Neulisa Luciano Ruiz’s death reminds us of the risks trans people face even just using the bathroom

Ever since I gave up trying to perform femininity, holding my breath in gendered bathrooms is the price I’ve paid for breathing easier in my body the rest of the time

Hilary Aked
Saturday 29 February 2020 11:38 GMT
Transgender woman shot dead after using womens bathroom in McDonalds

Being forced to use gendered bathrooms always makes me hold my breath. As I walk into the “Ladies” – even though I’m trans non-binary – my chest starts to feel tight. Sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I see someone doing a double-take when they see me.

In these moments, I feel relieved that I’m short. If I’m with a friend in a queue, I’m grateful that I can say something and the pitch of my voice will signify that I belong in that space. I keep my head down. Sometimes I even find myself sticking out my chest a bit to show that I have the right to be there, even though I spend the rest of my life slightly hunched over, trying to de-accentuate my chest.

If I succeed in scurrying into a cubicle without incident, I feel a perceptible relief as I shut the door.

Last Friday, I wasn’t so lucky. In the bathroom of a busy restaurant attached to a nightclub, a woman clocked me and screamed, “There’s a man in the loo! There’s a man in the loo!” at her friends. I like to think I gave her a withering stare. But inside, I felt like a teenager at an all-girls school again, terrified of being caught out as a fraud who didn’t belong and humiliated for it.

Something like that happens about every nine to 12 months. And these periodic experiences generate low-level anxiety – but it’s manageable.

Ever since I gave up trying to perform femininity, holding my breath in gendered bathrooms is the price I’ve paid for breathing easier in my body the rest of the time. But verbal abuse is the lowest end of the spectrum of transphobic violence. And as a transmasculine person, I’m much less vulnerable. Thanks to a “toxic mix of transphobia and misogyny”, trans women – especially women of colour – are targeted most often.

On Monday, a Puerto Rican trans woman called Neulisa Luciano Ruiz was shot and killed in the city of Toa Baja. Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest LGBT+ advocacy group in the US, said Ruiz “had dreams, hopes, and hobbies, and did not deserve to have her life taken from her”. HRC also noted she had been experiencing homelessness, which highlights the multiple ways trans people are at greater risk of disadvantage and exclusion.

Horribly, the perpetrators appear to have posted footage of the murder on social media. Puerto Rican LGBT+ activist Pedro Julio Serrano said the video showed that Ruiz – also known as Alexa – was “stalked and hunted” before being killed, and her murder was “nothing more than a hate crime”.

Initially, someone had reportedly called the police when they saw Alexa using the women’s toilet in a branch of McDonalds. Serrano blamed conservative groups in the country for whipping up hostility around trans people and public bathrooms for the murder. But sadly, both left and right-wing actors can foster hate.

Just last week, “socialist” British daily newspaper the Morning Star published an abhorrent cartoon portraying trans women as predatory and dangerous. At the other end of the political spectrum, after the March 2018 murder of black British trans woman Naomi Hersi – described by neighbours as a “‘lovely fun person” – the right-wing press disgustingly misgendered her.

Images and stories like this give people permission to hate. At the very least, they make people feel entitled to police trans people’s bathroom use. At worst, they cumulatively embolden physical violence. The Morning Star cartoon could directly lead to further trans women “being violently attacked and killed”, one LGBT+ activist said, and the paper’s editors would have “blood on their hands”.

Some Puerto Rican outlets have been just as bad, reportedly referring to Alexa as “a man dressed as a woman”. The hashtags “#HerNameWasAlexa” and “#SeLlamabaAlexa” have been used in response. Around the world, trans people are facing an epidemic of violence and the trans liberation struggle is facing a virulent backlash. Cisgender people – especially our siblings in the LGBT+ community – need to step up for trans equality now.

It was good to see Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of Puerto Rican capital San Juan, showing solidarity. And it was right for Britain’s biggest trade union, Unison, to condemn the Morning Star after its members and Twitter users made clear their disgust that trans people – a “persecuted minority” – were being “demonised” and portrayed as a threat.

But much more needs to happen, and fast, starting with an end to the politicisation of peeing. Stop gender-policing people. Provide gender-neutral bathrooms for those who want them. Let queer people piss in peace. It’s one key step towards going about our daily lives free from fear.

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