This piece was published in collaboration with Rewire.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) seems to think it’s a governor’s duty to classify which men and women are the “real” ones and which aren’t. Because of this, he has put the lives of all of North Carolina’s transgender residents at risk by signing HB 2 into law.
Last week state legislators proposed changes to HB 2, but those changes do nothing to mitigate an unabashed blastoma of transphobia that is now lawfully spreading at a vicious pace.
In response to HB 2, droves of businesses and musicians have boycotted the state in hopes of stopping this unmitigated discrimination toward transgender people from moving any further.
People have banded together to show their support for the transgender community, and businesses across the state and country have declared themselves safe havens for transgender-identifying individuals by submitting to the Safe Bathrooms map.
The map’s creators—River William Luck, a transgender community activist, and his partner (and as of recently, fiancée), web design specialist Emily Rae Waggoner—both live in Boston, but the fight to protect transgender rights affects them on a deeply personal level: They’re both from North Carolina.
When HB 2 was signed into law, Luck says, “I was on guard, because I’ve been told I’m in the wrong bathroom my entire life as a masculine-presenting female for more than 30 years.”
Now his home state has become one big ”Do Not Enter” sign for him and his friends still there. Luck’s reaction, however, was not one of helplessness. His instinct, which he learned to follow after years of experiencing and bearing witness to bigotry, was to bind the community and help strengthen it through tangible acts of love and support.
One Reddit commenter likened the map to the Negro Motorist Green Book of the 1930s to 1960s, which was published to help Black travelers in the United States find safe passage in times when racial persecution was legal. Like the Negro Motorist Green Book, the bathrooms’ map is not so much a novelty but a vital resource to protect the safety of its users at a time when history is repeating itself in a way that is marginalizing an already vulnerable population.
Before the Safe Bathrooms map, Luck started mailing hundreds of buttons from the #IllGoWithYoucampaign to friends and family back home. The #IllGoWithYou campaign was developed as a means for allies to offer solidarity and protection to transgender and non-binary individuals. By wearing a button, participants pledge to stand up and speak up during instances of harassment and physical endangerment.
“This is my way of paying it forward,” Luck says. “What I’ve done is buy a shit ton of buttons and if someone wants one, I send them one. If they can’t afford it, I send them one. If they want to know more about it, I write them a note and ask people to pick up more.”
His reasoning is simple: “I would have given anything to have seen one of these when I was in North Carolina.”
Luck’s meaningful gestures extends to the clothes he wears, as he frequently can be found sporting a t-shirt that says “No Hate in Our State” or a tank top with the words “Proud Transman” printed in bold. River models several lines of what he refers to as “activism wear,” as a product ambassador a variety of labels including a Greensboro, North Carolina-based company called Deconstructing Gender, and another called Proud Animals.
It’s actually the former that planted the seed for the Safe Bathrooms map, as Luck and Waggoner were inspired by the photos of gender-neutral bathrooms posted on the company’s Instagram account. While the two were talking to Deconstructing Gender’s founder and CEO Avery Dickerson, who was transitioning at the time, Waggoner said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a map of safe bathrooms where trans people could go without hassle?”
And so with Waggoner’s web design expertise and Luck’s social media skills, the Safe Bathrooms map came to life as a child of both necessity and wishful thinking. As they built it, the people came in droves: businesses, affected community members, and media alike.
With over 200 businesses included to date, the two have put together a functioning survival guide for transgender residents and travelers who also possess bladders.
Waggoner shared one email with Generation Progress that she received from a man who owns an architecture firm in Maine, who requested to have his business be included on the map:
I, therefore this business, stand for equality, acceptance, and kindness to all. As a gay man, and one living with HIV for 30 years now, I know too well that indifference to discrimination, condoned cruelty, and legalized oppression are terminal illnesses. These behaviors killed the dreams, and injured the very souls of our young, and further darkened the roads the rest of us continue to travel. It must stop.
To be included on the Safe Bathrooms map, businesses need simply fill out this form and verify their transgender-friendliness with a photo of a gender-neutral bathroom placard or other clear form of expression. Upon approval, businesses are represented on the map as a roll of toilet paper. For those lacking, the Safe Bathrooms website goes one step further and shows businesses where they can obtain gender-neutral bathroom signs for their private spaces.
