TEDxVancouver

Ivan Coyote: Why we need gender-neutral bathrooms

Filmed:

There are a few things that we all need: fresh air, water, food, shelter, love ... and a safe place to pee. For trans people who don't fit neatly into the gender binary, public restrooms are a major source of anxiety and the place where they are most likely to be questioned or harassed. In this poetically rhythmic talk, Ivan Coyote grapples with complex and intensely personal issues of gender identity and highlights the need for gender-neutral bathrooms in all public places.

- Writer, performer
Ivan Coyote believes that a good story can help inspire us to invent a better future. Full bio

There are a few things
that all of us need.
00:12
We all need air to breathe.
00:17
We need clean water to drink.
00:21
We need food to eat.
We need shelter and love.
00:23
You know. Love is great, too.
00:26
And we all need a safe place to pee.
00:30
(Laughter) Yeah?
00:33
As a trans person who doesn't fit neatly
into the gender binary,
00:35
if I could change the world tomorrow
00:39
to make it easier for me to navigate,
00:42
the very first thing I would do
00:44
is blink and create single stall,
gender-neutral bathrooms
00:47
in all public places.
00:52
(Applause)
00:54
Trans people and trans issues,
01:01
they've been getting a lot
of mainstream media attention lately.
01:03
And this is a great and necessary thing,
01:07
but most of that attention
has been focused
01:10
on a very few individuals,
01:12
most of whom are kinda rich
01:15
and pretty famous,
01:17
and probably don't have to worry that much
anymore about where they're going to pee
01:19
in between classes
at their community college,
01:23
or where they're going to get changed
into their gym strip
01:25
at their public high school.
01:28
Fame and money insulates
these television star trans people
01:29
from most of the everyday challenges
01:36
that the rest of us
have to tackle on a daily basis.
01:39
Public bathrooms.
01:46
They've been a problem for me
since as far back as I can remember,
01:49
first when I was just a little baby tomboy
01:53
and then later as a masculine-appearing,
predominantly estrogen-based organism.
01:57
(Laughter)
02:02
Now, today as a trans person,
public bathrooms and change rooms
02:04
are where I am most likely
to be questioned or harassed.
02:08
I've often been verbally
attacked behind their doors.
02:13
I've been hauled out by security guards
with my pants still halfway pulled up.
02:17
I've been stared at,
screamed at, whispered about,
02:22
and one time I got smacked in the face
by a little old lady's purse
02:24
that from the looks of the shiner
I took home that day
02:29
I am pretty certain contained at least
70 dollars of rolled up small change
02:31
and a large hard candy collection.
02:35
(Laughter)
02:37
And I know what some of you are thinking,
02:40
and you're mostly right.
02:44
I can and do just use the men's room
most of the time these days.
02:47
But that doesn't solve
my change room dilemmas, does it?
02:54
And I shouldn't have to use the men's room
because I'm not a man.
02:59
I'm a trans person.
03:05
And now we've got
these fearmongering politicians
03:08
that keep trying to pass
these bathroom bills.
03:11
Have you heard about these?
03:14
They try to legislate
to try and force people like myself
03:15
to use the bathroom
that they deem most appropriate
03:18
according to the gender
I was assigned at birth.
03:22
And if these politicians
ever get their way,
03:25
in Arizona or California or Florida
03:29
or just last week in Houston, Texas,
03:32
or Ottawa,
03:34
well then, using the men's room
will not be a legal option for me either.
03:36
And every time one of these politicians
brings one of these bills to the table,
03:43
I can't help but wonder, you know,
03:47
just who will and exactly how would we
go about enforcing laws like these. Right?
03:49
Panty checks?
03:56
Really.
03:57
Genital inspections outside
of bath change rooms at public pools?
03:59
There's no legal
or ethical or plausible way
04:06
to enforce laws like these anyway.
04:10
They exist only to foster fear
04:14
and promote transphobia.
04:16
They don't make anyone safer.
04:21
But they do for sure make the world
more dangerous for some of us.
04:24
And meanwhile, our trans children suffer.
04:28
They drop out of school,
or they opt out of life altogether.
04:31
Trans people, especially trans
and gender-nonconforming youth
04:36
face additional challenges
when accessing pools and gyms,
04:41
but also universities,
04:45
hospitals, libraries.
04:48
Don't even get me started
on how they treat us in airports.
04:51
If we don't move now
04:57
to make sure that these places
05:00
are truly open and accessible to everyone,
05:03
then we just need to get honest
05:06
and quit calling them public places.
05:09
We need to just admit
05:13
that they are really only open for people
05:16
who fit neatly
into one of two gender boxes,
05:19
which I do not.
05:25
