Students paint for transgender rights in art building bathroom
EDITOR IN CHIEF
Despite housing the vibrant work of student artists, the Studio Arts Building is an especially drab building, lacking the formality and school spirit found in other academic departments. For the past few weeks, though, vivid murals of sunflowers, butterflies, jellyfish and raised fists can be found inside, not on canvas, but on the tile walls of the bathrooms.
The illustrations are accompanied by more serious messages, reading “PROTECT OUR TRANS YOUTH!” and “I’m here, queer and won’t disappear,” as well as a stall (outfitted with a trigger warning) with walls displaying the names of all the transgender people murdered in 2016. The focal points of the art installation, however, are two pieces of wood glued on top of the former men’s and women’s signs, pronouncing the two bathrooms “all-gender inclusive.”
For transgender people at the university and beyond, the bathroom can often be a battleground. This is especially true for the past year, beginning with North Carolina’s House Bill 2 in March 2016, which decreed that all individuals must use the bathroom aligning with the sex assigned on their birth certificate. In North Carolina, only people who have undergone sex reassignment surgery can change the sex on their birth certificate, even though many transgender people choose not to — or cannot — undergo such surgeries.
After pushback from the LGBTQ community and the nation at large, North Carolina partially repealed the bill (which some called the most “anti-LGBTQ legislation ever”) a few weeks ago. However, in the meantime, it has inspired several other states, such as Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota and Texas to introduce similar legislation. It also has elevated the “bathroom problem,” as some transgender activists call it, to the national conversation.
This political climate, particularly in the wake of the presidential election, spurred Stef Hamill, a senior art major who uses they/them pronouns and identifies as non-binary, into action. The bathroom art project was born out of the increasing feeling that Hamill’s art needed to serve a “direct function.” Part of this came from their frustration toward the art department, which Hamill feels has remained “apolitical during a time when it’s really important to be political.”
So Hamill reached out to friends from Haven, the university’s largest LGBTQ Registered Student Organization, and their women and gender studies class to see if they wanted to contribute. A group of 10 individuals, primarily transgender and non-binary students and queer students of color, painted alongside Hamill on March 4.
“It was pretty much 10 hours of just hanging out and painting,” Hamill says. “I gave people free rein when it came to what they wanted to do. I said, ‘make something that inspires you, or speaks to our movement, so I started by sketching out Marsha [P. Johnson] and Sylvia [Rivera — both famous transgender activists] and other people painted.”
Nat Veiga, a sophomore women and gender studies major who also uses they/them pronouns, was one of the painters. When the group first walked in, Veiga says, they were unsure of what they were going to do with the blank, gray bathroom walls. But their emotions eventually fueled the group’s work, they say.
“It became, ‘well, how are you feeling right now?’” Veiga says. “And whatever we were feeling came out and we decided to write phrases and imagery that matched what we were thinking and feeling. And we were there for awhile, so sometimes it would go from positive to negative — like there were moments when we were really angry, really angry about the politics of it all, and sometimes we were like, ‘I feel good, we’re dancing and having fun together,’ so we would draw, like, that jellyfish. So it depended on how we were feeling, at that moment but also about the bathroom issue as a whole.”
Although the art installation was entirely student-led, Hamill did get permission from the art department, they say. Interestingly, they mention how last semester, they drew some graffiti in the bathroom without permission, and it was painted over immediately with a note to remind everyone, “this is graffiti.”
After getting “the least amount of permission you could get,” this time around, Hamill says, these paintings are considered art, not vandalism.
However, while Hamill and the rest of the group hoped the art would be able to remain up at least until the end of the semester, Hamill received an email message last week asking for the group to paint over their work as soon as possible. It will likely be removed in the next week or so, Hamill says.
While they expected that this would happen eventually, the university requesting for the art to be taken down is “disheartening,” Veiga says, especially considering how much more transgender students need from the institution — and how long it is taking for these needs to become reality.
Primarily, Veiga says, transgender students need more resources, such as more gender-inclusive bathrooms, a gender-inclusive locker room, somewhere for students to pick up hormones and a counselor who specializes in gender counseling. (Often, for insurance or legal reasons, transgender people must meet with a therapist who specializes in that counseling for a certain amount of time before they can be prescribed hormones).
“It’s frustrating, because everything takes forever,” Veiga says. “I’m not willing to sit around on my ass and wait for the institution to catch up to my needs for self-respect, and my humanity. We would tell people, ‘oh, there’s this bathroom thing,’ and they’d be like, ‘oh, I don’t want to get involved with that, I don’t want to get in trouble.’ It’s so frustrating because it’s so much easier for them.”
“For those of us who are dealing with these problems, we don’t have a choice,” Veiga says. “We have to act now if we want to change anything.”
Resources for further reading and education
“Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue.” Book by Leslie Feinberg.
“Redefining Realness: My Journey to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More.” Book by Janet Mock.
“Young People Get Trans Rights. It’s Adults Who Don’t.” Article by Janet Mock published in The New York Times.
“10 Myths About Non-Binary People It’s Time to Unlearn.” Article by Adrian Ballou published in Everyday Feminism.
“Too Queer for Your Binary: Everything You Need to Know and More about Non-Binary Identities.” Article by Kaylee Jakubowski published in Everyday Feminism.
“In the Crosshairs.” Article by Don Terry published in The Intelligence Report by The Southern Poverty Law Center.
“The Bathroom Problem.” Excerpt from “Female Masculinity,” a book by Jack Halberstam.
The Mazzoni Center (mazzonicenter.org).
Words to know
Based on the definition guide from GLAAD.
LGBTQ: Acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer. Sometimes, when the Q is seen at the end of LGBT, it can also mean questioning. LGBT or GLBT are also often used. The term “gay community” should be avoided, as it does not accurately reflect the diversity of the community. Rather, LGBTQ community is preferred.
Queer: An adjective used by some people, particularly younger people, whose sexual orientation is not exclusively heterosexual (e.g. queer person, queer woman). Typically, for those who identify as queer, the terms “lesbian,” “gay” and “bisexual” are perceived to be too limiting and fraught with cultural connotations they feel don’t apply to them. Some people may use queer, or more commonly genderqueer, to describe their gender identity or gender expression. Once considered a pejorative term, queer has been reclaimed by some LGBT people to describe themselves; however, it is not a universally accepted term even within the LGBT community. When Q is seen at the end of LGBT, it typically means queer and, less often, questioning.
Transgender: An umbrella term for people whose gender identity or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Gender identity: A person’s internal, deeply-held sense of their gender. For transgender people, their own internal gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. Most people have a gender identity of man or woman (or boy or girl). For some people, their gender identity does not fit neatly into one of those two choices (see non-binary or genderqueer below.) Unlike gender expression (see below) gender identity is not visible to others.
Non-binary or genderqueer: Terms used by some people who experience their gender identity or gender expression as falling outside the categories of man and woman. They may define their gender as falling somewhere in between man and woman, or they may define it as wholly different from these terms. The term is not a synonym for “transgender” or “transsexual” and should only be used if someone self-identifies as non-binary and/or genderqueer.
Pronouns: If you’re unsure which pronoun a person uses, listen first to the pronoun other people use when referring to that person. Someone who knows the person well will probably use the correct pronoun. If you must ask which pronoun the person uses, start with your own. For example, “Hi, I’m Alex and I use the pronouns he and him. What about you?” Then use that person’s pronoun and encourage others to do the same. If you accidentally use the wrong pronoun for someone, apologize quickly and sincerely, then move forward with intention.