The Bathroom Problem (or Exposing the “Phobia” in Transphobia)
One of the common refrains of fear (or hate) expressed by those opposed to transgender rights is often referred to as the “bathroom problem”. You’ll often hear opponents of transgender equality talk about their fear of a “man in a dress” (the example almost always seems to be a man in a dress) going into a women’s bathroom to watch women or engage in other more nefarious activities (like rape). Sometimes, this fear is taken to even greater lengths when the suggestion is made that pedophiles might use transgender bathroom access as a means to assault young girls (or boys, though that fear is expressed far less frequently) in bathrooms. Plus, the total lack of understanding of what it means to be transgender is demonstrated when opponents of transgender equality make comments suggesting that a person might just wake up one day and “decide to be a woman” in order to use the women’s bathroom. All of this is wrong. All of it is offensive. All of it is stupid. All of this is based on fear or loathing of those who are different. All of this puts transgender individuals in an untenable position and often endangers their safety.
And it is the “bathroom problem” that is being used to deprive transgender individuals from equality in employment, housing, and other aspects of day-to-day life.
I want to work through some of the elements of the “bathroom problem” but before doing so, I want to ask readers a question. Be honest: Do you know a transgender individual? Have ever shared a meal with a transgender individual or taken the time to get to know that individual as a person? Because I think that one of the most important things that we can and must do when it comes to thinking about policies affecting members of certain minority communities (or, in fact, any community other than that of which we are a part or with which we are familiar) is to make sure that we understand the issues and concerns faced by those communities and put faces and personalities to the members of those communities. It’s easy to advocate for or make policy that may harm strangers, especially when, so far as you know, those strangers reside only outside of your little neck of the woods. It is easy to pass a law that will apply to your stereotyped version of a misunderstood or disfavored minority community with which you have no real familiarity, sympathy, or empathy. But it is much more difficult to make a policy that may have an adverse impact on someone with whom you’ve had an opportunity to share your respective hopes and dreams and who is more than a cardboard stock character instead of a real flesh and blood individual with a family and emotions much like yours.
I think those who have never met and talked to a transgender individual would be most surprised to learn, were they to take the time to actually meet and listen with an open mind (and, in a perfect world, an open heart), that most of these people knew when they were quite young that their understanding of “self” did not match their biological body. These are not people who suddenly woke upon one day and said to themselves, “today I feel like living as a man” or “I prefer wearing dresses, so I’m going to live as a woman”. That just isn’t how it happens in real life for the vast majority of transgender individuals. Add to that the stigma associated with being transgender, not to mention the fear of how family, friends, and co-workers may respond, and the constant threat of violence by those who view transgender individuals as “freaks” or a threat, and then ask yourself if you really think that someone is going to come out as transgender just to use a particular bathroom or to engage in voyeuristic activities. And given the incredible difficulties we all face during adolescence and puberty, with peer pressure and the pain that can come with just trying to find your own place in the world, do you really think that teenagers would come out as transgender just to have a chance to see naked girls?
So let’s try to break down some of the parts of the “bathroom issue” and think about them a bit more carefully.
To begin, it is probably appropriate to think about what we mean when discussing “gender identity”. First, here is how the American Psychological Association explains the difference between sex and gender:
Sex is assigned at birth, refers to one’s biological status as either male or female, and is associated primarily with physical attributes such as chromosomes, hormone prevalence, and external and internal anatomy. Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for boys and men or girls and women. These influence the ways that people act, interact, and feel about themselves. While aspects of biological sex are similar across different cultures, aspects of gender may differ.
And here is how the American Psychological Association describes categories of transgender individuals (note that other definitions, especially from transgender advocacy groups, may be even more precise or use more currently accepted terminology):
Many identities fall under the transgender umbrella. The term transsexual refers to people whose gender identity is different from their assigned sex. Often, transsexual people alter or wish to alter their bodies through hormones, surgery, and other means to make their bodies as congruent as possible with their gender identities. This process of transition through medical intervention is often referred to as sex or gender reassignment, but more recently is also referred to as gender affirmation. People who were assigned female, but identify and live as male and alter or wish to alter their bodies through medical intervention to more closely resemble their gender identity are known as transsexual men or transmen (also known as female-to-male or FTM). Conversely, people who were assigned male, but identify and live as female and alter or wish to alter their bodies through medical intervention to more closely resemble their gender identity are known as transsexual women or transwomen (also known as male-to-female or MTF). Some individuals who transition from one gender to another prefer to be referred to as a man or a woman, rather than as transgender.
People who cross-dress wear clothing that is traditionally or stereotypically worn by another gender in their culture. They vary in how completely they cross-dress, from one article of clothing to fully cross-dressing. Those who cross-dress are usually comfortable with their assigned sex and do not wish to change it. Cross-dressing is a form of gender expression and is not necessarily tied to erotic activity. Cross-dressing is not indicative of sexual orientation. (See Answers to Your Questions: For a Better Understanding of Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality for more information on sexual orientation.) The degree of societal acceptance for cross-dressing varies for males and females. In some cultures, one gender may be given more latitude than another for wearing clothing associated with a different gender.
