Brown: They just want to go to the bathroom

SHARE Brown: They just want to go to the bathroom

Monica James (left) and Tanvi Sheth work with the Transformative Justice Law Project, which provides free legal services to transgender individuals. Photo by Mark Brown/Sun-Times

Follow @MarkBrownCSTDonald Trump believes Americans aren’t ready to allow transgender people to decide for themselves which bathroom they should use.

Sad as that is, maybe they’re not ready.

Let’s do something about it.

Meet Tanvi Sheth and Monica James.

Sheth is a 30-year-old transgender man. James is a 45-year-old transgender woman.

If everyone could just see them as the people they are instead of the threats they fear them to be, we could get this bathroom business behind us and move on to the serious issues facing the transgender community.

Neither Sheth nor James are looking for attention or for special treatment. When they go to the bathroom, they’re not trying to make a political statement or get a sneak peek.


Follow @MarkBrownCSTThey use the bathroom for the same reason the rest of us do. All they want is for a society that has long tried to ignore their existence to accept them as they are.

I met them Thursday at a Hate Crimes Summit hosted by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan where each made impressive presentations about the discrimination transgender people face.

Rather than the predators they are so often made out to be, they are much more likely to become victims of those who feel threatened by their non-conformity.

We sat down again together Friday at the Daley Center, where Sheth was working as a lawyer on behalf of the Transformative Justice Law Project, which provides free legal services to transgender people. James also works with the group as an organizer and advocate.

On the last Friday of each month, members of the organization help transgender individuals start the legal process of changing their names. Not surprisingly, there’s been a run on their services since Trump’s election.

A name change can be an important hurdle to clear when changing gender identity.

It’s difficult for transgender people to get hired when the name and appearance at a job interview don’t match the identification, Sheth said.

Sheth said he was born a girl in India and raised by a single mom after his parents were divorced when he was 1.

His mother, an educator, was accepting of his tomboyish ways as a child.

He said he was about 8 when he told her that when he got older he would go to Thailand to become a man.

“My mom, she hugged me, she smiled, and that was that,” he said.

But not quite. His mom died when he was 17, and he immigrated to the U.S. the following year to live with his father’s family, not yet having come out as transgender.

That led to a painful period in which he first tried to conform as a woman, then tried indirectly to get his family to accept him while working his way through DePaul then John Marshall Law School.

When he did finally make his transition at age 28, he was gratified to find his father was supportive.

James never had that luxury.

She said she was 5 when she first remembers being uncomfortable when told at school to get in the boys’ line and 12 when she realized she was attracted to boys.

James’ abusive parents moved to Mississippi when she was in high school. She stayed behind, moved in with an aunt and began secretly living what she called a “gay boy lifestyle.”

For her senior year, she came to school on the first day dressed as a girl and was immediately expelled. Then her aunt kicked her out, too.

“That was the beginning of the underground world for me,” James said, meaning sex work, petty crimes, finally prison.

She turned the corner 10 years ago after learning to accept herself and now studies to be a paralegal while advocating for transgender rights.

It takes courage to go public as being transgender in a world looking for someone to hate.

Tweets by @MarkBrownCST

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