Waggoner and Luck know personally how useful such a map can be. Waggoner says she’s had to stake out bathrooms to make sure the coast is clear, like a Secret Service member. One time, she says, “We were in a restaurant waiting to use the bathroom. We could feel the tension in the air and feel the stares. And it became very uncomfortable because people at the bar were openly just watching which bathroom River was going to go into. And we feared for his safety and our safety.”
Luck continues, “We ended up having to leave and go to a friend’s house so I could use the bathroom and detoured the whole evening plans so I could pee safe.”
Clearly the problem won’t end once HB 2 and other anti-transgender laws like it are repealed. The attitudes that brought these policies into being still exist and must be dealt with. But, as Luck attests, there is a definite support system of love and acceptance in North Carolina. He found it in Greensboro as a music teacher at New Garden Friends School, a Quaker school. “They were so open and embraced diversity that I could be an out lesbian,” says Luck.
Greensboro has very distinct pockets of support, which is where a lot of the safe bathrooms appear on the map. But even in places less supportive deeper south, Waggoner notes there are still good friends to be found: “It’s been cool to see some of the small-business owners in some of the more rural towns popping up. Like in Salisbury, North Carolina. It’s really brave of them to do that—to be the first in their town to speak up and say something, and be the first on the map.”
The outpouring of support may be having an effect: University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings recently gave a statement saying that she would not enforce HB 2 or change any of the school’s current provisions. Spellings did originally plan to enforce HB 2. It wasn’t until U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch declared the state in violation of civil rights and threatened to cut up to $4.8 billion in federal funding to the school that Spellings changed her position (and McCrory sued the federal government).
Before Spellings changed her decision, students from various on-campus alliance groups held loud protests outside of buildings in which she was attending meetings, in efforts to sway her judgment. Students at schools across the state affected by the law are making their opposition known.
On a K-12 level, there are organizational efforts through nonprofit Gay-Straight Alliance groups such as Time Out Youth, which offers resources and aid to LGBTQ minors living in inclusive North Carolina and South Carolina school districts. Its website lists student rights, including the rights to gender expression, confidentiality, and respective pronoun usage, as well the right to attend school functions and report on instances of bullying (which state public schools are required by law to deal with).
Luck has spent most of his life traveling against the grain of society’s intolerance–from a misunderstood kid living with his grandparents, to a determined and proud transgender man working hard to end the ritual persecution of his fellow person.
Growing up in North Carolina in a conservative Baptist household, Luck remembers being called a “tomboy” and being told “not to act like a boy” as young as 3 years old. Luck attended and was eventually kicked out of a Christian high school for identifying as a “lesbian” (this was before he identified as transender). Luck says he’s been working steadily since he was 13, when his first job was at a Chick-fil-A.
In college, Luck had a psychology professor who taught that homosexuality was a disorder.
“I remember sitting in the class waiting for someone to say something, because I didn’t want to say anything,” Luck says.
After going to the head of the psych department, and then the head of the school, Luck managed to get the homophobic lesson pulled from the syllabus.
“That was a time in my life where I realized if I didn’t say something, no one would. And so I had to. That’s when my activism really started,” Luck says.
Coming to Boston for grad school, Luck found his new home to be much less critical of his outward gender appearance, and found true love in his partner. Luck says Waggoner accepted and supported his transition every step of the way—from coming out (a second time) as transgender, to life-affirming surgeries and ongoing treatments, to his sweeping romantic proposal involving a trip to New York City, a rare Harry Potter book, and a cleverly INSERT IGNORE ed engagement ring.
Luck and Waggoner hope to expand upon all the ground they’ve covered in North Carolina and take their Safe Bathrooms map to national and international levels.
Luck says he wants to ultimately see the whole state of North Carolina become “a giant roll of toilet paper.”
“We’d [also] love for it to grow to be an international thing, especially given all the anti-LGBT sentiments in other countries. Because we’re everywhere. And everybody needs to have that access,” he says.
The two do have an app in the works to accompany their Safe Bathrooms map, which they hope to give a Yelp-like interface to allow community members to find safe bathrooms on the go, and review and share their own individual bathroom experiences.
All of this work points to a very simple goal: to make it so transgender people don’t have to endure daily humiliation exercises to find a toilet that comes with no strings attached.
“The bottom line is … I’m a human being who happens to be trans. But before I would label myself trans, I would say I’m an activist, an actor, a student, an artist, a musician, a good partner, a good relative … All these other qualities that define me that have so much more weight,” says Luck.
To show support for the transgender community and be included on the Safe Bathrooms map, visit SafeBathrooms.club.