By Greg Tasker
FERNDALE – For Knoll Larkin and other transgender people, using a public restroom is often a harrowing experience.
“Bathrooms are sites of violence and harassment. Whether I use the women’s or men’s bathroom, I get harassed,” said Larkin, who is transitioning from female to male. “I’ve had people tell me I’m in the wrong bathroom. Or they’ll ask me to leave or they’ll leave. They’ll pull their children away. It’s frustrating.”
Larkin, 26, of Swartz Creek, was one of about 20 people who attended a town hall forum, “2 Pee in Peace: Making Bathrooms Accessible for Transgender People,” last week at the Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit in Ferndale. The forum included the viewing of a half-hour film, “Toilet Training,” which chronicled incidents in which transgender people across the country were harassed or arrested for using public bathrooms.
Organizers and participants hoped the two-hour forum would initiate dialogue about what the transgender community needs in terms of public restrooms and safety. They also hoped the forum would educate the non-transgender population about the issue.
“What this is all about is that bathrooms are a different situation for our community, and we don’t talk about it all that much. This is a chance to talk about this issue and support each other. It’s not easy being us sometimes. It’s nice to come together for support,” said Rachel Crandall, executive director of TransGender Michigan.
Larkin, a youth program assistant at Affirmations Lesbian and Gay Community Center, was one of three transgender individuals who served on a panel to discuss their personal restroom experiences. The others were Crandall and Lance Hicks, a 16-year-old from Southfield.
“Bathrooms still scare me, honestly,” Crandall said. “When I go out, sometimes I never know what to expect, that really scares me.”
She recounted using a busy women’s bathroom at a mall. She emerged from a stall to find the bathroom empty, even though there had been a line to get in. While she was washing her hands, a female security guard took her aside – and with people gawking – told her: “How you live you life is up to you, but you made two women in line very scared.”
“There have been others in that same situation who have been arrested, who have been put in jail for using the bathroom,” said Crandall, who has lived full time as a woman for eight and one-half years.
Knoll said that even though unisex bathrooms are available in many public buildings, they are often locked. He recounted trying to use a unisex bathroom at the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan. To get access was a cumbersome process that involved visiting different university offices, waiting in line and then waiting another day for the right employee to return with the bathroom access code.
“It was a frustrating, humiliating experience,” Knoll said.
Lance said that although his high school has a unisex bathroom, he often doesn’t use it because access requires tracking down a counselor for the key.
Jay Kaplan, a staff attorney with the LGBT Project of ACLU of Michigan, said the courts haven’t really addressed this issue in a public decision. Michigan, he said, doesn’t have a law that prohibits transgender discrimination; it’s up to individual businesses to address the issue of restroom use.
“This is a new issue for a lot of people. There is not a clear understanding of the transgender community. There is so much misunderstanding about this issue, not only in the society, but in the gay and lesbian community,” Kaplan said. “It’s something that is never really talked about. You want to assure restrooms are safe, but to assume someone who is transgender is there to cause problems is silly.”
The forum was sponsored by the ACLU of Michigan LGBT Project, Affirmations, American Friends Service Committee, Black Pride Society, HRC Michigan Steering Committee, National Conference for Community and Justice – Michigan, Transgender Detroit, TransGender Michigan and the Triangle Foundation.