By Amy L. Stone
In April 2016, the media was replete with stories of women pledging to carry guns into Target bathrooms to protect themselves from transgender women. These pledges are part of a nationwide sex panic about transgender bathroom accommodations that portrays women’s bathrooms as a site of sexual peril. Sex panics are defined by their intensity, irrationality, and anxiety. This sexual panic includes anxieties that trans women or sex offenders pretending to be trans women will use pro-trans public accommodations laws for nefarious purposes. Although many cities and states have had transgender rights bills that include public accommodations on the books for years, there is no evidence that these laws have been used to perpetuate violence against cisgender (or non-transgender) women or girls. Trans women, however, face high rates of violence themselves in women’s bathrooms.
This panic about women’s bathrooms reflects an anxiety about women, vulnerability and space. Major theorists like Henri Lefebvre describe space as something that is created by our social relations, not just a location to stage our interactions. Some of these spaces are understood to be safe, others vulnerable. In their article, Laurel Westbrook and Kristin Schilt argue that these panics about transgender accommodations are most acute in spaces that are gender segregated, like the women’s bathroom. In these spaces, people are more likely to assert the necessity of biology-based criteria for womanhood and thus entry into the space. According to Westbrook and Schilt, the assumption in these gender-segregated spaces is that “women are inherently vulnerable and men are dangerous” which results in the “assumed inability of women to protect themselves from men” which is aggravated by the fact that “there are no other men there to protect the women.”
This rhetoric about bathroom dangers assumes that all cisgender women are vulnerable, but some men are dangerous while others are protectors. Recent work by scholars like Jennifer Carlson and Angela Stroud contends that the politics of gun use often revolves around men understanding gun carry as a way of protecting not just themselves but also vulnerable people in their family and society. Men refashion themselves as “protectors” of the innocent (or the “sheep”) from dangerous individuals (or the “wolves”). Carlson suggests that this understanding of gun carry is one way that men cope with declining socioeconomic power.
How then can we understand women pledging to carry guns into bathrooms? The necessity for the pledge reinforces the image of women as vulnerable in spaces without men to protect them. The gun instead becomes a way for vulnerable cisgender women to compensate for this lack of men, being simultaneously a sheep and protector. Ironically, this practice of gun carry creates new kinds of vulnerability for women. This practice reframes trans women as “wolves”, as inherently dangerous men rather than as women. Ironically, increased gun carry by cisgender women that relies on rhetoric about their vulnerability perpetuates a certain type of violence against women, the assault of trans women in bathrooms. The threat of gun violence creates new fears and vulnerability for trans women in bathrooms. This violence is not inevitable; social norms about gender, vulnerability and space propagate it.
Amy L. Stone is associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University. Her research interests include the study of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) politics and the incorporation of LGBT individuals into groups (e.g., communities, cities) and the law. Her 2012 book Gay Rights at the Ballot Box focuses on how activists in political campaigns fight anti-gay initiatives.Her other research projects include an analysis of transgender inclusion in queer sexual spaces and lesbian inclusion in sorority rushing. She is also an editorial board member for Gender & Society.