Austin Davis: Charin Davenport, Planet Fitness and the fight over the right to pee

By Austin Davis, Columnist
Published March 15, 2015

Charin Davenport, a transgender activist and professor at both Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University, has been extremely vocal regarding recent events at a Midland Planet Fitness, where last week, gym patron Yvette Cormier’s membership was revoked after she continuously hassled other gym patrons and management about a transgender woman using the women’s locker room. The story has since garnered national attention, having been picked up by both Fox News and MSNBC.

Davenport, a veteran and former journalist, gave her take on the story, and told attendees her personal experiences as a transgender woman at a student-run event last Friday at East Quad. In her opening statements, Davenport described the event in Midland as “one of those before and after moments” of transgender history that should be of great importance to those identifying as transgender and their advocates.

In light of recently introduced legislation in Texas, Florida and Kentucky that, if passed, would effectively entrust cisgender citizens to police gendered bathrooms, incentivizing surveillance in some instances with a $2,000 bounty, Davenport may indeed be right. The happenings at Planet Fitness have since become a vignette in discussions surrounding the legitimacy of whistleblowing transgender citizens and their bathroom use.

Davenport views the introduction of what she call “Bathroom Bounty Bills” as completely unnecessary. She believes a transgender person should be able to use bathrooms, locker rooms or any other facility that is congruent with their gender identity.

“It seems inconceivable to me that people feel the need to legislate what others can do based on whether they have penises or vaginas,” Davenport lamented. “If I have to take a pee, for some reason many of our elected leaders feel the need to decide how and where I do it.”

Davenport segued seamlessly between “Bounty Bills” and an explanation of her personal journey in coming to terms with her female identity, a story underscored by tenets of the transphobic society of the mid-20th century in which she came of age.

Growing up in the Saginaw area, Davenport felt stifled by the sentiments of both her direct environment and those expressed in the media; she took these as signals to “shut up” and lead a cisgender life.

“I was afraid to talk to anybody about it,” she disclosed to me after the event. “I felt like my body was right, but that I was wrong.”

So she attempted to hyper-masculinize herself; she engaged in drug use and partook in any dare that came her way, even joining the military after high school in hopes that the experience would “toughen her up.” It wasn’t until after two failed marriages and three children that Davenport began her transition.

In lieu of leading a quiet life as a transgender woman, Davenport became an outspoken representative for the transgender community, specifically regarding the rights of transgender veterans. However, she considers her work in advocating for 2014 nondiscrimination legislation for LGBTQ employees in Bay County to be her entrance to the political theater.

According to Davenport, her one of her biggest challenges since her debut has been trying to work with Rep. Gary Glenn, (R–Larkin Township), who co-authored Michigan’s controversial Marriage Protection Amendment. The amendment’s disputed legality in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is at the center of current U.S. Supreme Court proceedings on same-sex marriage.

Glenn has also been outspoken about the Planet Fitness event.

“Planet Fitness obviously should rethink its anti-woman, anti-reality policy,” Glenn was reported to have said in an MLive article. “If they don't, they shouldn’t be surprised in a conservative family-friendly community such as Midland if they lose more female members.”

“Sometimes it feels like his number one cause in life seems to be to keep me out (of the bathroom),” Davenport said last Friday in response to Glenn’s comments, “I’m not sure he understands what he’s talking about because I don’t get the sense that he understands what those of us in the trans community are talking about.”

I’d agree with Davenport on that one.

It’s a strange world we live in when white, conservative men feel that they can express obstinacy to humanist acts under the guise of accusing others of discrimination. In my opinion, if anyone should be accused of being “anti-woman” and “anti-reality,” it should be Cormier — after all, it was she who, over a four-day period, sought to embarrass, vilify and further marginalize a fellow woman.

Despite this obvious paradox, many have rushed to Cormier’s defense. On a Fox News segment titled “Legal Insanity,” Elisabeth Hasselbeck took a haphazard approach to analyzing the event from a legal standpoint. One of the segment’s contributors, Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist and author, made the following claim:

“They’re not settled on the fact that when somebody … declares, ‘I am of this gender,’ but they are anatomically and genetically of another gender, people who see that individual have strong feelings, like, ‘Look, I’m being viewed potentially while unclothed.’”

He’s got a point: ignorance sometimes goes unconsidered when attempting to legislate in ways accepting and fair to those with marginalized identities. However, it seems that those views are, at the very least, allotted a bully pulpit on cable television. I experience “strong feelings” of nausea with regard to the latter, but I stomach it all the same. Opponents of inclusionary tactics should have to follow suit.

I wouldn’t expect those deaf to the plights of subjugated groups to change their views. However, what I would expect is, at the very least, a certain level of respect for another citizen’s right to conduct themself in a manner in which they believe they will feel healthy and safe. If a transgender individual has the courage to express themselves in the face of predetermined societal norms in a way in which they feel is congruent with their identity, that’s their right. Bodily integrity and one’s right to privacy are civil liberties which shouldn’t by any means be abridged, regardless of the “strong feelings” one has to a certain means of expression. Even conservative lawmakers — self-proclaimed warriors of the U.S. Constitution — should understand that.

Austin Davis can be reached at austchan@umich.edu.