Opinion: Utah’s new anti-trans bill is so much bigger than just bathrooms

The political hysteria that presents itself as the rational foundation for this legislation is a real threat to transgender lives.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bathrooms are pictured at Salt Lake International Airport on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024.

I remember the first time I used the men’s restroom. I was 13. It was a single-stall at the Citrus Grill in Holladay, but I remember being terrified. I was almost expecting someone to stop me; for someone to see that I was transgender.

From the day I came out, I had to use the gender-neutral bathroom at my school. If I did not comply, I was threatened with potential expulsion or disciplinary measures under the discretion of the Catholic diocese. All the way until senior year, even when I was student body president, I used the bright turquoise bathroom in the vice principal’s office. It was a constant reminder that I was different. It taught me that being transgender was something to hide, to keep secret and to feel ashamed about.

It is hard not to still feel that way as Utah becomes the first state in 2024 to pass a bathroom bill targeting and discriminating against transgender people. There has been an intense obsession with bathrooms and who uses them in the past couple decades. Among the record number of 510 anti-LGBTQ bills proposed in 2023, bathroom bills and other anti-trans legislation have been at the center of this anti-LGBTQ crusade.

As our Great Salt Lake sits there dying and our air-quality gets worse by the day, our legislators have decided to join in this hateful campaign and make this bathroom bill a top priority. But this bill is so much bigger than just bathrooms.

This bill codifies transphobia and criminalizes transgender subjectivity, solidifying the political hysteria around transgender existence.

Anthropologist Emmanuel Terray defines “political hysteria” when real social anxieties are displaced onto phantasmatic enemies and imaginary solutions instead of concrete social policy. Only 1% of Utahns identify as transgender, yet we have become the center of this legislative session. The political hysteria that presents itself as the rational foundation for this legislation is a real threat to transgender lives.

What’s scary about this bill is that it deputizes citizens of the state to regulate the gender of others. This bill asks other people to survey, determine and police how well I conform and to assimilate into their perceived notions of my gender — to ask, “What are you?”

Whether I’m visiting a friend at their University of Utah dorm, stopping by the library, flying out of the Salt Lake International Airport, I have to be always thinking about how I am being perceived by others. The line between committing a criminal trespass is marked by how legible I am as a man to those around me. It is dehumanizing to have my existence — who I am — put up for debate by complete strangers when I am trying to go about my day-to-day.

This bill seeks to legalize the management of gender and rationalize categories that are fundamentally not rational. Legally defining “women’s restroom” and “men’s restroom” is a product of that insecurity, and this need to constantly reassure the stability of cisheterosexuality. The space of the bathroom holds that vulnerability because the bathroom is the most clear-cut incarnation of the gender binary — men use the blue one and women use the pink one. To these legislators, the minute population of Utahns who identify as transgender threaten that binary, and it scares them. Trans existence disrupts how people like these legislators see the world. This bill is a frightened scramble to try and re-naturalize categories that were never natural to begin with.

It saddens my heart to see my state jump onto the ban-wagon of seeking to eradicate transgender existence. But we are not going anywhere. Trans people have always been here and we will continue to always be here. I didn’t think that nearly seven years after coming out that I would have reason to still be scared of using the bathroom. But when I fly home from college, the first thing I’ll be doing when I step off the plane, is use the restroom.

Kurt McLaughlin

Kurt McLaughlin (he/him) is a Salt Lake City native and Columbia University sophomore studying gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity.

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