April 25, 2016

Transgender Restroom Wars

Gender neutral bathroom sign

It is starting to appear that the next front in the culture wars may involve the use of public restrooms by transgendered persons. Should they have their own restrooms or use those that already exist? And if they are to use those that already exist, which should they use? Can they be left to figure this out on their own, or do we need to pass laws like North Carolina and Mississippi to regulate who uses which restroom?

I'll be the first to admit that I have a hard time understanding this particular controversy. By that, I mean that I have trouble understanding why some are so adamantly opposed to allowing transgendered persons to use whichever restrooms they feel most comfortable using.

I'm assuming that the primary concern must involve the use of women's restrooms by transgender women and not the use of men's restrooms by transgender men, but I have to admit that I'm just speculating here. I am far from knowledgeable about these issues, so please feel free to note any mistakes you spot with regard to terminology or whatever else.

Transgender Men in Men's Restrooms

A transgender man (aka, trans-man or female-to-male) is someone born with female genitalia and assigned a female gender at birth but whose gender identity is male. Some people prefer to think of transgender men as individuals who are biologically female but identify as male. Which restroom should a transgender man use? I see no problem with such a man using the men's restroom, as this is likely to be where he is most comfortable. After all, this is the primary reason I use the men's restroom.

I worked with a transgender man for about a year recently before he moved away to take a better job. He looked like a man, dressed like a man, talked like a man, and I think he might have even been guilty of the "crime" of manspreading on a couple of occasions (okay, I made up that last part to have an excuse to mention manspreading). I used the restroom at work with him many times, as did several other male co-workers. We all knew he was transgendered because he was very open about it. As far as I know, nobody ever had an issue with him using the men's room.

But would we have had an issue if he had not have looked male? I can't say for sure, but I doubt it. We use the restroom with men who look far less male than he did. I can think of a few very effeminate men, including a couple who could be mistaken for women, who use this restroom. I haven't heard a single complaint. It is difficult to imagine that it would matter.

I've been in a few situations (not at work) where women entered public restrooms while I was using them because the line for the women's restroom was too long. It didn't bother me a bit. This doesn't mean that some men might not object to sharing a restroom with a woman or someone they think looks like a woman. But I'd guess that this is a fairly small minority. As far as I'm concerned, anyone who wants to use the restroom I am using is welcome to do so regardless of his or her gender or gender identity. It is just a restroom, and I try to spend as little of my time there as possible.

Transgender Women in Women's Restrooms

I suspect that this is the primary source of the controversy about transgendered persons and public restrooms. Some women do not seem to like the idea of a transgender woman (aka, trans-woman or male-to-female) in their restrooms. I suspect that there are even more men who do not like the idea of transgender women using the women's restrooms when their girlfriends, wives, or daughters are in there (even if their girlfriends, wives, or daughters don't particularly care one way or another). I'd also guess that the more masculine a transgender woman appears, the less they'd like it.

But why? Why should anybody care? My guess is that some women might be worried that some men might pose as transgendered persons as an excuse to enter their restroom and ogle them. If they encountered a person who appeared male in the women's restroom, they might wonder about this possibility. I'm not sure how widespread this concern is (outside of Republicans we elect to Congress), but I suspect that the odds of it happening are quite small.

A closely-related concern appears to be the notion that transgender women are "really men" and that they are predatory in some way (i.e., they may victimize girls or women in women's restrooms). There does not seem to be any evidence to support this concern, but that certainly hasn't stopped people from expressing it out of ignorance and/or bigotry. Again, the odds of this happening seem minuscule.

Some Strange Laws

The laws in North Carolina and Mississippi require transgendered persons to use the restrooms that correspond to their biological sex at birth rather than their gender identity. These laws attempt to solve a problem that does not exist, and they have some strange implications. For example, a transgender woman who has completed hormone therapy, lived as a woman her entire life, and looks far more like a woman than many women is required to use men's restrooms. And the transgender man who looks as or more masculine than anybody else is required to use the women's restroom with the girlfriends, wives, and daughters of the good Christians who passed these laws. How is this going to be more comfortable or less awkward for anybody? Doesn't make much sense, does it?

