“I’m not going to lie, you freak me out.”
Those are the words Liberty High School assistant principal Lee Livengood said to transgender student Michael Critchfield according to allegations released last week by the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia. Livengood is said to have barged in while the 15-year-old was using the boys' bathroom and demanded he “come out here and use the urinal” to prove he was really a boy. As Critchfield attempted to escape, Livengood allegedly blocked the bathroom doors and escalated, asking him “what would happen” if a cisgender classmate thought he was “checking him out” and screaming at him so loudly that Critchfield's fellow students said they could hear him in their classrooms.
Critchfield is one of several trans students who say they have experienced outrageous harassment and abuse from administrators and parents alike this year. Last month, an unnamed trans girl in Osseo, Minnesota, filmed her school's staff forcing open her bathroom stall door, exposing her to administrators, and accusing her of “barricading” herself in the stall when she closed the door again. In August, a public school in Achille, Oklahoma, closed for two days after administrators learned of a Facebook group where parents gleefully discussed assaulting and castrating a 12-year-old trans girl for using the girls' bathroom. And after a Virginian trans girl was unceremoniously left adrift during an emergency lockdown drill in October, her mother “Amy” claimed the once supportive school board had spent years “humiliating” her daughter by barring her from all gendered facilities.
While these stories are new, the trend they represent is not. In the National Center for Transgender Equality's (NCTE) 2015 survey of nearly 28,000 trans people in the United States, 24 percent reported they had been physically attacked for being trans in grades K-12; 13 percent said they had been sexually assaulted. When asked if they had been verbally, physically, or sexually assaulted in a restroom in the previous year, 12 percent — one in eight — said yes. Twenty-seven percent of those assaults took place in a school.
“I was just washing my hands when he first punched me in the back and then went for my vagina,” wrote one trans man. “I nearly passed out from the blow.” Another respondent described an incident in which several men surrounded them in a public bathroom; when a police officer intervened, “[t]he men responded by ripping my pants down. The officer shot me a disgusted look and left the room.” In 2014, shortly after California Gov. Jerry Brown passed legislation protecting trans students' access to properly-gendered restrooms and locker rooms, a trans teen at Hercules High School in Hercules, California, was sexually assaulted by three cisgender boys and had to be hospitalized as a result. It was the school's second case of anti-trans violence that year.
Despite this documented and relentless violence against trans bodies, conservative factions have stubbornly insisted that trans people are the true bathroom predators. In states like North Carolina and Massachusetts, anti-trans campaigners have unleashed nightmarish scare ads in which young (typically white, well-to-do, and cisgender) girls are depicted as falling victim to male predators in public restrooms. To support their claims, right-wingers and trans-exclusionary feminists (TERFs) frequently point to cases like Michelle Martinez, a trans woman who in 2017 was convicted of sexually assaulting a young girl in a bathroom. Conservative media outlets like the Daily Caller and Daily Wire latched onto the story as a prime example of the dangers of trans people in public bathrooms, which was a lie; Martinez's assault, like most cases of child abuse, took place in a private home, not a public facility.
Other accusations follow a similar pattern of outrage-via-obfuscation. In 2012, a trans woman named Colleen Francis became infamous in right-wing media after she was accused of exposing herself to underage girls in a college locker room. After the initial furor, fueled in part by a tweetstorm by Roseanne Barr and by the anti-LGBTQ+ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom, it was discovered that Francis had actually been with a friend in an enclosed sauna area which was off-limits to children. The following year, the conservative Pacific Justice Institute accused a trans student in Colorado of harassing girls in the locker room; when the superintendent revealed that no harassment had taken place and the only complaints were from disgruntled parents, PJI claimed, “the intrusion of a biological male into a restroom for teenage girls is inherently intimidating and harassing,” tacitly admitting they had fabricated the incident.
In a bitter twist of irony, conservatives' bigoted proposals have not only failed to keep anyone safe, but have also endangered gender-nonconforming cis people. In 2015, Cortney Bogorad was physically assaulted by a security guard while using the bathroom in a Detroit cafe. In her lawsuit, Bogorad alleged that the guard grabbed her by her bra strap and shoved her against a wall before throwing her bodily onto the street. An almost identical scenario played out in Australia earlier this year, when children's book author Jessica Walton reported on Twitter that her wife Charlie had been aggressively told to leave a bowling alley after using the women's restroom — the latest indignity, she said, in a line of people who “feel entitled to police gender in bathroom environments.”
Still, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that anti-trans campaigners haven't considered the consequences of their actions. As one Massachusetts anti-trans campaigner recently admitted, conservatives' trans panic over bathroom predators has always been “largely contrived.” In fact, their true goal has been to make trans rights a wedge issue for Democrats. “[T]he trans activists need the gay rights movement to help legitimize them,” asserted Meg Kilgannon, director of Concerned Parents and Educators of Fairfax County, in a speech at the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit last year, which instructed anti-LGBTQ+ rights organizers to use trans people's lives to “divide and conquer” queer coalitions. But tactics like these don’t just represent political disagreement — they’re the process by which trans youth are dehumanized and robbed of their agency, the lessons that teach cis kids it’s okay to bully and abuse their trans peers.
Based on all the evidence available — the harassment, the violence, the bounties — it's well established that when it comes to being assaulted in a public bathroom, trans people have far more to fear from cis people than the other way around. In fact, according to the NCTE report, almost 60 percent of trans people have avoided going to the bathroom in public out of fear of violence, disrupting their lives and health to accommodate thoughtless cis bigotry. In a culture of fear and hatred like ours, it's imperative that cis folks stop falling prey to cheap scare tactics that twist and scar the truth, and realize whose lives are really at stake.
Samantha Riedel is a freelance journalist whose work on transgender culture and politics has previously appeared in them., Bitch Magazine, and VICE. She lives in Massachusetts, where she is presently at work on her first manuscript.