People march through Overton Park in June 2020 during a Black Trans Lives Matter action. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

Tennessee’s new bathroom legislation goes into effect July 1, and advocates for transgender people say now is the time for supporters of trans rights to get ready to step up. 

It’s the first bathroom bill enacted anywhere in the country in five years, according to the Human Rights Campaign. If a place with multi-stall public restrooms allows transgender people to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity, a new Tennessee law requires those places to post a sign outside the bathroom saying so. 

The HRC called the signs “offensive and humiliating” in a statement. Critics say it’s confusing for businesses, hard to enforce, and unfairly targets people trying to use a restroom.

Activists had specific tips on how people can help if they encounter anti-trans bias in a bathroom. 

  • When confrontations arise, intervene. Staff, patrons and bystanders can and should work to diffuse the situation when they see someone being harassed, says Alex Hauptman, transgender services manager at OUTMemphis

“Check yourself to see if you’re comfortable getting into a verbal altercation,” Hauptman says, though he suggests avoiding physical violence if possible.

The Step UP! Program, created by the University of Arizona in partnership with the NCAA, suggests five decision-making steps for intervening: “Notice the event, interpret it as a problem, assume personal responsibility, know how to help, and implement the help.”

Hollaback!, a movement to end harassment, has five additional intervention tools.

  • Distract by engaging the target in a conversation or by “accidentally” spilling coffee, for example. 
  • Delegate by involving a third party like a store manager
  • When safe, and with the consent of the person being harassed, bystanders can document the interaction – if someone is already working to intervene and help.
  • If the harassment was quick or is already over by the time an ally is involved, they should ask the person if they’re OK, offer support and share appropriate resources.
  • If it’s safe for the bystander and the person being harassed, advocates can directly address the abuser by calling them out on their behavior or instructing them to stop. Hollaback suggests remarks such as “That’s inappropriate, disrespectful or not OK,” “Leave them alone,” or “That’s transphobic.”

Cisgender people have a duty to speak up, says Renae Taylor, executive director of the Transcend Memphis initiative at Relationships Unleashed, an organization dedicated to empowering LGBTQ people. “Be vocal in instances where you see a trans person being harassed. Be vocal and let people know that you’re not going to stand for it and everybody has a right to exist.”

  • Listen to what trans people say they need and help without judgment, and recognize your bathroom privilege. Hauptman says in the past, he’s been confronted in bathrooms. Now, he sometimes asks friends to accompany him to a bathroom or stand outside a door, which sometimes makes him feel silly. But those worries are real, he says, since people are in a vulnerable state using a bathroom. 

He advises people to consider that trans people often have to worry about things that, often, cisgender people don’t. Friends should ask, “How can I support you? Do I go with you to the bathroom? … Or do I go and check it out ahead of time for you so that you know what you’re walking into?” Hauptman says.

  • Ignore the law. Businesses can consider leaving the signs off in protest, adding additional language that says trans folks are supported or creating gender-neutral options, Hauptman says. Not posting signs might put those places at risk of penalty, depending on enforcement, he says, but adding additional language or offering non-gendered bathrooms are good workarounds.

Allies should remain engaged in trans rights issues consistently, says Kayla Gore, co-founder of My Sistah’s House, which provides social services, emergency housing and advocacy for transgender people of color. Her organization needs reliable help, she says, including regularly attending demonstrations and protests, helping make survival kits or passing out hot meals. 

“Yeah, it’s great to show up at protests and things like that, but the behind-the-scenes stuff that happens with organizing and organizations – we need consistent allies…. If we were to have more allies who were consistently coming and going, I think work would be more robust,” she says. 

For supporters who want to advocate regularly, activists offered the following tips:

  • Engage friends, family members and acquaintances in conversations about trans people and trans rights. People are willing to listen to and trust information when it comes from close sources, Gore says. 

It’s important to demystify trans people, Gore says, and challenge harmful stereotypes.  “We need folks to change that narrative, to say, ‘Hey, well I know a trans person, I know trans people, and they’re great people. They’re not out to hurt anyone.’”

  • Speak up for trans people when they’re not present. “A lot of the time, when legislation is happening, trans people aren’t being consulted…. It’s good to have people who can represent us and take our stories into those places,” Gore says. 
  • Fight with your dollars. Both Taylor and Relationships Unleashed leader Gwendolyn Clemons say allies should give to transgender-led advocacy organizations. 

“If people have the ability to financially sustain these organizations, I would appreciate them doing that,” Taylor says. 

“That’s one other way of having an investment in this – letting us lead.” 

Clemons also says businesses have left states over similar legislation in the past and thinks a call to action could result in that in Tennessee. 

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