Florida’s Anti-Trans Bathroom Law Spurs Harrowing Vigilante Attacks (2024)



A new law in Florida aimed at trans people accessing bathroom facilities owned by the state government is reportedly encouraging vigilantes to patrol private businesses too.

Florida’s Anti-Trans Bathroom Law Spurs Harrowing Vigilante Attacks (3)

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

Rajee Narinesingh was dining at a Florida restaurant with friends in October when a woman stopped her in the women’s bathroom and told her to leave.

“You don’t belong in this bathroom,” she said. “You need to get out.” Narinesingh told The Daily Beast that the other diner looked at her like she was the “scum of the earth.” “If looks could kill, I’d be 18 feet under the ground,” she said.

The two of them were alone in the bathroom, and Narinesingh feared the worst might happen—especially having transitioned during the 1980s, an even less tolerant time than today. Right before she started taking her first steps into womanhood, she was pulled off a city bus in Philadelphia at 18 years old and beaten by six men who brutalized her as bystanders watched.

The next time Narinesingh was attacked, she was at a gas station in Miami, where she had to fight for her life to get away from her assailants. Her eyes were blackened in the assault, she says, and her face left completely swollen. When she got home, she poured a bucket of ice into a towel as she prayed that nothing like this would ever happen to her again.

    During the time of the most recent confrontation, Narinesingh had already used the toilet. She just needed to wash up and walk out the door before things got out of control. She gathered the bravery to offer a flip response to the woman’s provocation, telling her, “I certainly don’t belong in the men’s room,” but the fact of the matter is that she was absolutely terrified. Narinesingh could feel the panic coursing through her veins: palms sweaty, breath heavy, and the anxiety like a knife through the stomach.

    “When you have traumatic things happen to you and the chance that it can happen again, that fear is real, and it's palpable,” she said. “After years and years of struggling and horrific things happening, dealing with discrimination and injustice over and over again, it builds up. People say you have your luggage to carry with you.”

    Incidents like these are becoming more common in the wake of Florida’s anti-trans bathroom law, the strictest restrictions on trans public restroom use ever to be enacted in the United States.

    Signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in May 2023, the “Safety in Private Spaces Act,” more commonly known as HB 1521, prohibits trans people from using the bathroom or locker room that most closely aligns with their identities when accessing facilities owned by the state government. This would include state colleges, state prisons, airports, beaches, city parks, and public schools. In October, the Florida Board of Education voted to expand the rule to private colleges.

    Although nine other states currently have bathroom bans on the books, Florida’s is the only one that levies criminal penalties for violating it. Contravening HB 1521 could result in a misdemeanor trespassing offense, which carries a maximum sentence of a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

    While HB 1521 does not apply to private businesses like bars, cafés, grocery stores, restaurants, and shopping malls, one of the law’s many insufficiencies is that the average Floridian doesn’t actually know what it does.

    According to sources who spoke with The Daily Beast, that lack of information has resulted in vigilante behavior, in which civilians attempt to enforce the statute in venues where it does not actually apply. They say they have been stopped and questioned while using the locker room at the gym and the bathroom at the gas station, among other places. The double whammy of the harm the law already does—and then how broadly it’s being used to target an already vulnerable population—has made it difficult for trans Floridians to participate in the outside world or go about their day just like everyone else.

    This is how these bills seep into society. Transgender people are being demonized and challenged in just trying to carry out our everyday lives.

    Gina Duncan

    Gina Duncan, strategic partnerships manager for Equality Florida, says that the “general public is misinterpreting these bills,” resulting in increased reports of harassment to the statewide LGBTQ+ advocacy group. A trans woman in central Florida, for instance, recently contacted her after she was prevented from using the restroom at a local cinema. Duncan says that the woman reported that a male customer had appointed himself the bathroom monitor, and was “challenging anyone, who in his opinion, appeared to be transgender.”

    Even before HB 1521 was signed, Duncan says that something similar happened to her during a leisurely jog. When she paused to use an outdoor restroom facility, a man tried to keep her from going inside while his wife was present. “I think you’re in the wrong place, sir,” he told Duncan. Undeterred, she responded, “I don’t think I am. I’m going to use the restroom. I would ask that you step out of my way.”

    “This is how these bills seep into society,” Duncan says. “Transgender people are being demonized and challenged in just trying to carry out our everyday lives.”

    ‘It’s traumatizing’

    For this story, The Daily Beast spoke to seven sources who report increased harassment and scrutiny following the passage of Florida’s HB 1521, often in spaces where it doesn’t apply. Many of those who say they were targeted under the law aren’t even trans.

    While Kat Phoenix, a cisgender woman, was escorting her autistic son to a rest stop bathroom in September 2023, a woman tried to block her as they walked in, forcing her to push past.

    Jude Speegle is transgender, but his cisgender partner was threatened while using the men’s restroom at a gas station last June, weeks after the law was signed. Speegle says his husband is outwardly androgynous—skinny with pink hair and a high-pitched voice—and people commonly mistake him for being trans.

    In the wake of the law, Speegle says that he has ceased using public bathrooms altogether, unless he has no other choice. “I even get worried about going to the library because technically I’m supposed to use the women’s bathroom,” he says. “In our area, my husband is the one that witnesses the most harassment because of his appearance. I stay home most of the time. I have young children, so I don’t want to get in trouble or get arrested. I don’t want my husband to get in trouble.”