The term drag queens generally refers to men who dress as women for the purpose of entertaining others at bars, clubs, or other events. The term drag kings refers to women who dress as men for the purpose of entertaining others at bars, clubs, or other events.
Genderqueer is a term that some people use who identify their gender as falling outside the binary constructs of “male” and “female.” They may define their gender as falling somewhere on a continuum between male and female, or they may define it as wholly different from these terms. They may also request that pronouns be used to refer to them that are neither masculine nor feminine, such as “zie” instead of “he” or “she,” or “hir” instead of “his” or “her.” Some genderqueer people do not identify as transgender.
Other categories of transgender people include androgynous, multigendered, gender nonconforming, third gender, and two-spirit people. Exact definitions of these terms vary from person to person and may change over time, but often include a sense of blending or alternating genders. Some people who use these terms to describe themselves see traditional, binary concepts of gender as restrictive.
Finally, here is the American Psychological Association’s explanation of the relationship between gender identity and sexual orientation:
Gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same. Sexual orientation refers to an individual’s enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to another person, whereas gender identity refers to one’s internal sense of being male, female, or something else. Transgender people may be straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or asexual, just as nontransgender people can be. Some recent research has shown that a change or a new exploration period in partner attraction may occur during the process of transition. However, transgender people usually remain as attached to loved ones after transition as they were before transition. Transgender people usually label their sexual orientation using their gender as a reference. For example, a transgender woman, or a person who is assigned male at birth and transitions to female, who is attracted to other women would be identified as a lesbian or gay woman. Likewise, a transgender man, or a person who is assigned female at birth and transitions to male, who is attracted to other men would be identified as a gay man.
And, just in case that wasn’t confusing enough, there is one more category to consider: Intersex.
“Intersex” is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types — for example, a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia. Or a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of her cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY.
Though we speak of intersex as an inborn condition, intersex anatomy doesn’t always show up at birth. Sometimes a person isn’t found to have intersex anatomy until she or he reaches the age of puberty, or finds himself an infertile adult, or dies of old age and is autopsied. Some people live and die with intersex anatomy without anyone (including themselves) ever knowing.
Thus, as we proceed through this discussion, don’t forget to think about intersex individuals who are most often left out of the discussion surrounding transgender issues in general and the “bathroom problem” in particular.
Thus, we finally come to the issue at hand: The “bathroom problem”.
Transgender individuals, like the rest of us, sometimes need to use public bathrooms or the bathrooms in businesses or government offices. The question becomes, which bathroom a transgender individual should use. This might not be an issue at all if not for the concern expressed by some that they are made uncomfortable by a transgender person in the bathroom with them or the fear expressed by some that people might use bathroom access as a means by which to engage in voyeurism or sexual assault. So recently (in particular following the Supreme Court’s decision in the gay marriage case), numerous states have considered and/or passed legislation codifying which bathroom individuals may use. In most cases, those laws require people to use the bathroom that matches their genitalia or the gender identified on their birth certificate. It is worth noting that some states have considered but refused to pass similar legislation and or had a governor veto the such legislation (in South Dakota, the Governor vetoed the legislation after taking the time to meet, for the first time, some transgender individuals, who helped him “see things through their eyes … and see more of their perspective”). And some states and municipalities have adopted protections for transgender individuals, including in some cases, permitting the individual to use the bathroom applicable to that person’s gender identity. Of course, you also have states like North Carolina that called a special session of the legislature to pass, in a single day, a law written primarily to overturn Charlotte’s municipal nondiscrimination ordinance that included protections for transgender individuals.
Now, I certainly understand that a woman might be unnerved by a man walking into the bathroom and “checking her out”. But do you really think that a heterosexual man with the primary purpose of “checking out” women (or sexually assaulting them) is going to go to the trouble of identifying as a woman (“wearing a dress” to use the parlance of those who are so concerned about which bathroom a transgender women should use) just to get access to the women’s bathroom? Really? I mean nothing says “heterosexual man” like wearing a dress, right? But think about this for a minute: What is to stop a lesbian from going into that women’s bathroom and checking out (or assaulting) the other women? Or a gay man from going into the men’s room and standing at the urinal checking out the guys to the left and right? I don’t hear fear and angst being expressed about those much more likely scenarios. Nope. Only the “man in a dress” seems to trigger the sort of fear that we’re talking about.