I never have.
05:28
And this starts very early.
05:32
I know a little girl.
She's the daughter of a friend of mine.
05:35
She's a self-identified tomboy.
05:39
I'm talking about cowboy boots
05:42
and Caterpillar yellow toy trucks
and bug jars, the whole nine yards.
05:44
One time I asked her
what her favorite color was.
05:49
She told me, "Camouflage."
05:52
(Laughter)
05:54
So that awesome little kid,
05:57
she came home from school last October
05:59
from her half day of preschool
06:02
with soggy pants on because the other kids
at school were harassing her
06:04
when she tried to use the girls' bathroom.
06:08
And the teacher had already instructed her
to stay out of the boys' bathroom.
06:11
And she had drank two glasses
of that red juice
06:17
at the Halloween party,
06:20
and I mean, who can resist
that red juice, right? It's so good.
06:22
And she couldn't hold her pee any longer.
06:27
Her and her classmates
were four years old.
06:31
They already felt empowered enough
06:34
to police her use
of the so-called public bathrooms.
06:37
She was four years old.
06:44
She had already been taught
the brutal lesson
06:45
that there was
no bathroom door at preschool
06:48
with a sign on it
that welcomed people like her.
06:53
She'd already learned that bathrooms
were going to be a problem,
06:58
and that problem started with her
07:02
and was hers alone.
07:06
So my friend asked me
to talk to her little daughter,
07:10
and I did.
07:14
I wanted to tell her
07:16
that me and her mom
were going to march on down
07:18
and talk to that school,
and the problem was going to go away,
07:21
but I knew that wasn't true.
07:24
I wanted to tell her that it was all
going to get better when she got older,
07:25
but I couldn't.
07:29
So I asked her to tell me
the story of what had happened,
07:32
asked her to tell me how it made her feel.
07:37
"Mad and sad,"
07:41
she told me.
07:44
So I told her
07:46
that she wasn't alone
07:48
and that it wasn't right
what had happened to her,
07:50
and then she asked me
if I had ever peed in my pants before.
07:53
I said yes, I had,
07:58
but not for a really long time.
08:01
(Laughter)
08:03
Which of course was a lie,
08:04
because you know
how you hit, like, 42 or 43,
08:06
and sometimes you just,
I don't know, you pee a little bit
08:09
when you cough or sneeze,
08:12
when you're running upstairs,
or you're stretching.
08:13
Don't lie.
08:17
It happens. Right?
08:18
She doesn't need to know that, I figure.
08:20
(Laughter)
08:22
I told her, when you get older,
your bladder is going to grow bigger, too.
08:25
When you get old like me,
08:30
you're going to be able
to hold your pee for way longer,
08:32
I promised her.
08:36
"Until you can get home?"
08:38
she asked me.
08:42
I said, "Yes,
08:44
until you can get home."
08:48
She seemed to take some comfort in that.
08:52
So let's just build some single stall,
gender-neutral bathrooms
08:58
with a little bench for getting changed
into your gym clothes.
09:04
We can't change the world overnight
09:08
for our children,
09:12
but we can give them
a safe and private place
09:13
to escape that world,
09:15
if only for just a minute.
09:17
This we can do.
09:22
So let's just do it.
09:25
And if you are one of those people
who is sitting out there right now
09:27
already coming up with a list of reasons
in your head why this is not a priority,
09:30
or it's too expensive,
09:35
or telling yourself that giving
a trans person a safe place to pee
09:37
or get changed in
09:40
supports a lifestyle choice
that you feel offends your morality,
09:42
or your masculinity,
09:48
or your religious beliefs,
09:50
then let me just appeal
09:52
to the part of your heart
that probably, hopefully,
09:54
does care about
the rest of the population.
09:58
If you can't bring yourself
to care enough about people like me,
10:03
then what about women and girls
10:09
with body image issues?
10:12
What about anyone
with body image stuff going on?
10:14
What about that boy at school
who is a foot shorter than his classmates,
10:19
whose voice still hasn't dropped yet? Hey?
10:24
Oh, grade eight,
10:28
what a cruel master you can be.
10:30
Right?
10:33
What about people with anxiety issues?
10:35
What about people with disabilities
or who need assistance in there?
10:39
What about folks with bodies
who, for whatever reason,
10:43
don't fit into the mainstream idea
of what a body should look like?
10:46
How many of us still feel shy
10:51
or afraid to disrobe
in front of our peers,
10:54
and how many of us allow that fear
10:58
to keep us from something as important
11:00
as physical exercise?
11:03
Would all those people not benefit
11:09
from these single stall facilities?
11:12
We can't change
transphobic minds overnight,
11:16
but we can give everybody
11:23
a place to get changed in
11:26
so that we can all get to work
11:29
making the world safer
11:33
for all of us.
11:36
Thank you for listening.
11:39
(Applause)
11:40
Thank you.
11:42
(Applause)
11:44