    Trans Floridians say the persecution they have experienced in the wake of HB 1521 has changed their relationship to public space, making them more fearful to be themselves around strangers.

    While Cielo Sunsarae was using the women’s sauna at their gym in November 2023, another customer approached them and demanded to know whether they were a woman or a man. “I’m in the right locker room,” Sunsarae kept repeating to her in response.

    Unsure where this was leading, they began recording a voice memo on their phone to protect themself and started to shake uncontrollably, quickly going into survival mode. A maintenance worker and a gym employee came to survey the situation after the woman complained to staff, although they ultimately declined to intervene, as Sunsarae posed no threat to anyone.

    The next time they went to the gym, Sunsarae had a panic attack in the locker room, breaking down as their mind flashed back to the incident. To this day, they say the gym has never formally apologized, even after their partner reached out to the CEO personally to report what happened. They still aren’t sure what locker room is safest to use, which is one of the ironies of HB 1521: As a nonbinary, transmasculine person, don’t opponents of trans rights want them to use the women’s locker room?

    “It affected me a lot, much more than I’d like to admit,” they said. “You never really know how you’re going to act until a situation arises like that, and I would have liked to think that I would have known myself better. It was a learning moment for me.”

    It’s traumatizing. It feels like an active denial of myself. It feels like I am letting them win, but there is no winning. It’s just an effort to force us out of society.

    Lex Damm-Loring

    With HB 1521 in place, sources say there’s no way to evade public surveillance as a trans person in Florida: No matter which bathroom one uses, the threat of being harassed—or worse—still lingers in the air.

    While attending a staging of The Nutcracker at a nearby college in December 2023, Lex Damm-Loring, who is a transgender woman, chose to follow the law by using the men’s restroom. (As a university owned and operated by the state, HB 1521 does apply on its campus.) But as Damm-Loring was washing her hands, a little boy entered the restroom with his father and asked, “Daddy, why is there a mommy in here?” It was the exact conversation, she notes, that right-wing politicians say they are trying to prevent.

    Damm-Loring says that she doesn’t want to have that discussion either, particularly with someone who may harm her if they don’t like the answer. She has been trying to avoid it so stridently that she dehydrates herself to ensure that she doesn’t have to use a public restroom when she goes out. She has stopped wearing makeup unless she’s at home and dresses more androgynously, in an attempt to slip under the radar.

    “It’s traumatizing,” she said. “It feels like an active denial of myself. It feels like I am letting them win, but there is no winning. It’s just an effort to force us out of society.”

    Basic human thing

    Trans Floridians are doing anything they can to stay safe under HB 1521, whether it means going to the restroom in groups or avoiding facilities that are poorly lit and located in out-of-the-way places. Found Family Collective, an organization based in the Tampa Bay area, offers self-defense classes for members of the LGBTQ+ community. Pink Pistols, which trains LGBTQ+ people in responsibly using firearms for their own protection, operates chapters in both Tampa and Ocala.

    But many of the interviewees who spoke for this story say that they have stopped going out in public altogether, whether it’s to use the restroom or do virtually anything else.

    Elliott King says he has become more cautious about taking up public space after he was confronted in the men’s bathroom while getting his oil changed in January. After a stranger interrogated him about his gender, King responded that he is a man. The individual stared at him for another 30 seconds before replying, “You don't look like it.” King left the restroom before the scene escalated, calling his boyfriend to calm him down as he physically convulsed, afraid that the man could come back and find him at any moment.

    Although the incident did not ultimately result in a violent altercation, King worries that the next time, he won’t be as fortunate. He hopes to leave Florida altogether, but he can’t move until his partner finishes college. “It only takes one person to beat the sh*t out of you,” he says. “I was very nervous of it becoming physical because I’m 5-foot-6 and not muscular. I’m no threat, and I know that.”

    A person shouldn’t have to think twice about having to go to the bathroom.

    Rajee Narinesingh

    Narinesingh, a longtime trans advocate, says the current morass in which trans people find themselves reminds her of the way things used to be, prior to the LGBTQ+ equality movement’s recent gains. She recalls that, many years ago, she was pulled into the office of a supervisor at a new job after he learned of her gender identity. “I don’t know what sort of agenda you have in coming to work at our company,” he informed her, “but if it’s for a political statement, that will not be tolerated.” Narinesingh responded that she applied there for the same reason everyone else did—to support herself—but the assurance made little difference: The company refused to allow her to use the women’s restroom in the building, fearing her presence would be “offensive.”

    For the better part of three years, Narinesingh was forced to walk to the other side of the office, which spanned the length of a football field, anytime she wanted to go to the bathroom. Her bosses, she says, docked her pay to account for lost productivity. While Narinesingh asserts that she has seen tremendous progress in the years since she was forced to endure that mistreatment, she worries that laws like HB 1521 are pulling society backward. A few weeks ago, she peed in a bottle in her car rather than using a public restroom, afraid of another unwanted confrontation.

    “It’s just a basic human thing,” she says. “A person shouldn’t have to think twice about having to go to the bathroom. Sometimes I’ll be here at home and I’ll have this moment where I say to myself, ‘God, Rajee, you’re still here. You’ve survived.’ I don’t even know how I’ve made it through half of the stuff that I’ve been through.”

    Florida’s Anti-Trans Bathroom Law Spurs Harrowing Vigilante Attacks (2024)
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