One of the dangerous elements of the concern over bathroom use by transgender women (and again, to be clear, a transgender woman is a person who was born a biological male but who either identifies as or has transitioned to living as a woman) is that it presumes that transgender women are, in fact, sexual predators with their aim set on women and girls, thus lumping all transgender individuals into the class of predators and pedophiles. (It also seems to presume that transgender women are all lesbians [or were all heterosexual men], even though most people tend to confuse gender identity with sexual orientation and presume that all transgender individuals are homosexual.) That sort of broad stereotyping into a class of wrongdoers is just as unfair as it would be to presume that all high school athletic coaches or Catholic priests are pedophiles, all Germans are Nazis, all Muslims are terrorists, all Jews are greedy and bent on world domination, or all conservative Republicans are … whoops. I won’t go there. But the point remains that lumping all transgender individuals (or even just transgender women) into a class that presumes that they are sexual predators is both insultingly unfair and just the sort of dangerous stereotyping of minorities that our promise of equal protection is designed to prevent.
When we talk about a person being transgender, we’re not talking about a simple decision to wear a dress (that would simply be cross-dressing which as noted above is different); rather, the decision to accept a gender identity means living with that identity all the time, not just when it’s convenient in order to act as a voyeur. A transgender individual doesn’t just dress as the gender with which they identify; rather, they live in accordance with many of societal norms associated with that gender, including — in addition to dress — name, hair, grooming, and so forth. So, going back to that oft-mentioned “man in a dress,” just how likely is it that “he” will also grow his nails and paint them, wear makeup, grow his hair long and wear it in a style usually associated with females, use a female name (and female pronouns to refer to “himself,” often going through the formal process of a name change), just to leer at women in a bathroom? Seems like a lot of work, especially with the amount of porn available on the internet, not to mention the downside of being ostracized by friends, family, co-workers, or classmates.
It is also worth noting that the sort of crimes that are the core of the “fear” of allowing transgender individuals to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity simply don’t occur. The myth of transgender predators in the bathroom has been repeatedly debunked:
Over the 35 year history of NDOs [non-discrimination ordinances] protecting transgender people all over the world, only one case of a person abusing an NDO and committing sexual assault (in Canada) has ever been found, even by those most interested in demonizing transgender people.
Think about that for a moment.
Every NDO, every person, every bathroom, every day, every trip to the loo, for 35 years, and it's happened once in the entire world.
For sake of context, the FBI reports that over 84,000 rapes were reported in 2014 alone, none of which exploited gender identity inclusive NDOs to commit sexual assault. To put the relative risk of people misusing NDOs in perspective another way statistically, five Americans have been shot by dogs in the past five years. Similarly, 450 people per year in the US are killed by falling out of bed.
The demonization of transgender people has consequences as well. When visibly transgender people are constantly regarded as sexual predators and deviants, it increases the risk of suicide attempts. It also invites violence against transgender people, like the savage beating of Missy Polis in 2011 as she left a women's bathroom at McDonalds. 2015 has also seen anti-transgender violence dramatically increase to record levels.
For transgender students, the consequences of having nowhere safe to go can be life threating. A trans-masculine student in Michigan held it so long that he was hospitalized with a life threatening kidney infection after he was banned from using the boy's restroom, and bullied constantly for using the girls or staff facility. (Seriously, would you want to be the kid that the entire staff knows rendered their bathroom uninhabitable after taco Tuesday?) This isn't simply anecdotal: survey data on transgender students shows that most face bullying and harassment, and over 1/3rd report being physically assaulted.
Perhaps we need to look at some of these questions a bit differently. Perhaps some real world examples will help address these sorts of problems. It seems that the fear being expressed is that a person who looks like a man (the “man in a dress”) would go into the women’s bathroom and make the other women uncomfortable (I note that we don’t hear much worry about a person who looks like a woman putting on a suit and walking into the men’s bathroom…). So let’s think about how things will work in states that have passed laws that require people to use the bathroom that matches their biological gender (or the gender on their birth certificate).
So, tell me, ladies, how would you feel if this person walked into your bathroom as the law in some states would now require:
I don’t know, but perhaps women would like it if this biological woman were to walk into the women’s bathroom (I suppose it depends on your views on tattoos, right?):
Or what about Chaz Bono? Which bathroom should he use?
And what about the safety of these people going into the men’s bathroom:
While on the subject of safety for individuals, in which bathroom will these children find safety? (More on transgender children in a moment.)
Or this boy who was kicked out of a women’s bathroom in a McDonald’s:
Oh, wait. That was a mistake. She is a biological girl but people in the restaurant apparently thought she looked like a boy.
And here is a trick question for you. Below are identical twins. Which bathroom should they use?
I doubt most men would object to finding the woman below in their bathroom. Or would they? And what would happen if those men found out that she had something in her dress that might, indeed, make them … um … uncomfortable? I’m sure she would be perfectly safe, right?