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About the Speaker:

Ivan Coyote - Writer, performer
Ivan Coyote believes that a good story can help inspire us to invent a better future.

Why you should listen

Ivan Coyote was born and raised in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. An award-winning author of eight collections of short stories, one novel, three CD’s, four short films and a renowned performer, Ivan’s first love is live storytelling. Over the last nineteen years, they have become an audience favorite at music, poetry, spoken word and writer’s festivals from Anchorage to Amsterdam.

Ivan began performing in 1992, and in 1996 co-founded Taste This, a four person performance troupe that combined live music, storytelling and performance poetry to create a text-driven genre-busting collaborative exchange. Taste This toured North America extensively and in 1998 the four artists published Boys Like Her, a critically acclaimed book that took the stage show to the printed page. Boys Like Her sold out three editions and continues to be considered a notable Canadian contribution to the dialogue around gender identity and sexuality.

Ivan teamed up with Arsenal Pulp Press in 2000, and has since released nine more books. Close to Spiderman (2000), One Man’s Trash (2002), Loose End (2005), Bow Grip (2006), The Slow Fix (2008), Missed Her (2010), Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme (2011), One In Every Crowd (2012) and Gender Failure (2014). 

Ivan is still fascinated by the intersection of storytelling and music, and works with a number of well-established Canadian musicians, including pianist and composer Veda Hille, songwriter Dan Mangan, folk artist Rae Spoon, cellist Cris Derksen, and violinist Lyndell Montgomery. Ivan has released three CDs of storytelling with music, You’re A Nation (2003) and You Are Here (2007) and Only Two Reasons (2010).

In 2001 Ivan landed a little gig teaching short fiction at Capilano University in North Vancouver. This little night school class led to an accidental discovery: Ivan loves to teach creative writing. Coyote continued to teach short fiction and classes and workshops, and in 2007 was invited to become Carleton University’s writer-in-residence. While in Ottawa, Coyote taught a third year fiction class, and three memoir-writing classes for senior citizens. It was while teaching seniors that Ivan realized their true calling. Ivan strongly believes in listening to the stories of our elders, and encouraging them to write down their lives. 

Coyote has since been honoured to be the writer-in-residence at the Vancouver Public Library (2009), The Carol Shield’s writer-in-residence at the University of Winnipeg (2011) and the writer-in-residence at The University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario (2012). 

In addition to these literary and teaching accomplishments, Ivan continues to tour extensively throughout North America and Europe, telling stories not only to festival audiences but to high school students, social justice activists, adult literacy students and senior citizens all across the continent. Ivan believes in the transformative power of storytelling, and that collecting and remembering oral history not only preserves a vital part of our families and where we come from, but that a good story can help inspire us to invent a better future.