By occupying public toilets, demonstrators would be drawing attention to just how ridiculous and demeaning this entire debate about toilets actually is.
  • sixninepixels/Shutterstock
  • By occupying public toilets, demonstrators would be drawing attention to just how ridiculous and demeaning this entire debate about toilets actually is.

Dominic Holden at BuzzFeed:

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Florida state Rep. Frank Artiles is not worried a bill he introduced last week will create problems for transgender people, he told BuzzFeed News, because using the restroom is a choice. The Miami Republican’s bill would restrict single-sex public facilities—including restrooms in restaurants, theaters, workplaces, and schools—to people of the corresponding “biological sex, either male or female, at birth.” Violators would be guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail. Asked if such a rule would create problems for transgender women required to use the men’s room, Artiles told BuzzFeed News, “People are not forced to go the restroom. They choose to go to the restroom.”

No one has to use the restroom, of course. We are free to hold it until we explode. Representative Artiles's defense of his bigoted bill is as depressingly familiar as it is dangerous:

Artiles said that his bill is designed to promote public safety by banning male sexual predators who claim to be women from prowling ladies’ restrooms.

Right-wing assholes keep hammering away about the threat posed by trans people using public toilets. In reality, trans men and women are at higher risk of violent attack, hate crimes, and murder than any other group; trans women of color are at highest risk. (Three trans women of color have been murdered already this year.) And while it's true that cis and trans women are sometimes attacked in public toilets, these attacks are perpetrated by cis men, not trans women. (Want to make the world safer for women? Make it illegal for men to use public toilets.) And this whole revolting idea that a significant percentage of trans women are "male sexual predators [interested in] prowling ladies' restrooms" amounts to an anti-trans blood libel. This belief—that some or all trans women are actually male rapists trying to worm their way into "safe" spaces where they can attack "actual" women (because a male rapist can't walk into a women's toilet dressed as a man?)—results in violent attacks on trans women like this one. Fomenting this belief leads to more attacks on trans women.

But if assholes like Artiles want public toilets to be the arena where we debate trans rights—if that's where assholes like Artiles wanna fight this one out—I think trans activists should meet the assholes in their preferred arena: Get a small group of trans activists and their allies together and occupy the public toilets in Representative Artiles's office—even better, get a large group of trans activists their allies together and occupy all of the toilets in Florida's state capitol building. March in, seize the restrooms, and put out a press release: "Frank Artiles wants to talk about public toilets. So let's talk public toilets. Let's talk about trans people, lets talk about violence, and let's talk about who's really in danger of being attacked in a public toilet." Reporters covering the demo would have to answer the question "Why toilets?" for readers and viewers dying to know about this insane demonstration—the exact same readers and viewers who would tune out yet another story about testimony at a hearing or protestors waving placards—and answering "Why toilets?" would force reporters to examine the bogus, bigoted rationale for Artiles's bill and the reality of of trans people's lives—i.e., trans people are not attacking women in public toilets, trans people are subject to appalling levels of physical and economic violence.

Yes, a public toilet is a ridiculous and demeaning place to hold a civil rights demonstration. But by occupying public toilets, demonstrators would be drawing attention to just how ridiculous and demeaning this entire debate about toilets actually is. (Something else to put on the press release: "We shouldn't be having this debate in a public toilet. But this is where Representative Artiles wants to have this debate, and so here we are. In his toilet, having this debate.")

There's a precedent of sorts for this kind of protest: The famous lefty organizer and civil rights activist Saul Alinsky once threatened to stage a "shit-in" at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Mayor Richard J. Daley was dragging his feet on promised civil rights reforms, so Alinsky took aim at Daley's pride and joy: his shiny airport. From Playboy's 1972 interview with Alinsky:

ALINSKY: Some of our people went out to the airport and made a comprehensive intelligence study of how many sit-down pay toilets and stand-up urinals there were in the whole O’Hare complex and how many men and women we’d need for the country’s first “shit-in.” It turned out we’d require about 2500 people, which was no problem for TWO. For the sit-down toilets, our people would just put in their dimes and prepare to wait it out; we arranged for them to bring box lunches and reading material along to help pass the time. What were desperate passengers going to do—knock the cubicle door down and demand evidence of legitimate occupancy? This meant that the ladies’ lavatories could be completely occupied; in the men’s, we’d take care of the pay toilets and then have floating groups moving from one urinal to another, positioning themselves four or five deep and standing there for five minutes before being relieved by a co-conspirator, at which time they would pass on to another rest room. Once again, what’s some poor sap at the end of the line going to say: “Hey, pal, you’re taking too long to piss”?