Now look again at the photo of those little girls. I know that most of you will say “my child (or grandchild) would never be transgender.” Of course, that’s probably what the parents and grandparents of most transgender children told themselves, too. But if one of those little girls was your child or grandchild, which bathroom would you want her to use? Would you worry for her safety if she was required to use the boys’ bathroom and locker room? What sort of ridicule or risk of physical danger would she be subject to? Is that what you would want for your child or grandchild? Sure, it’s easy to harden your heart to some “freak” that you don’t know and don’t care about, but just how cold and uncaring would you really be if that were your child? Or, I suppose, you could rant and yell and scream about that child’s gender identity and argue that, instead of living as the girl she understands herself to be, he should live as a boy just because he was born with a penis. But ask yourself if you’re willing to wipe the smile off of that child’s face when you tell him to live as something and someone that he isn’t. Are you willing to force that child to live life in a state of denial and anxiety to meet your societal norm? And are you willing to put that child at much, much higher risk of severe depression and suicide because his understanding of his gender identity makes you uncomfortable? Really? If you still answer “yes” to those questions, then you’re simply an uncaring asshole who should probably stop reading this blog; instead, you might want to bury your head in your chosen holy scripture and see if you can glean the real intent of your chosen deity with regard to your treatment of others who might be different than you.
Let me also offer some potentially provocative observations and queries. As I’ve discussed, it seems that a principal motivating factor in the concerns that give rise to the “bathroom problem” is the fear about crimes being committed in bathrooms, in particular against children. Never mind that this concern lumps all transgender people into a category of criminal predators and never mind the complete lack of examples of the sort of assaults by transgender individuals that are at the core of the concern. Rather, ask yourself why these sorts of concerns over use of bathrooms have not also included those for whom there is past evidence of misdeeds, either against children or in bathrooms. In other words, ask yourself why we don’t have laws prohibiting use of public bathrooms by anyone who has been convicted of a sexual offense, especially an offense involving children. I mean, think about it, for a minute: People are arguing that a transgender woman should not be able to use a women’s bathroom because of a fear that she might just be pretending and might actually intend to do harm, yet a convicted pedophile who must register with local authorities and often cannot live in certain areas (such as near a school) can use a public bathroom as long as the bathroom matches the pedophile’s biological gender. Does that make any sense?
Moreover, if we’re going down the road of lumping all who are a part of a particular group into the “potential criminal” realm, then shouldn’t we do the same for groups that do, in fact, have members who have engaged in precisely the sort of criminal behavior with which we are concerned? You know who I’m talking about: Catholic priests (I apologize for the broad nature of this comment, but I hope that you’ll accept it as the hyperbolic rhetorical way in which it is intended). Some want to prohibit transgender men from using the men’s room but express no concern at all over the notion of those who are part of a clearly defined group that both includes and protects pedophiles using public bathrooms in which children may be present. Why the double standard?
And what about high school athletic coaches? It seems that almost every month we read about another coach who was preying upon student athletes, often of the same sex. Yet we don’t have laws to keep these predators (or the class to which they belong) from being in the bathroom or locker room. Why the distinction?
Or think about it this way: There have been more elected legislators convicted of committing sexual crimes in bathrooms (Jon Hinson, Larry Craig, and Bob Allen) than there have been convictions of transgender individuals for similar crimes. Seriously. Yet we don’t see laws trying to protect people from wayward legislators, do we? (And you’d think legislators would be satisfied fucking the American people figuratively, without needing to do it literally … and in the bathroom.)
I’ve previously discussed the way that the “bathroom problem” converts all transgender individuals into a class of predators (or, at least, potential predators). Yet these laws, and more importantly, those drafting, passing, signing, and supporting them, completely ignore the actual victimhood of and daily threats endemic to transgender individuals. In fact, compare the efforts to demonize and degrade transgender individuals on the basis of irrational fear with the dearth of efforts to actually protect transgender individuals from the harm that they do, in fact, suffer. Perhaps if we had laws that protected transgender individuals in employment and housing, people would begin to accept them as a part of our community and the stigma might begin to lessen.
If we define two classes of people, one being women in bathrooms and the other being transgender individuals, and then compare the frequency with which they are subject to violent assault, you would quickly see that transgender individuals are victims of violence by a far, far, far greater ratio than are women in bathrooms. Yet we don’t see legislators holding special sessions to try to draft and pass legislation to help protect transgender individuals who are the victims of real, documented violence; rather, we see legislators passing laws to protect people from imaginary harms that simply are not happening. But this really shouldn’t be too surprising. Republican legislatures have become masters at passing (or at least introducing) laws to prevent problems that don’t exist (and which have a negative impact on others): transphobic bathroom laws, voter ID laws, bills intended to address right-wing “boogeyman” conspiracy fears (Agenda 21, for example), all while failing to pass laws that might actually help address real problems: violence against transgender individuals, gun violence, global warming, disenfranchisement of eligible voters, and so forth. For example, when the Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized by Congress in 2012, all of the votes against reauthorization were cast by Republican men; all of the Democrats and all of the Republican women voted for reauthorization.
Republican legislators want to keep transgender women out of the women’s bathroom but don’t want to be sure that women are paid the same as men for doing the same work. Republican legislators are passing laws to stop transgender predators from assaulting women and children in bathrooms, even without any evidence whatsoever of transgender predators assaulting women and children in bathrooms, while doing nothing to stop predators from assaulting people with guns despite overwhelming evidence of people being assaulted with guns. Maybe gun control advocates need to start airing advertisements of scary hordes of transgender individuals (men in dresses, I presume) with guns … in bathrooms; maybe that would get the attention of legislators.
