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What happened when I tried to comply with North Carolina's new bathroom law

As soon as I placed a foot in the women's bathroom in Hyde Hall on University of North Carolina Chapel Hill's campus, I was breaking the law.

On March 23, the North Carolina legislature passed, and Gov. Pat McCrory signed, the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. The new law says that people must use the bathrooms and locker rooms in government facilities (including schools, DMVs, and major airports) that match the gender noted in their birth certificate.

I've undergone vaginoplasty and hormone replacement therapy. I am a woman. But my birth certificate still says I am a man. And so for me and other trans people in North Carolina, spending time on college campuses and other government facilities requires a long set of preparations.

I was at Hyde Hall in early April, two weeks after the bill had been signed into law. A lawsuit had been filed against the governor. Protests had broken out across the state. PayPal withdrew plans to open a large branch in Charlotte. Transgender people were making more calls to suicide helplines. Transgender students and employees at public institutions were outright depressed.

As open as I am about my experience with gender dysphoria, I'm not eager to rock the boat

I had come to campus to attend a lunch with Mark Joseph Stern from Slate and hear him speak on LGBTQ issues and law. Not wanting to risk the possibility of having to use the bathroom, that morning I took extra precaution in what I ate and drank. I went to the bathroom as soon as I woke up and right before I left. During the lunch, I drank as little water as possible and, as far as I could tell, stayed away from any food that might upset my stomach.

As open as I am about my experience with gender dysphoria, I'm not eager to rock the boat. As much as I disagree with the law that forbids women like me from using the women's bathroom, I wasn't 100 percent sure that if I had to use the bathroom, I could bring myself to break the law. It is, after all, breaking the law.

My body had other plans, though. Despite my efforts, I had an ominous feeling in my stomach after lunch. The kind that urges you to go to the bathroom as soon as you can.


From my own experiences with transitioning, I feel depressed when I consider what measures transgender students are having to take to comply with the law. I began my transition when I was a student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, so I'm familiar with the challenges of being transgender in college. Though Margaret Spellings, president of the UNC system, said there was no way for universities to enforce the law, it is now too risky for some to use the right bathroom.

I'm sure there are some transgender students who are now having to plan around their need to use the bathroom: estimating how long they will be on campus for the day, figuring out if they can make it home between classes to use the bathroom, and wondering what they can eat at school, if anything at all. They're probably freaking out over the possibility of having to stay at school later than expected. Things are only more difficult for transgender students in high school, middle school, and elementary school. And what happens if, in spite of all your preparations, you still find yourself having to go to the bathroom?

Government workers have similar considerations. Joaquin Carcano, one of three plaintiffs in ACLU of North Carolina's lawsuit over the law, works at UNC-Chapel Hill's Institute for Global Health and Diseases as a project coordinator for people affected by HIV. When I interviewed him a few weeks ago, he told me he's had to watch what he eats and drinks before work, and that he now drinks less water during business hours. Because his building doesn't have any gender-neutral or single-stall restrooms, he has to make a 30-minute round trip to UNC Hospital nearby to use the bathroom.

"It's really distressing," Carcano told me. "It's a blow to your self-esteem." (Gender-neutral or single-stall bathrooms and locker rooms are accommodations in the new law, but to many in the transgender community, forced usage of such facilities is incredibly upsetting and alienating. All men should be able to use the men's bathroom. All women should be able to use the women's bathroom.)

Carcano's sentiments about his situation make me worry about my own employment prospects in the near future.

When I start classes in the fall at UNC-Chapel Hill as a graduate student, I'll be facing the problems transgender students and employees experience regularly. I'm worried about taking advantage of career opportunities like teaching assistantships. I've already applied for one beginning in a few months, but now I'm freaking out that, even if I do get the job, I may end up quitting. Will I be able to skirt the law without consequence and use the women's bathroom while working for a university, given my ability to pass well and that I no longer have a penis? I'm not sure. Will I be able to use the women's bathroom knowing that, if reported, I may lose my job? I don't know. While UNC-Chapel Hill's anti-discrimination laws (which cover gender identity and sexual orientation) as an employer are still intact, they don't cover bathroom usage.

Transgender students are now having to plan around their need to use the bathroom: estimating how long they will be on campus for the day, wondering what they can eat at school, if anything at all.

Despite my worries, I'm relatively lucky, and my particular situation highlights how poorly conceived the law is. Even though I've received vaginoplasty, my birth certificate still says male (the document doesn't automatically update when you get a specific surgery). The law is unclear what women and men in my situation are supposed to do. Moreover, the law doesn't seem to recognize that many states have different standards for altering birth certificates, an issue legislators might address when they return for their next legislative session.

As someone born in New York, I don't need to have had vaginoplasty to get my birth certificate changed — I need a notarized doctor's note and some other hard-to-acquire paperwork. Up until North Carolina passed the new law, I was in no rush to change it. Now, it seems like I won't be able to get some of the necessary paperwork until early June, and even then it takes about three months for the state to process the change. I'll almost certainly be starting school in the fall and breaking the law, and what do I do in the meantime?


Back in Hyde Hall, I rushed around the building to see if there were any gender-neutral or single-stall bathrooms — there weren't any. Not knowing where such bathrooms might be elsewhere on campus, or that I could make it to any one of them in time, I had a revelation. I came back from my search to tell Mark and the few who had remained to mingle after lunch that I was going to the bathroom. When someone asked which I was going to use, I replied, confidently and without hesitation, that it would be the women's bathroom.

I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. Part of me didn't want to break the law and worried something bad might happen if I did. But I also knew there was only one thing I could do. I couldn't use the men's. I couldn't. No one saw me going in — or rather, no one who wouldn't have been supportive saw me going in. And no one was in the bathroom when I used it. But even if someone had been in there, it wouldn't have stopped me.

I broke the law that day. I will have to be on UNC-Chapel Hill's campus many more times before I can get my birth certificate changed. From now until the law is repealed or settled in court, or until my birth certificate is amended, I will keep breaking the law. I'm not the only one. I will be an anxious mess every time I use the bathroom, but I don't see any option. It's all I can do, really. I am a woman.

Lily Carollo is a rising graduate student at the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism. She writes about gender dysphoria on her blog, A Little Lilypad. You can follow her on Twitter @alittlelilypad.


First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.


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