Know Your Rights

Introduction and Danica’s Story

When you gotta go, you gotta go. Whether at work, in a restaurant or passing through a train station, pretty much everyone needs to stop into a restroom at some point while away from the comforts of home. But this simple routine is anything but that for many transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) people.

(To read our FAQ about restroom access, click here.)

Transgender refers to people whose gender identity, one’s inner sense of being male, female or something else, differs from their assigned or presumed sex at birth (cisgender refers to people whose gender identity is the same as their assigned or presumed sex at birth). Gender-nonconforming people don’t meet society’s expectations of gender roles. For transgender and gender-nonconforming people, even just walking through the door of a public bathroom can be a stressful, scary experience. The mere possibility of hostile remarks from other bathroom goers, questions from store owners or mall security or arbitrary restrictions from employers can be so frightening that many just “hold it.”

TGNC people get harassed in other situations too, but public restrooms tend to invite extra scrutiny based on comparisons to stereotypes about how men and women are supposed to look or act.

The solution is quite simple, in theory: Everyone should use the restroom that matches their gender identity, regardless of whether they are making a gender transition or appear gender-nonconforming. But the realities of anti-transgender bias and a widespread lack of understanding about transgender people’s lives can complicate things.

Litigation in this area has been gaining traction in the past few years. A decade ago, some courts did not grasp the importance of this issue and saw restrooms as outside the realm of anti-discrimination laws. While a few of these states still have bad decisions on the books, states such as Maine and Colorado have been leading a new charge by recognizing the right of TGNC people to access bathrooms that match their gender identity both at school and at work.

This section is intended to help you advocate for what is right by using information about the medical and historical context of gender transition and practical ideas for improving access to public accommodations.

My Story: A Highway Rest Stop Nightmare

Danica Ali, 36

“I was in Connecticut at a rest stop. I was coming back from New Haven with some friends of mine and we were on I-95. We stopped to get something to eat and use the restroom—just like everybody else.

“I went in, and this lady—the manager or something—pulled me aside and said she wanted to see my ID to see if I’m male or female. She had this guy with her—I don’t know if he was security.

“I asked her, ‘Who are you?’ She said she didn’t have to tell me. And I told her, ‘I don’t have to give you my driver’s permit!’ She said, ‘If you don’t show me your ID, I’m going to call the police and say that a man is using the female restroom.’ I took out my ID and I showed her my ID and it said ‘female.’

“I was so upset! I just walked right out and went to the car.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact Lambda Legal at 212-809-8585, 120 Wall Street, Suite 1500, New York, NY 10005-3904. If you feel you have experienced discrimination, call our Help Desk toll-free at 866-542-8336 or go to www.lambdalegal.org/help.