I think that conservative commentator S.E. Cupp (and I cannot believe that I’m agreeing with her…) was spot on in her observation about these so-called bathroom bills and the impetus behind them (emphasis added):
Is there an epidemic of trans agitators exploiting their adopted genders to invade women's restrooms and do untoward stuff to young girls? If so, I missed all the paranoia over non-trans men sneaking into women's bathrooms, and doing untoward stuff to young girls. What is to stop any man from walking into a public ladies' room in the first place? [¶] The arguments for such legislation are, in short, entirely fabricated, a cultural and political invention used to stoke public fear, pledge fealty to a cartoonish, far-right totem of morality, and stand athwart some imagined political correctness.
Don’t forget that the sort of sexual predation, voyeurism, or other criminal conduct at the heart of this wave of transphobia is already a crime, whether committed by a man or woman (trans- or otherwise) and no matter which bathroom. Similarly, individuals with bad intent (feel free to hum a few bars of Aqualung) haven’t avoided going into the woman’s bathroom because laws prohibited them from doing so, have they? I mean, do we really think that a sexual predator has abstained from acting on his impulses because he was afraid to go into a woman’s bathroom, but will feel emboldened by a law that permits transgender individuals from using a particular bathroom? He won’t be constrained by laws prohibiting rape or sexual assault but was constrained but now will be emboldened by bathroom access laws? Really?
But that is precisely how opponents of transgender bathroom access (or proponents of these new bathroom bills) really frame the issue. Take for example this advertisement created in response to the passage of an ordinance in Gainesville, Florida, that permitted transgender individuals to use the bathroom applicable to their gender identity:
Ask yourself whether the man seen entering the bathroom after the little girl is transgender … or if he is simply a sexual predator. And ask yourself what the Gainesville ordinance had to do with the situation depicted in the video. Ask yourself whether you really think that the predator shown in the video would have been deterred from his conduct were it not for the transgender equality ordinance. Finally, ask yourself whether the conduct that we are to presume that predator has in mind is already illegal.
A very similar advertisement was used in 2015 to successfully overturn the non-discrimination ordinance passed in Houston:
The frightening thing is the extent to which the very scenarios depicted in these videos are precisely what opponents of transgender equality envision when they seek to prohibit transgender access to bathrooms appropriate to their gender identity. Perhaps even more frightening, is how many people accept this scenario as some sort of truth of what will transpire (or is transpiring). This is the phobia in transphobia.
Most of the so-called “bathroom laws” that have been introduced or adopted have framed the question of who can use a particular bathroom on the basis of the person’s biological gender (sometimes based on birth, sometimes on a birth certificate, sometimes on then-current genitalia). Few, if any, of these laws have delved much more deeply into the issues presented by these bills. Thus, for example, wouldn’t a parent run afoul of the law by taking their opposite-sex child into a bathroom with them? What about someone who is providing aid to an elderly or disabled person? And even if we try to write those sorts of exceptions into the laws, what will be the requirements or age cutoffs? At what age can a boy no longer accompany his mother into the women’s room? Please take a few minutes to read this incredibly emotional essay by the mother of an autistic boy who would be directly and severely burdened by these sorts of bathroom laws. Then, take a few minutes to look at some pictures of puppies or kittens before coming back to continue with this post; hopefully an overload of cute will give you the strength to keep reading.
Another thing worth considering: Just how would a person know if the individual in the stall next to them was actually transgender? I don’t know about you, but when I go into a bathroom, I tend to pay attention to my own business and ignore those in the stalls next to me. One thing that I never do is ask others in the bathroom to drop their trousers so that I can do a genital inspection to be sure that they are in the right place; nor has anyone ever asked me to prove that I have the appropriate genitalia to be in the men’s room. So are we contemplating Potty Police™ who will be checking everyone entering the bathroom? Or will they simply be checking those who meet some kind of profile? Only women are aren’t … um .. feminine enough? Only effeminate men? Um, go back and look at the photos I posted above and tell me which of those people the Potty Police™ should examine.
Maybe I can invent a tool with a mirror on a stick that I can poke under the stall wall to help me check the person in the stall next to me to be sure that their genitalia is as expected. Wait, I know! We can require transgender individuals to wear a pink triangle on their clothing so we’ll know when one tries to use the wrong bathroom! That should solve everything! Or, at least if it won’t solve everything, it will help make clear that the real problem is bigotry toward and/or fear of those who are different.
And what sort of liability should we impose upon those who make a false assumption or false report about “improper” bathroom usage?
Perhaps transgender individuals who are forced to use the “wrong” bathroom should follow the example of Charlie, a transgender man from North Carolina who must now use the women’s bathroom. Charlie had business cards printed up (see image) explaining that he is a “transgender man who would rather be using the men’s room right now” and noting that the situation is “likely uncomfortable for both of us”. How would you feel if someone who appeared to be the opposite sex walked into your bathroom and handed you that card?
