There are many things that cisgender adults have the luxury of taking for granted that transgender persons cannot afford to do. One of those is using the restroom. For many transgender individuals, something as routine as going pee means a choice between two uncomfortable–even dangerous–alternatives.
“Many trans folk face the choice of being yelled at in one bathroom or physically assaulted in the other, so there is a lot of fear,” says Teagan Widmer, the founder of Refuge Restrooms, an application for transgender individuals.
“I know trans people who routinely ‘hold it’ when they are out just to avoid the bathroom. Holding it on a regular basis can increase the chance of UTI’s, so its a major issue.”
Teagan is a graduate of Pacific Union College, the daughter of an Adventist pastor, and a trans woman. Just over a week ago, Teagan launched an iOS application designed to take some of the anxiety out of taking a trip to the restroom.
The Refuge Restrooms app, based on a website she created in February 2014, provides an overlay on Google Maps of restrooms deemed safe for transgender, intersex, and gender nonconforming individuals–segments of society that face widespread discrimination and alarmingly high suicide rates.
When she graduated from PUC’s English Department in 2010, coding and app-making was not on Teagan’s radar.
“I was the first graduate of the English BA, Theatre Emphasis program. After that I went to Virginia Commonwealth University for a MFA in Theatre Pedagogy.”
She wanted to teach Theatre Arts at an Adventist college, but that goal never panned out.
“I had an interview at PUC. Didn’t get the offer. I couldn’t seem to find any job teaching. This was in 2012, when the job market was really tough.”
Teagan transitioned in 2012, and says she knew at that point that she would probably never work in Adventism (though she is still open to the idea, she says). So she refocused on programming. Teagan taught herself Ruby, a computer programming language, and that opened new doors.
“My job title is Software Engineer at FutureAdvisor, a finance tech startup. We help people analyze their investment accounts and prepare for retirement.”
“Refuge happened because I needed a project to teach myself how to program,” she says.
The project grew out of a similar application that went defunct.
“At first i was going to learn iOS, and build the iOS app myself, but I discovered that the API (application program interface) I had planned on using from a website called Safe2Pee was completely dead. The database was offline, and there was no way to access it. Suddenly the project was much bigger. I needed to start from scratch and rebuild the website and database and create a series of APIs that a phone client could interact with.”
Teagan used Safe2Pee early in her male to female transition. “It was a lifesaver for me, and the fact that the resource was gone was really terrible!”
Teagan hopes the Refuge app will provide a safe haven for trans people on the internet. She has plans to expand the website to encompass emergency housing for trans individuals.
“Homelessness is one of the other biggest issues. When I was unemployed, luckily I had parents who cared about me a lot even through my transition. I was able to move in with them until I was able to secure a minimum wage job and move out on my own, but for many people they are not that lucky.”
Teagan says she knows many homeless persons living on the streets, couch surfing, in and out of shelters. Some engaging in survival sex work to be able to not live on the streets, she says. “So hopefully refuge can expand and include couchsurfing as part of what we can map.”
The iOS app is easy to use, but reveals a glaring need. After downloading the app on my iPhone, I immediately began looking for safe restrooms in my area. I found a small handful in Riverside, California, but none at all marked in nearby Loma Linda. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any safe restrooms in that town, but none have been designated.
The app relies on users to help identify and designate safe restrooms. The app is worldwide, and its database is especially robust in larger U.S. cities–San Francisco, Las Vegas, Portland, OR, Washington, DC, and New York City.
“We do have an Android application planned,” Teagan says. “It’s in development. If folks know Java, we would love the help.”
The Android project’s github repository is at https://github.com/RefugeRestrooms/refugerestrooms-android.
Until the Android app drops, the safe restrooms database is always accessible on the web: http://www.refugerestrooms.org.
Jared Wright is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.