This column originally appeared in my hometown newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
The restroom at my workplace is just twenty paces from my office, a proximity that has saved my dignity countless times. I'm incapable of the math that would reveal the hours I've spent in that room during the past twenty-three years. Let's just say that I've done a lot of reading.
In all those years, I've never once questioned the gender identity of the person in the next stall. That's none of my business as I go about my own private business. So the recent spate of anti-LGBT "bathroom bills" being pushed by Republican legislatures in various states makes me cringe.
One book that I read at least parts of during my workplace bathroom visits is Jenny Boylan's memoir, She's Not There. The book originally caught my eye because of how much I had in common with the author. We were both born in rural Pennsylvania and went on to become writers and college professors in New England. I enjoy reading memoirs that connect with my own experiences.
But Boylan's book also drew my attention because of a major difference in our lives. She grew up with the constant knowledge that she was actually a woman, rather than the man her body presented to the world. I've always known that my body matched my identity, so I had to step far outside my experience to relate to Boylan's life story.
Many other memoirs have taken me beyond my own limited life. I've never been pregnant, but Elizabeth McCracken's An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination let me share the heartbreak of her miscarriage. I didn't move from Iran to the United States as a child in the 1970s, but Firoozeh Dumas's Funny in Farsi showed me the humor and humanity of her life as the ultimate outsider during turbulent times. I've never had a facial disfigurement, but Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face let me see the world staring back at her. I'm not an autistic math genius, but David Tammet's Born on a Blue Day fascinated me with his perception of the world. I don't have Alzheimer's, but Thomas DeBaggio's Losing My Mind immersed me into the physical and mental disorientation that accompanied his deterioration.
Reading about the lives of people different from ourselves helps us develop empathy. No one would toss a book in the trash and claim that that pregnancy is a myth, that Autism, Alzheimer's, or facial disfigurement don't exist, that nobody's life is affected by his or her country of origin. That would violate basic human empathy and common sense. Life is so much more than what passes through our individual eyeballs into the blob of electrified gelatin housed beneath our Red Sox caps.
Yet many people claim that identifying as one gender while being born in the body of another is somehow imaginary. Doesn't that view show a shocking lack of empathy and common sense as well? What is it about the notion of being trans that inspires some Republicans to make laws discriminating against where people use the bathroom, something that the vast majority of Americans take for granted?
Another book I've read in my workplace restroom is Tarō Gomi's classic, Everyone Poops. I enjoy sharing that one with students in my Children's Literature classes to show that kid's books cover a wide range of human behaviors. The lesson is that we all use the restroom even if it's a subject we don't dwell on in polite society. So why do some conservatives want to regulate such a universal and personal act based on discrimination against gender identity?
Republicans making these discriminatory laws claim they're just trying to keep children safe in public restrooms. All of us empathize with keeping children safe. But there's no evidence that trans people are a danger to children or that sex offenders dress up as another gender to commit their crimes in restrooms. Statistically, children are far more likely to be molested by a close male family member or a trusted authority figure than by a trans person. A prime example is Dennis Hastert, the former Republican Speaker of the House, recently sentenced to jail time for being a serial child molester while he was a high school teacher and coach decades ago. That criminal certainly didn't wear a dress.
What about empathy for the actual threats that trans people face in public restrooms? Studies show that roughly two-thirds of trans people have been harassed over restroom use. This isn't an abstract political issue. Real human beings are being threatened. My friend Linda takes precautions every time her trans wife Grace uses a public restroom. "I want people to have empathy for my beautiful wife," Linda said. "Barring empathy, I want her to be left alone. She's not hurting anyone--she's just being who she is."
Linda continued, "I want the law to protect my wife, not put her at risk. That's why we have laws, isn't it?" Yes it is. We all just want to feel safe while using the restroom that best fits who we are. Is it really so difficult to accept that our fellow human beings all just want empathy, safety, and a sense of belonging?
John Sheirer is a writer and teacher who lives in Florence. His new book, Make Common Sense Common Again, is now available. For details, visit JohnSheirer.com.