Now, imagine for a second the catastrophic consequences of this tactic. Constipated and bladder-bloated passengers would mill about the corridors in anguish and desperation, longing for a place to relieve themselves. O’Hare would become a shambles! You can imagine the national and international ridicule and laughter the story would create. It would probably make the front page of the London Times. And who would be more mortified than Mayor Daley?

PLAYBOY: Why did your shit-in never take place?

ALINSKY: What happened was that once again we leaked the news—excuse me, a Freudian slip—to an informer for the city administration, and the reaction was instantaneous. The next day, the leaders of TWO were called down to City Hall for a conference with Daley’s aides, and informed that they certainly had every intention in the world of carrying out their commitments and they could never understand how anyone got the idea that Mayor Daley would ever break a promise. There were warm handshakes all around, the city lived up to its word, and that was the end of our shit-in.

Alinsky's observations about constantly changing your tactics are apt:

ALINSKY [The] essence of successful tactics is originality. For one thing, it keeps your people from getting bored; any tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag itself. No matter how burning the injustice and how militant your supporters, people will get turned off by repetitious and conventional tactics. Your opposition also learns what to expect and how to neutralize you unless you’re constantly devising new strategies. I knew the day of the sit-in had ended when an executive of a major corporation with important military contracts showed me the blueprints for its lavish new headquarters. “And here,” he said, pointing out a spacious room, “is our sit-in hall. We’ve got plenty of comfortable chairs, two coffee machines and lots of magazines and newspapers. We’ll just usher them in and let them stay as long as they want.” No, if you’re going to get anywhere, you’ve got to be constantly inventing new and better tactics.

Trans people occupying public toilets to draw attention to hateful, demagogic attempts to ban trans people from using public toilets would certainly be an original new tactic. And it's worth noting that Alinsky didn't have to go through with his shit-in protest. He just had to make a credible threat. It was the same story with a threatened fart-in protest targeting the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in 1964. Back to Playboy's 1972 interview with Alinsky:

ALINSKY: Another idea I had that almost came to fruition was directed at the Rochester Philharmonic, which was the establishment’s—and Kodak’s—cultural jewel. I suggested we pick a night when the music would be relatively quiet and buy 100 seats. The 100 blacks scheduled to attend the concert would then be treated to a preshow banquet in the community consisting of nothing but huge portions of baked beans. Can you imagine the inevitable consequences within the symphony hall? The concert would be over before the first movement—another Freudian slip—and Rochester would be immortalized as the site of the world’s first fart-in.

PLAYBOY: Aren’t such tactics a bit juvenile and frivolous?

ALINSKY: I’d call them absurd rather than juvenile. But isn’t much of life kind of a theater of the absurd? As far as being frivolous is concerned, I say if a tactic works, it’s not frivolous. Let’s take a closer look at this particular tactic and see what purposes it serves—apart from being fun. First of all, the fart-in would be completely outside the city fathers’ experience. Demonstrations, confrontations and picketings they’d learned to cope with, but never in their wildest dreams could they envision a flatulent blitzkrieg on their sacred symphony orchestra. It would throw them into complete disarray. Second, the action would make a mockery of the law, because although you could be arrested for throwing a stink bomb, there’s no law on the books against natural bodily functions. Can you imagine a guy being tried in court on charges of first-degree farting? The cops would be paralyzed. Third, when the news got around, everybody who heard it would break out laughing, and the Rochester Philharmonic and the establishment it represents would be rendered totally ridiculous. A fourth benefit of the tactic is that it’s psychically as well as physically satisfying to the participants. What oppressed person doesn’t want, literally or figuratively, to shit on his oppressors? Here was the closest chance they’d have. Such tactics aren’t just cute; they can be useful in driving your opponent up the wall. Very often the most ridiculous tactic can prove the most effective.

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PLAYBOY: In any case, you never held your fart-in. So what finally broke Kodak’s resistance?

ALINSKY: Simple self-interest—the knowledge that the price of continuing to fight us was greater than reaching a compromise.

Make Representative Artiles fear scores of trans people showing up to occupy his precious toilets and he may drop the bill of his own accord.