These laws need to be repealed. They are not about religious freedom; they are discriminatory. Even Donald Trump seems to get it. Allowing people to chose the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity just like the rest of us do seems so much more reasonable.

Gender Identity Denial

I indicated above that I was having trouble understanding why some people were so upset over the prospect of allowing transgendered persons to use public restrooms that correspond to their gender identity like the rest of us do. I speculated that the controversy probably had more to do with the prospect of transgender women using women's restrooms than it did with transgender men using men's restrooms. In examining the likely sources of this controversy, I focused primarily on two things: the irrational fear that transgendered persons would be more likely to perpetrate crimes against others while using certain restrooms and the suspicion that some cisgendered men could potentially enter women's restrooms under the guise of being transgendered in order to ogle the women.

While I briefly referred to another potential source of the controversy (i.e., some people simply refuse to acknowledge that there is such a thing as being transgendered), I combined it with the irrational fear of predatory transgendered persons and failed to consider it as a factor in its own right. After watching a handful of YouTube videos featuring people ranting about the evils of transgendered persons (in fairness to me, I did not seek this out and had no idea what I was in for until it was too late), I now think there is another source of this controversy: the refusal to accept that some people have a gender identity that is different from their biological sex. Perhaps this is worth considering in its own right.

Based on the angry rants in several YouTube videos (I cannot help being fascinated by how angry many of these people seem to be about the notion of sharing a restroom with others), it seems like there is some serious denial out there about the existence of transgendered persons. What stood out to me the most was that it did not seem to matter who was speaking in any particular YouTube video, because they seemed to all be saying the same things. Here is a brief sampling of what I heard over and over again:

  • "I don't care if you feel like you are a man; if you have a vagina, you are a woman."
  • "A man in a dress is still a man."
  • "I've got news for you: if you were born a man, you are a man."
  • "This is no different from Rachel Dolezal pretending to be Black."
  • "These are just perverts who are trying to fool you."
  • "Sorry, but you don't get to choose your sex. That's not how it works."

These statements showed up in video after video and were almost always associated with angry expressions and flying spittle. The core belief underlying such statements appears to be that there is no such thing as a transgendered person, only confused men and women who need to come to terms with their chromosomes. Gender identity is regarded as irrelevant.

For those with such a belief, the restroom issue is an extremely simple matter. Anyone who was born male should use the men's restroom regardless of gender identity or physical appearance because this person "is really a man." And anyone who was born female should use the women's restroom because this person "is really a woman" no matter what. It seems like some people hold these views without necessarily concluding that transgendered persons are inherently predatory, although I did find that this concern was often mentioned too.

When I think about this sort of denial of transgendered persons or insistence that gender identity does not matter, I cannot help being reminded of the long-running claim that one's sexual orientation is a choice one makes. Remember that? We don't hear this claim nearly as often as we used to, but it is still out there. There are still Christians trying to "pray away the gay" or disowning their children because they "chose" to follow "the gay lifestyle." But I think it is probably safe to say that most reasonable people now understand that sexual orientation is not usually a matter of choice. This is likely due to the fact that most of us feel like we have far more information about gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons than we used to.

For a variety of reasons, this is far less true when it comes to transgendered persons. Most people know fewer of them and are less familiar with their struggles. Confusion, misconceptions, fear, and even denial are still widespread. Attitudes will shift over time. I have little doubt that we will soon look back on these restroom wars with amazement and disgust. Many of us already are. In the meantime, things will continue to be ugly as others struggle to overcome their ignorance and bigotry.

I know, I know. It isn't bigotry. That is the other claim I heard repeatedly in the videos. If someone truly believes that all transgendered persons, including those who have used hormone replacement and surgery to transform themselves, are essentially just faking it, I suppose I'm not sure what else to call it besides bigotry. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but it certainly seems like a false generalization about an entire group (i.e., bigotry). And if the goal really is one of public safety, perhaps there are other solutions to consider.