Oh, and what are we to do about individuals who are intersex? I bet you forgot about them… Which bathroom should they use? What do we tell a person who was born with female anatomy but who produces testosterone and looks like a man? Do we simply tell intersex individuals that they don’t conform to accepted societal expectations and that they should, therefore, isolate themselves on a remote island where nobody will care about their genitalia or where and how they urinate? I mean, how do we deal with intersex individuals without running afoul of laws written on the basis of birth certificates or genitalia?
I think that part of the problem is that far too few people understand the difference between cross-dressing and being transgender; there seems to be a misconception that all transgender biological males are drag queens. And, as a brief aside, as long as I’m on that topic, just why exactly are people uncomfortable with someone who feels better about themselves when wearing clothing most commonly associated with the opposite gender? For that matter, it really seems to only focus on men who choose to wear female attire. When a woman puts on her husband or boyfriend’s dress shirt, we think it’s cute or even sexy. Women commonly wear clothing generally associated with males, whether in the form of a suit with a tie or even as simple as pants (ask yourself why many religions forbid women from wearing pants). But if a man or boy puts on a skirt or dress, then obviously he must be some kind of freak who is a danger to society, right? Women can wear their hair long or short or even go bald and it is simply a stylistic choice. Only since the hippie movement of the ’60s can a man wear his hair long without opprobrium, but he better not style it or curl it or do much else with it, because that is a feminine grooming attribute, right? The same goes for fingernails. Women can have nails that are long or short, varnished or unvarnished. Nobody assumes that a woman who chooses to have short, unvarnished nails is some sort of freak that needs to be kept away from children. But can you imagine the outcry if a male school teacher were to come to class with long painted nails? Ok, ok. Off topic tangent over, but I hope that I’ve made the point: Being transgender is not the same as cross-dressing. A transgender woman in a dress is a woman in a dress, not a man in a dress. I think that is one of the sticking points that is simply too difficult for some people to wrap their brains around (or, perhaps, not too difficult, but too different from the accepted societal norms that some people cannot recognize may not apply to all people in all situations). Even a cursory review of many articles and comments written by those opposed to transgender equality, will show that the “man in a dress” is a near constant theme from which it is almost always possible to glean that the author refuses to understand or accept the very nature of a person being transgender.
It is probably also worth noting that there have been transgender individuals living in accordance with their gender identity for … well, for a long time. And those people have been using the bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity for a long time, too. I suspect that you’ve shared a public bathroom with a transgender individual at least once, if not more often, without even knowing it, let alone being sexually assaulted. Yet only recently has this reality become an issue. Ask yourself why? If there had been a number of high profile attacks by transgender individuals against women or children in bathrooms, I might understand the sudden hypersensitivity to the issue. But that simply hasn’t happened. In fact, as noted, there haven’t been any of these sorts of attacks in America to which those pushing these sorts of laws can point. None. Zero. Zilch. But, hey, transphobia!
So what is the real motivating factor for these laws, including the law in North Carolina for which a special session of the legislature was called in order to overrule Charlotte’s municipal ordinance that provided protections for transgender North Carolinians? I contend that the “losses” experienced by those opposed to LGBT equality (for example, the Supreme Court’s decision overturning “don’t ask don’t tell” followed by the decision in the same-sex marriage case, as well as the general rise in acceptability of homosexuality among the public) has forced homophobes (and transphobes) to redirect their ire, hence the passage of so-called religious freedom laws that condone discrimination on religious grounds or the new transgender bathroom bills. In other words, the culture wars rage on, just focusing on new targets. In fact, at least one state (Kansas) has considered a bill that would not only require transgender individuals to use the bathroom for the gender on their birth certificate, but which would also pay a “bounty” to individuals who were able to catch and report on transgender individuals using the “wrong” bathroom. Vulnerable transgender individuals, especially children and teens, need nothing more than to know that their co-workers or classmates might be following them, hoping to catch them in a “criminal act” in order to collect a reward.
Though the analogy is far from precise, it is also worth at least thinking about the comparison between the impact these bathroom laws have on transgender individuals and laws that, not too long ago, kept African Americans (or other people of color) out of bathrooms used by whites. Some of the same sort of fear mongering was used to condone those sorts of discriminatory laws, including the claim that white women would catch syphilis if they used the same toilets as black women. Seriously. I can’t help but think that there is a subset of our fellow citizens that just isn’t happy if they can’t point to a minority group against whom they can bring the power of the government to prevent equality and fairness from reaching. In previous decades it was African Americans, then it was gays and lesbians, now it is transgender individuals. Who knows which minority will be the next target?
