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Wave of bathroom bills has Florida's transgender community worried it's next

ST. PETERSBURG — On a recent trip to the hair salon, Shannon McGuire had more than style on her mind.

She had been wearing her hair in an angled bob, a style her hairdresser pronounced "tired," and suggested she replace with a pixie cut.

"At that moment, going through my head was: If I get my hair cut that short, the number of people who call me a guy is going to triple immediately," McGuire, 33, said as she leaned into a circle of transgender women like herself.

They had gathered on a recent Wednesday night, as they often do, for a support group meeting.

"The fact that the bathroom laws are out there and they're causing such a stir makes you think about it more often," she said.

Around the room, heads nodded sympathetically. Every one of them had been there and understood the vital importance of getting it right. The safe choice might be the boring one, but if it let them pass unnoticed and unharmed, it was the smart choice. A haircut could never be a just a haircut.

McGuire went with a bob. "We'll just stick with old and tired," she told the stylist.

In ways large and small, the latest wave of anti-LGBT legislation sweeping through the South is weighing on the minds of transgender people in Florida, many of whom feel they have become a fresh target for social conservatives angered by the legalization of gay marriage.

In the spring of 2015, they became fearful when Florida Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, tried to pass a bill that would bar transgender people from using bathrooms that did not match their gender at birth. His efforts failed, but only after the bill passed through two House committees.

Later that year, they watched as the same message took on new life in Houston, the first major U.S. city to elect an openly gay mayor, where after a yearlong battle voters decided to repeal its broad anti-discrimination ordinance. Opponents of the law warned it would allow men to enter women's bathrooms, preying on women and girls under the guise of being transgender. Their slogan was simple and effective: "No men in women's bathrooms."

The momentum kept building. This year, Mississippi and North Carolina have passed laws aimed at curbing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

With each announcement of a new bill, the community's anxiety has increased. Many worry that Florida lawmakers will feel emboldened by conservatives' success elsewhere, and will launch renewed efforts to pass similar legislation next year.

"The transgender community is afraid," said Gina Duncan, transgender inclusion director for Equality Florida. "These bills put daily stress on the trans community to be more passable or to even question using public facilities," she said.

The community also is experiencing more harassment, she added. In recent months, her organization has seen an increase in discrimination complaints and phone calls from worried parents or students who say they're being bullied.

Duncan said Equality Florida is taking "immediate and strategic steps" to prepare for legislation similar to North Carolina's law requiring transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to the biological sex listed on their birth certificates. The organization is cultivating relationships with businesses — earlier this month, Uber announced its commitment to anti-bias measures — and holding town hall meetings across the state.

After leading the charge to restrict bathroom access, Artiles, who is running for a competitive state Senate seat this year, gave no indication of his future plans.

"At this time, I have not decided on what bills I will sponsor or cosponsor in 2017," he said through a spokeswoman.

Although some of his colleagues, such as Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, have signaled their interest in creating new legal protections for opponents of same-sex marriage, none have publicly committed to a "bathroom bill," as such laws are commonly known. Some of their hesitation may come from watching the swift backlash in North Carolina, where several large businesses have canceled expansion plans and rock stars have said they will boycott the state. Earlier this week, a new obstacle to bathroom access legislation presented itself in the form of a decision from a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., which ruled in favor of a transgender student who was born female and petitioned for the right to use the boys' restroom at his high school.

Before the slew of bathroom bills arrived, bathrooms were already a vexing issue in the transgender community. They are such a frequent topic of conversation in the support group Tristan Byrnes, 44, runs in St. Petersburg, that at one point, he issued a moratorium on all bathroom talk.

"I didn't get my masters degree realizing I would talk about the bathroom as much as I do, but it comes up in my office all the time," said Byrnes, who has a private practice in St. Petersburg in which he counsels about 30 clients, most of who are transgender. "People want to know, at what point is it safe to start going to the other bathroom?"

In Sarasota, 17-year-old Nate Quinn has launched a campaign to convince the county's school board to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity.

Quinn's activism has increased gradually, despite what he said was increased bullying from classmates. During his junior year, he took the daring step of coming out as a transgender male to teachers and classmates at the Pine View School, where he had been known for years as a girl. School officials initially forbade him from using the men's bathroom, a decision that led to some confusion as his appearance gradually became more masculine.

One day, Quinn was in the girl's bathroom when a second-grader walked in, screamed "Oh, my God, I'm so sorry!" and ran out, thinking she had accidently stumbled into the boy's restroom, he said. Whenever he used the boy's bathroom, no one looked twice.

Pine View eventually changed its policy, but Quinn set his sights higher, proposing a county-wide change that immediately generated protest. In February, Quinn and his mother attended a school board meeting and found themselves confronted by more than a hundred opponents dressed in white. Quinn remembers some of them calling him a perversion against God; others suggested he was dressing as a boy to sneak into the men's bathroom.

"They thought I had some kind of creepy agenda," he said. "I felt like I was in danger. I felt like I was at a KKK meeting."

Anxiety over bathroom use is particularly acute for transgender women, who have become the focus of laws supporters say are meant to keep male sexual predators out of women's bathrooms. Transgender advocates in Florida are quick to note that there have been no reported incidents of transgender people creating problems in public bathrooms.

"Before all this came up, I was using the women's restroom a lot, but since it started all coming out, it's got me nervous," Kelly Gartland, 46, said during Byrnes' support group meeting for transgender women.

"Because obviously, I do not pass," she said softly, looking down at her knees poking out of the hem of her purple dress.

McGuire, who recently started a new job, said that some of her coworkers had complained to management when she used the women's bathroom. She wasn't trying to be provocative, she said, but the unisex stall was often broken.

"I got called into [human resources] about it…they were pushing very hard for me not to use the women's restroom," she said. But after she produced a copy of Pinellas County's human rights ordinance, which bans workplace discrimination based on gender identity, her employer dropped the matter.

"It was a very surreal experience," she said. "Without that law, it could have been a real problem."

Transgender men typically face less scrutiny, Byrnes said. It's much rarer for conservatives to inveigh against the potential danger of a transgender man using the men's bathroom, he said.

After 10 years of living openly as a transgender man, with a birth certificate that's been changed to reflect his transition, Byrnes feels mostly "off the radar." In some respects, he views the fight over bathroom access as the transgender community's version of the gay-marriage battle, a necessary albeit painful step on the way to acceptance. In both cases, he said, the opposition is rooted in fear.

Still, the discrimination laws sting.

For supporters of bathroom bills, "it's not just a religious fear or a moral fear," Byrnes said. "What sucks is that for us it's coming from a place of physical fear."

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.

Wave of bathroom bills has Florida's transgender community worried it's next 04/22/16 [Last modified: Friday, April 22, 2016 1:57pm]
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