I am what I am

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday August 10, 2011
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Illustration: Christine Smith
Illustration: Christine Smith

I recently violated one of the golden rules of the Internet – I read the reader comments under a news article.

The piece itself was a follow-up on the assault on Chrissy Polis in a Rosedale, Maryland McDonald's. A pair of women at the restaurant had assaulted Polis, a 22-year-old post-operative transsexual. They beat and kicked Polis until she suffered a seizure. Why was she attacked? Polis used the women's restroom. The older of the two women who beat Polis, Teonna Monae Brown was offered a plea agreement. In exchange for Brown pleading guilty to assault and committing a hate crime, prosecutors will seek a five-year prison term at the sentencing hearing next month.

Those who have spent any time on the Internet know that comments after articles are typically not worth reading. They're littered with trolls, and even well-intentioned commenters can leave shaking their head. Indeed, the old axiom, "better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt" seems tailor made for the comment sections under articles.

Nevertheless, as I scanned over the plea agreement story, my eyes fell to the comments below, where one poster argued against the hate crime element to the case by writing that "any many could put on a wig and lipstick and go into the ladies room and be protected," saying that if Polis "wants to be a girl he still has to use a men's room if he is a man." Others, too, pointed out that the fight started in the restroom, and that maybe "he" should not have been in there in the first place.

What we see here is something I first referred to some time ago as "the bathroom meme." This is the argument used by foes of transgender rights. They claim that extending rights to transgender people – particularly those involving public accommodations – will allow non-transgender rapists and pedophiles to be shielded by the law when they prey on others in an opposite sex restroom. It's akin to the old "gays recruit" meme born in the 1970s or so, equally ludicrous yet equally effective.

For the record, no transgender rights bill, including those that cover public accommodations, will protect rapists and pedophiles who attempt to harm your spouse, family members, or children. Rape, molestation, and any other such illegal activity remains illegal. Meanwhile, such laws would allow for a host of rights beyond restrooms by providing equal access to goods and services at public establishments. You know, the ability to order a meal in a restaurant, or go to an emergency room, or do any number of things you might otherwise take for granted.

Yet the notion of potential attackers in the restroom remains the hot button issue – or more succinctly, male attackers in the ladies' room. No one tends to address women wreaking havoc in men's rooms, because this doesn't provide those opposed to extending rights the correct sort of ammo. They couldn't draw parallels between transgender people being treated fairly with swarthy male perverts sexually assaulting your daughter in the playground restroom by actually addressing the issues, now could they?

Now consider Polis, a slight of build, young transwoman. She's about as far from the image that most people conjure up around the words "rapist" as you get. Her attackers were, by and large, bigger than her, and clearly had the upper hand as they kicked her   around the restaurant.

For that matter, she is a post-operative transsexual. This is not someone who should step one foot into a men's room. I don't think I'd be in the wrong to suggest that her going into a men's room would be far more likely to cause a sexual assault on a woman than allowing for public accommodation rights for transgender people.

Back to this random, anonymous comment left under the article. I find myself gravitating to that last sentence. "So what this guy wants to be [is] a girl," the commenter says, "he still has to use a men's room if he is a man."

Yet Polis is not a man. She never has been, even if she may have been declared one at birth. Yes, she may have had the sexual characteristics of a male at one point in her life – but she never seems to have been a man. Regardless of the shape of her genitalia at birth, she sure isn't a man now. Polis is not a "guy who wants to be a girl." Polis is a woman. Ergo, she uses the women's room. This should not be hard to comprehend.

Here's the crux of it all, to me. Here is the one thing that most transgender people understand, yet is so often lost on others. While transgender people do have a history and background that may well set them apart from others in their preferred gender, they are nevertheless the gender they present as. If a transman presents as male there's likely a good reason for it. Ditto for a transwoman. There are even those who might be opting for a space beyond simply man or woman.

Those who oppose transgender equality feel the need to believe that transgender people, in expressing their gender as they see fit, are being deceptive. Moreover, they need to equate this perceived deception with the actions of violent and criminal predators. Never mind that no one has been able to find a shred of evidence to support their suppositions.

Ultimately, we're not out to defraud, we're out to live our lives honestly, and shed whatever lie we may have been living previously. We are exactly what we say we are.

Gwen Smith remains a she. You can find her online at www.gwensmith.com.