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Pee Fear 

The trans community gets busy fighting a bathroom law with a business outreach project

When Republican John Kavanagh presented his strike-everything amendment to the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, March 20, it wasn't the first time that Arizona's transgender community had organized around bathroom issues.

The Appropriations Committee chairman's amendment on who uses what bathroom packed a punch—a criminal charge obviously targeted at trans folks:

"A person commits disorderly conduct if the person intentionally enters a public restroom, bathroom, shower, bath, dressing room or locker room and a sign indicates that the room is for the exclusive use of persons of one sex and the person is not legally classified on the person's birth certificate as a member of that sex."

According to Tucson trans activists, Kavanagh's "papers to pee," is most likely retaliation against the city of Phoenix for expanding its anti-discrimination ordinance to include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, and people with disabilities.

When Kavanagh slipped his amendment into a bill regulating massage therapy, the trans community throughout the state, especially in Tucson and Phoenix, went into full organizing mode. Tucson activist and transwoman Abigail Jensen said Arizona has a history when it comes to trans people and bathrooms, even though for the most part the state has been a pretty good place for trans people.

In 2007, a transwoman was banned from a Scottsdale bar she regularly hung out at after someone complained of a man going into the women's restroom. "It was a pretty big stink," Jensen recalls, "but in the end there was a wonderful outcome."

The owner agreed to lift the ban; he and his wife became good friends with the transwoman; legal action was dropped; and the owner agreed to put gender neutral signs on his restaurant's bathrooms. He eventually opened a gay bar.

"That was the first kind of political organizing that happened, but since then there really hasn't been an issue in Arizona," Jensen says.

Kavanagh's strike-everything didn't budge, but with help from his friends he brought back a softer version, SB 1045, which is waiting for the House Rules Committee to review for constitutionality, "which obviously they never seem to do a very good job of ... when you think of SB 1070," Jensen says.

"Right now the Legislature is really preoccupied with the budget and Medicare expansion, so we're just waiting to see if it actually moves to the floor for a vote. Rules meets on Mondays and sometimes on Thursdays, and so far it hasn't appeared on the agenda. Our hope is that it will just die."

The bill looks different this time around—Kavanagh took out the disorderly conduct charges and the bill now prohibits local governments from passing ordinances that could subject businesses to lawsuits or criminal penalties if they decide to discriminate against a transgender person and prevent them from using a restroom.

One idea discussed is that the bill won't have an effect on trans people who have had their birth certificates changed, so they have no need to worry. That troubles Jensen who was born in Idaho, a state that doesn't allow changes to birth certificates. And many trans people elect not to have surgery "for financial reasons, and personal and medical reasons. Essentially, this targets all of us now."

However, while waiting for the Rules Committee to take up the bill, the trans community continues to organize with allies and other members of the LGBT community to put together a business outreach campaign. Jensen says it targets businesses throughout the state. But first, it focuses on businesses in Phoenix and Tucson, asking if they are willing to train staff to allow people to "use which ever restroom they feel more comfortable ... trust people to know which restroom they belong to."

They are also having stickers made that resemble the blue-, pink- and white-stripped trans flag and asking businesses to put them in a visible spot on a window so that trans people will know that they can go in and be comfortable.

"It isn't a symbol most people know, unless you're trans," Jensen says.

There's also a website, safe2pee.org, that businesses can register with. The site maps safe places for trans people to use restrooms throughout the country, Jensen says.

Another part of the project provides businesses with free or low-cost gender-neutral signs for their restrooms, especially those that are single-stall restrooms. The final part of the project is talking with businesses about SB 1045 and asking them to sign a letter against the bill.

"It's bad for business. Discrimination is always bad for business," Jensen says.

"Regardless of what happens with this bill, we have a very long term goal—safety for transgender and any gender nonconforming people. ... The trans community and allies really came together (here) and across the nation in ways that I think is going to be sustained beyond this issue. We're going to move forward and maybe work on broader goals in the future."

Michael Woodward, a trans activist and former director of the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance, or SAGA, is also involved with the business outreach project and defeating Kavanagh's bathroom bill. At the House Appropriations Committee hearing where Kavanagh introduced SB 1045, Woodward says more than 300 people showed up to condemn the bill. About 20 people spoke and only one was in favor of legislating where people pee.

"It has galvanized the community to a certain extent," Woodward says. "It was important to be there and let them see that, and remind them 'We walk among you.'"

More by Mari Herreras

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