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Florida's Bathrooms Are a Battleground for Transgender Residents

A state legislator is determined to make it next to impossible for transgender people to use public restrooms.

by Allie Conti
09 February 2015, 9:03pm

Photo via Flickr user janeyesee

Kieran Castano walked through the door of Wally's, an Orlando bar, with the urgency of a person who has to pee. The 24-year-old trans man breathed a sigh of relief when he noticed there was no one else inside the men's room. That meant he could go straight to the stall rather than having a patron give him a dirty look, or worse, ask what he was doing there.

According to Castano, the bathroom stank of piss, and there were puddles on the floor. As he turned to leave, Castano, who has a bad knee, slipped and fell hard. So he hobbled up to a female employee and warned her about mopping up. After all, he told her, someone could get seriously hurt. Thinking their interaction was over, he joined his girlfriend, Allie Enters, at the bar and ordered himself a PBR.

The couple was later joined by another trans man, Ace, who lived in the Orlando area and frequented Wally's, which claims on its website that it's received "more local and international press than just about any bar in Orlando." But when Ace went to use the bathroom, the employee Castano had told about the mess started screaming.

"You need to get the fuck out," she allegedly told the group. "You keep using the wrong bathrooms." As Kieran pleaded with the woman to stop yelling and explained repeatedly that he wasn't doing anything wrong, he felt two pairs of hands on his shoulders.

"I was literally saying, 'I'm transgender' as these two dudes pick me up and put me outside on the sidewalk, right on my bad knee," Castano told me.

LGBT Floridians and their allies rejoiced last month when the state lifted its ban on gay marriage, but are already fighting their next battle, with local conservatives apparently determined to make trans folks' lives as nightmarish as possible. Last Wednesday, a South Florida state rep named Frank Artiles filed a bill that some fear would make it a crime for transgender people to use basically any public bathroom in the state. The first-degree misdemeanor would be penalized with up to a year in jail, where transgender people in Florida—and across America—are vulnerable to rape.

"A man such as myself can walk into a bathroom at LA Fitness while women are taking showers, changing, and simply walk in there," Artiles told the Miami Herald. "Someone can say, 'What are you doing there?' and I don't have to respond. It's subjective. If I feel like a woman that day, I can be in that locker room. I don't know about you, but I find that disturbing."

The bill, if passed, would make Castano's experience de rigueur. That's because a business owner who doesn't actively prevent people from using the "wrong bathrooms" could be sued by angry customers who fear men hearing women's urination noises and vice versa.

Artiles's "public safety" argument has been used in Florida before. Back in 2009, the city of Gainesville proposed Charter Amendment 1 to protect trans people from discrimination. Conservatives argued that bathrooms would become easy targets for sexual predators, and one mayoral candidate practically pegged his entire platform on keeping bathrooms binary. Although Gainesville is a liberal bastion in a sea of red—not to mention a town that would elect a gay mayor the next year—the decision about whether or not to enact protections for trans people was actually pretty close. And South Florida, which has one of the biggest gay populations in the entire country, is an even weirder spot to try and codify a law that discriminates against transgender folks.

But even a progressive bastion like Chicago lets business owners check the IDs of trans individuals before letting them into a restroom, according to the ACLU. And although no state or city does anything as extreme as what Artiles has proposed for Florida, very few places have laws protecting trans individuals when it comes to bathrooms, either. In fact, Colorado, Iowa, San Francisco, New York City, and Washington, DC are the only jurisdictions that do.

Jim Harper, a spokesman for the advocacy group Equality Florida, says the state is typically pretty good about protecting LGBT residents. But he points out that more than half of its citizens don't live in the major metropolitan areas with anti-discrimination laws. Harper describes the state as a patchwork, but says that chapter 57 of Orlando's city code allows trans people who face discrimination to file a complaint with its human relations department. "They'll even take the offending party to court," he says.

According to Harper, people Castano wouldn't have that option if the bill becomes law. "That's one thing we really dislike about it," he told me. "It would invalidate tons of local ordinances that protect gender identity in public accommodations."

Of course, it's possible that some harassment trans people face comes from genuine confusion on the part of business owners. For example, "If your driver's license says you're a male, you have to use the male bathroom no matter if you're dressed up like a woman or act like a woman," Wally's owner Martin Snellgrove told me. "That person was asked many, many times to use the correct bathroom."

Snellgrove alleges Castano got violent and "started thowing things" when asked to leave, which he and his girlfriend vehemently deny. But whether the incident was born of ignorance or hate, it's one that will become not only legally permissible but required in Florida if the bill passes.

"We think [the proposed bill] is absurd," says Harper, of Equality Florida. "We hope Florida legislators see it for what it is and pay it no mind. Transgender people are people, and they have the right to live their lives according to who they are."

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