And before saying something like, “why can’t transgender individuals just use a unisex bathroom,” remind yourself of the phrase at the heart of the school segregation movement: Separate but equal. To tell transgender individuals that they must use a special or “other” bathroom is to set them apart as being different. Moreover, doing so may “out” those transgender individuals to more people than might otherwise be aware that the individual is transgender, especially in an environment like a school where it may become obvious that there is something different about the one student who only uses (or is only allowed to use) the staff bathroom or some other unisex bathroom. That the particular student is transgender may not be known to other students or even by some teachers, but the sort of isolation and ostracization that would be inevitable if that student is singled out in treatment will result in a similar effect for that child. And if we, as a society, don’t think that it is acceptable to direct children of different races to use different bathrooms, then why do we think that it is acceptable to direct one class of children to use a different bathroom and thus be separated from the remainder of the student body? Separate but equal was wrong for race and it is wrong for transgender individuals, too, especially when “equal” — without the “separate but” part — is possible. Telling one class of people that we are going to treat them differently because of who they are is inconsistent with the Constitutional promise of equal protection under the law, not to mention who we are supposed to be as a society and culture. Or is our culture really founded on discriminating against minorities and considering them to be something less than the rest of us (say … um … maybe being just 3/5 of a person)? Is our society premised on equality or is discrimination really a core “value”?
It may be worth considering some of the rhetoric being directed at this issue by those who are generally opposed to LGBT equality. For example, former Arkansas Governor (and repeated, failed candidate for President) Mike Huckabee has argued all sorts of … well, simply stupid, things about the bathroom problem, such as this gem:
“Now I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in PE,” Huckabee said on stage at the 2015 National Religious Broadcasters Convention back in February. “I’m pretty sure that I would have found my feminine side and said, ‘Coach, I think I’d rather shower with the girls today.’”
“For those who do not think that we are under threat, simply recognize the fact that we are now in city after city watching ordinances say that your seven-year-old daughter — if she goes into the restroom — cannot be offended and you can’t be offended if she’s greeted there by a 42-year-old man who feels more like a woman than he does a man,” he said.
So, do you see any problems with any of that? As mentioned above, Huckabee confuses gender identity with “finding” his feminine side or being willing to use that as a means to engage in voyeurism, thus seeming to demonstrate that he doesn’t actually understand what it even means to be transgender. Then he compounds his idiocy by arguing that bills permitting bathroom access would prohibit people from being “offended” (and notice the reference to a “man who feels more like a woman than he does a man”; yet another indication that Huckabee has no comprehension of what it means to be transgender). Point me to a law, ordinance, or bill that prohibits anyone from being “offended”. I’ll wait. What the laws in question do is simply permit people to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. But like many who oppose LGBT equality, Huckabee makes clear that the issue has nothing to do with the dignity of the transgender person; rather it’s all about the moral judgment and approbation of the person who might be offended by someone with a gender identity that does not match their biological gender.
Then there is Sen. Ted Cruz who also seems to focus on the proverbial “man in a dress”:
“Every one of us has the right to live our lives as we wish,” he said. “If any one of us wants to dress up as a woman or man and wants to live as woman or man and believes that we might be something other than what we were born, God has made each of us with free will and the ability to choose to do that if man to wants to dress as a woman, and live as a woman, and have a bathroom at home.”
A reporter sought clarification on the remark: “So then they shouldn’t use the bathroom out in public?”
Cruz then confirmed just that. “You don’t have a right to intrude upon the rights of others because whether or not a man believes he’s a woman, there are a lot of women who would like to be able to use a public restroom in peace without having a man there — and when there are children involved, you don’t have a right to impose your lifestyle on others.”
Notice anything interesting in Cruz’s comments? Like, for instance, his view that transgender people wanting to be treated with respect and dignity is “imposing” their lifestyle on others while, at the same time, people telling transgender individuals which bathrooms to use apparently is not imposing a lifestyle on those who might be different from them? Moreover, Cruz appears to think that the very notion of being transgender is something of a joke:
If Donald Trump dresses up as Hillary Clinton, he still can’t go to the girls’ bathroom!
Cruz even thinks that the notion of treating transgender people with dignity and allowing them to live in accordance with their gender identity is “nonsense” that is “destroying America”:
Should a grown man pretending to be a woman be allowed to use the women’s restroom?” the ad asks. “The same restroom used by your daughter? Your wife? Donald Trump thinks so. It’s not appropriate. It’s not safe. It’s PC nonsense that’s destroying America. Donald Trump won’t take on the PC police. He’s one of them.”
Pretending? Destroying America? Really? Letting transgender women use the women’s bathroom is destroying America? Funny, Ted, but I’d suggest that the sort of hate that you and people like you espouse for anyone who is different is much more likely to lead to the destruction of America than will treating people with dignity. (I might also point to shutting down the government to try to stop people from having access to affordable healthcare…) But that isn’t nearly so scary, is it?
Or, we could look at the time that Bill O’Reilly compared transgender bathroom access to taking young teenage kids to Hooters. Yeah, I don’t understand either. But that is the sort of message that those who oppose LGBT equality in general and transgender equality in particular are being hammered with, day in and day out.
