comes down to whether we “pass.” Every day, those of us who meet or exceed society’s expectations about gendered appearance norms enter public bathrooms without notice. Would anyone bat an eye if Laverne Cox entered the women’s room or Chaz Bono used the men’s room? Of course not.

But for many of us, the choice of which bathroom to use can be a life-or-death decision. Those of us who cannot, or do not, fit into the categories of “male” or “female” are the ones who bear the brunt of the strange looks, outrage and violence. The perpetrators of these acts toward us are not the “perverts” declaimed by the opponents of LGBT rights. They are the people who refuse to accept gender variance and insist that everyone conform to rigid notions of how men and women ought to look and behave.

It is true that violence against women and girls is a real problem in our society. But instead of discriminating against trans people in a misguided effort to protect women, our collective efforts ought to focus instead on why our current social norms for gender, especially for masculinity, victimize women.

The fear of the man in women’s restrooms, misunderstanding of trans people, and the violence women experience in society are all linked. Gender and sex are still understood to be biologically based and naturally given. Thus we say “boys will be boys” and “girls are feminine,” yet these childhood tropes also morph into the right for men to be violent and for women to be ever vigilant about their bodies.

Unfortunately, the defeat of HERO may be a signal that any form of national equality legislation that includes trans people cannot be won by popular vote. More importantly, the “no” vote from Houston should act as a wake-up call for the LGBT movement.
In the past, gays and lesbians fought under the slogan of “Just like you,” emphasizing their conformity to society’s mainstream values and beliefs. If the LGBT movement is to work toward bettering trans lives, it might be time to change tactics and fight for loosening gender norms that restrict all people.



UT Austin Sociologists addressed fallout from two gender stories in the news this week.  Dr. Christine Williams, responded to a highly publicized and embarrassing training session offered by the City of Austin to prepare it’s employees to work effectively with the new city council, an unpredented majority of whom are women. In her blog post for Work in Progress (the ASA Organizations and Occupations blog) Dr. Williams discusses some of the issues diversity training faces.

Diversity training not only reinforces gender stereotypes, it teaches men and women that they have personality differences that suit them to different roles in the organizational hierarchy. In one case, a senior geophysicist explained that after taking a company sponsored Myers-Briggs test, she learned that supporting others is what she truly wants and needs to thrive and that she lacks the “personality” to be a leader. In her case, diversity training provided a justification for why men monopolize the top positions in the corporation, and why women with their “soft skills” are men’s ideal “supporters.”

Diversity training sessions are often an embarrassment, but they do not have to be that way. Imagine if Austin had hired consultants to teach staffers to spot and respond to gender stereotypes, and to help them to develop a deeper understanding of how stereotypes bolster privilege and exclusion. Instead of teaching men and women to accept the “facts” of gender differences, training sessions could focus on how to promote gender equality. Now that would be worth celebrating.

Caitlyn-Jenner-Picture-665x385Caitlyn Jenner has stepped into her role as champion for transgender people with the determination of an Olympic athlete, formerly known as Bruce Jenner.  The privilege she enjoys as a wealthy, beautiful woman with an established public forum in reality television gives her an unusual platform for advocacy.  While she has plenty of detractors, she enjoys a level of public interest and sympathy most transgender people never know. Her voice is being heard.

Thatcher Combs, a graduate Sociology student in our program was interviewed by Alberta Phillips for a recent article published in the Austin American Statesman. He makes a powerful statement about the nuances of gender conformity and privilege.

“Caitlyn Jenner’s “coming out” was received with a mix of applause and criticism. She has become a symbol of transgender rights, joining others such as Laverne Cox from “Orange is the New Black,” reaching the mainstream as never before. But critics charge that she would not be so celebrated were she not beautiful, rich and glamorous. It is, after all, difficult to emulate such a dramatically polished femininity without Jenner’s economic resources. The question remains whether Caitlyn’s coming out will further the interests of the transgender community and the LGBT movement overall.

The mainstream LGBT movement has focused most of its attention thus far on the acceptance of gays and lesbians. The success of the movement is due in large part to the politics of conformity and respectability. The choice to pursue equality through gay and lesbian rights by challenging barriers to military service and marriage rights reinforces the value of conventional lifestyles. Pursuing these avenues to acceptance made gays and lesbians seem “normal” in the eyes of many heterosexuals.

