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Transgender New Yorkers Face Scorn and Violence Using Public Restrooms

By Andrea Swalec | October 1, 2012 6:54am

MANHATTAN — Long before her boyfriend was slashed for defending her against an alleged gay-slur-spewing McDonald's patron who questioned her use of the ladies' room, Jalisa Griffin came to dread each time she needed to use a public bathroom. 

Griffin, 22, who identifies as transgender, said she is harassed at least once a week when she uses women's bathrooms, where people seem to feel free to bombard her with dirty looks and nasty comments.

That hostility led to violence on Sept. 19, when McDonald's customer Keith Patron allegedly began calling Griffin and boyfriend Jamar McClod names when Griffin tried to use the women's bathroom at the West Third Street fast-food eatery.

"You're going to the wrong bathroom," Patron, who has been charged with assault as a hate crime, allegedly told the couple before following the pair out of the eatery and trying to take a swing at McClod, who returned the punch and kneed Patron in the groin, sources said.

"You f---ing f----ts," he told them, according to a criminal complaint. Patron allegedly slashed McClod with a straight razor on the face and body.

But Griffin said that while Patron was arrested for the incident, there are countless others who have harassed her and people like her who have gotten off scot-free.

Three weeks ago, Griffin was visiting a friend at Bellevue Hospital Center when she said a female security guard tried to block her from entering the ladies' room. 

"You need to go to the men's bathroom, sir," the guard told Griffin.

"No, ma'am, I'm a woman," she replied. "I don't use the men's room." 

The guard left her alone when another guard intervened, but Griffin said the constant harassment weighs her down. Sometimes she opts to head home rather than try to use public bathrooms.

"A lot of times my friends and I will just get in the car and go, to just avoid the trouble," she said, "It's very aggravating. It adds so much stress to your life."

Transgender advocates say that for many transgender and gender-nonconforming people, something as simple as visiting a restroom can make them targets for harassment and violence. 

Statistics on such incidents are hard to come by, but a staffer for the Chelsea-based Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund said that since January 2010, the group has fielded 89 calls from around the country from transgender people who were barred from using the restroom of their choice or had acts of violence committed against them when they tried to do so. 

More than half of these calls were made from New York City, TLDEF staffer Noah Lewis said. 

And more than half of participants in a 2011 study conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force reported being harassed in public accommodations like restaurants, stores, hotels and hospitals. 

Nearly 10 percent reported being physically attacked. 

One of the most well-known attacks on a transgender person in a public restroom occurred in April 2011 in a McDonald's outside Baltimore. Teonna Monae Brown, 19, and an unnamed 14-year-old girl brutally beat 22-year-old transgender woman Chrissy Lee Polis inside the restaurant's ladies' room after questioning Polis's right to be there. Video of the attack filmed by a McDonald's employee was posted online and went viral. 

In May, Polis told The Baltimore Sun that the attack still haunts her.

According to New York City Human Rights Law, businesses and employers that bar people from using restrooms consistent with how they identify their genders expose themselves to charges of gender-identity discrimination. 

Still, there are a number of schools, facilities and public spaces that have implemented gender-neutral restrooms, prompting some to hope the restrooms are a sign of a growing recognition of the needs of transgender and gender-nonconforming people. 

The New School opened "gender-inclusive" restrooms at its 6 E. 16th St. building in March, in the spirit of "fostering an open and inclusive environment," a spokesman said. 

The College of Staten Island announced plans in April 2010 to make 20 of its restrooms — about one in each building — gender neutral, The Staten Island Advance reported.  

"The CSI community is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan and diverse as we attract more and more students from across the five boroughs, and faculty from across the world," said psychology professor Darryl Hill, who supported the restrooms. "We have to respond to their needs and provide a safe environment."

The LGBT-friendly West Village synagogue Congregation Beit Simchat Torah converted the men's and women's bathrooms at the Jacob Javits Center into all-gender facilities for last week's Yom Kippur services, which were attended by more than 4,000 people. 

"At CBST, we are made up of many diverse communities coming together, and one of the ways we embrace this ideal is by providing all-gender bathrooms, where everyone can feel safe," interim executive director Bruce Anderson said. 

The Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School in Greenwich Village opted to convert some single-sex restrooms to gender-neutral restrooms about two years ago, director Philip Kassen said. 

"If we did have somebody who was dealing with gender issues, we could take one hurdle away from them," said the head of the private pre-K through 12th grade school. 

The problems transgender people face using public bathrooms even prompted the creation of a website and an an app for those looking for safe spaces. 

TranSquat, an iPhone map application that launched in April, shows users the closest gender-neutral and single-stall restrooms. It includes more than 4,000 user-submitted bathroom locations in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom — 59 of which are in Manhattan. 

"Transgender people face so many struggles. Going to the bathroom should not be one of them," said the software developer behind the creation of TranSquat, who spoke on the condition that his name be withheld.

The designer, who's based in Portland, Ore., created the app using the gender-neutral bathroom directory Safe2Pee.org, which launched in 2006. Both the website and the app are fueled using submissions by users, who indicate whether a restroom is gender-free, single-stall and whether bathroom users need to buy something in order to use the facilities.

Still, advocates warn that the dangers transgender people face go far beyond their choice of restroom.

Carrie Davis, director of community services at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center, said alternatives to men's and women's bathrooms take some weight off the shoulders of transgender and gender-nonconforming people, but she cautioned that they don't guarantee users' safety.

"The little sign on the door doesn't make the bathroom safe," she said. "We have more gender-neutral bathrooms now, but we live in a world where stigma and prejudice exist freely."