I could go on and on with the sort of rhetoric commonly spewed by homophobes and transphobes, but I think that you get the point. Let me just say that it seems that, especially when it comes to their views on transgender individuals, the suffix “–phobe” really seems to be appropriate. Read the comments from Huckabee, Cruz, and others, especially in the comments to online articles or Facebook posts, and you will see that fear of transgender individuals (as predators) tends to be one of the predominant considerations. Fear of snakes? Nah. Fear of spiders? Who me? Fear of heights or the dark? Nope. Fear of men in dresses? EEEEEEEEKKKKKKK!!!!! Must pass laws! And when fear isn’t the defining motivation, more often than not, the author will refer to transgender individuals as “mentally ill” or use some other similar pejorative declaration.
Sadly, however, the “bathroom problem” is really the least important problem facing most transgender Americans. Sure, they’d prefer to be able to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity, but I suspect that were you to ask transgender individuals, they would tell you that the concern over which bathroom to use pales in comparison to worries about being the victim of transphobic (or homophobic violence), worries about being denied housing, and worries about being denied employment (or fired if an employer discovers that they are transgender or they take steps to affirm their gender identity). The bathroom issue is getting a lot of press right now, but I’d wager that it is much easier to advocate for laws that will discriminate against transgender individuals if you can add an element of fear (even if misplaced and irrational) to the discussion instead of being forced to simply talk about why an employer or landlord should be able to turn away a transgender individual or why we can’t do more to keep transgender individuals safe from physical abuse.
In conclusion, allow me to offer a few pieces of advice for those of you who encounter a transgender individual for the first time: First, take your cues from that individual. If they introduce themselves with a particular name, honor their wishes and use that name, even if the name is not the name that person had previously used or the name that you think they should use. It doesn’t matter if the person has the outward appearance of a male; if that person introduces herself as Sally, then show a degree of respect and call her Sally. Doing so does not mean that you “accept” her transgender persona or think that being transgender is an acceptable “lifestyle” (not that it is up to you anyway); rather, it is simply a sign of respect to that individual. A second and related point is to respect the pronouns that person uses to describe himself or herself. Again, while you may think that Sally is still a man, if Sally uses feminine pronouns in reference to herself, please show her some respect and do so as well. To those of you who may respond by saying, “but it makes me uncomfortable to call a man ‘Sally’ or ‘she’” all I can offer is that your discomfort probably pales in comparison to the discomfort faced by that transgender individual who is simply trying to find his or her own way in a world that is often hostile to his or her very existence.
Don’t assume that a transgender individual is gay. Gender identity and sexual orientation are linked in the minds of the public, legislators, and lobbying groups (and by the acronyms LGBT or LGBTQ), but they are not linked in biology or persona. There are transgender women who are attracted to men and there are transgender women who are attracted to women; similarly, there are transgender men who are attracted to women and transgender men who are attracted to men. Don’t assume that someone who has decided to assert their gender identity must therefore also be gay. And don’t ask. Just as you wouldn’t ask a stranger or co-worker that you don’t know well if they are gay, you shouldn’t ask a transgender individual about their own sexual orientation until you get to know that person as a friend and have established an element of trust and mutual respect and caring. Finally, don’t ask the transgender individual about his or her private parts, whether they’re taking hormones, or whether they’ve had gender reassignment or gender confirmation surgery. It’s none of your business. You’d be offended if someone you didn’t know well asked you whether you were circumcised or had a hysterectomy or vasectomy, wouldn’t you? Once you take the time to get to know the transgendered individual as a person and they learn that they can trust you as a friend, I’m sure that they will be more forthcoming and willing to discuss some of the more difficult aspects of their identity (though certainly not all individuals will be willing to share such personal information). But save those questions for people that you know and who you are willing to call “friend”.
But please, take the time and make the effort to meet members of the transgender community before passing judgment. Get to know them and make the commitment to see past your own prejudices or stereotypes so that you can evaluate the person on the basis of his or her merits to establish a mutual respect and, if lucky, friendship. And then make the further effort to evaluate your understanding of the “bathroom problem” and the other daily issues that bring so much grief and anxiety to the transgender community. I’m not asking you to either agree with or even condone a person’s decision to live in accordance with their gender identity or to even agree with the notion that gender identity is not fixed at birth by biology. Rather, all I’m asking, is that you view the issue with deference, respect, sensitivity, and empathy that treats those who may be different from you as humans who deserve the right to live their life comfortably and safely, just like you do.
Show some small degree of compassion for others who intend no harm to you or your family but who simply want to live in peace … and use the toilet.
Forcing transgender people to use the bathroom of a gender with which they don’t identify isn’t just inconvenient or impractical. For many, especially young students still grappling with their transition, it can be traumatic, and at worst, unsafe.
The failure of … lawmakers to see this is a failure of compassion, a failure to recognize the difficult and frequently unwelcoming world transgender people must navigate every day, stigmatized by the fear and ignorance of others.