As the nation waits to hear the Supreme Court’s decision regarding same-sex marriage later this month, many wonder what will come next for the mainstream LGBT movement. With the fight for same-sex marriage drawing to a close, is it possible that we are now witnessing a newly burgeoning “mainstream” transgender movement?

Having captured global attention first as an Olympic champion and more recently as a member of the Jenner/Kardashian reality television family, Caitlyn may be the one person in the U.S. today who has the potential to normalize transgender people and gain acceptance for transgender rights.

But there are costs to making Jenner the movement’s new poster child. She conforms to feminine beauty standards — in facts she excels at them, just as she excelled at masculine standards when she lived as a man. But what she does not do is challenge society’s stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. Where does this leave the majority of transgender people who may not be able to, or may not want to, fit normative standards of masculinity or femininity?

We must not forget, as we celebrate Jenner’s “coming out,” that financial success has allowed her to transition into the beautiful woman she is, yet there are transgender people who cannot physically transition for financial or medical reasons. In fact, many transgender people of lower socioeconomic status continue to pay a heavy price for attempting to live as who they are.

The fight for transgender rights and acceptance should also focus on the many children who are thrown out of their homes or who run away because their genders do not match the norms. We must address the fact that many transgender women, especially women of color, meet daily with verbal and physical assault, even murder.

Caitlyn Jenner has helped bring visibility to the transgender community. But broadening the fight for transgender rights beyond the world of the rich and famous will require recognizing that our current definitions of gender are simply too narrow, and our social policing of gender boundaries is inhumane.”

The struggle for our humanity requires challenges to norms which hinder the acceptance of our very real diversity. Gender norms are front and center in a very competitive field of necessary changes.

Race and Ethnicity Research Cluster, Fall 2011

Maggie Tate on Race and Ethnicity presentations by Lady Adjepong and Kate Averett

On Friday, December 2nd, the Sociology department’s Race and Ethnicity research cluster met for the final discussion of the semester.  Lady Adjepong, a first year student and Kate Averett, in her second year, presented papers in progress as part of the group’s goal to create a space where students can work through theoretical ideas about race and how race intersects with gender, sexuality, and class.  Lady Adjepong’s paper, “Black Female Masculinities,” grappled with the way black women who perform masculinity fit into discourses of gender and gender non-conformity.  Adjepong is critical of previous research on female masculinities that describes a return to masculinity as male bodied.  Because cultural stereotypes already align black women as closer to masculinity and thus further from femininity than white women, discussions of black female masculinity tend to reify traditional norms regarding racialized notions of beauty and gender.

Kate Averett’s paper, “The Anxious Public: Disruptive Bodies, Troubled Spaces, and Anxious Response,” discussed the anxious public response that followed Bobby Montoya’s wish to join the Girl Scouts of Colorado.  Bobby, a seven year old whose assigned sex was boy but who identifies socially as a girl, was denied entry into the Girl Scout program in the fall of 2011 because he “had boy parts.”  Averett analyzed news websites that reported the story, as well as the comments that were posted in response to the news reports and found a pattern of sensationalism in the reporting and gender anxiety on the side of the public.  Averett argued that because spaces coincide with a somatic norm, when bodies that don’t fit that norm attempt to inhabit those spaces, the response is characterized by anxiety and terror.  The co-construction of bodies and spaces maintains the masculinity/femininity binary, and disruptions to the boundary threaten to destabilize the identities of individuals.  But more than this, Averett argues, the Girl Scouts’ historical role in shoring up American values means that the separation of the sexes/genders is part of the construction of a national identity. Thus, individual gender anxieties become national gender anxieties.  Questions for further discussion to Adjepong’s paper include how we can theorize gender presentations without returning to traits or characteristics embedded in the body, and how Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech might inform contemporary discussions of the intersection of race and gender.  Questions for further discussion to Averett’s paper include to what extent “strange” bodies in spaces are required to construct somatic norms, how much anxiety around identity and Girl Scouts is a future oriented fear, and how Bobby Montoya’s racial identity contributes to the anxiety her presence produces.