AND I’M TAKING A STAND!
One of the most sociologically interesting characters created by the Saturday Night Live team is the androgynous Pat. This character is totally bereft fo gendered characteristics, either physically or socially. It is, therefore, impossible to categorize Pat as being a man, or a woman. This causes a great deal of tension for those interacting with Pat, as gender prescribes much of our socialization with others. Furthermore, our society is lacking in norms for dealing with such contingencies. Gender is expected to be a given, so there is no acceptable social script for asking someone if they are a man or a woman. Skits involving Pat revolve around others who are intent on identifying Pat’s gender without openly asking–inevitably, all such attempts fail. In one skit, however, Pat asks where the restroom is and the participants watch eagerly as their enigma approaches the appropriate facility. Then, just as Pat is about to choose the gender appropriate door, the skit is interupted by a mock news bulletin. When we return to regular programming, the characters in the skit now know Pat’s gender, but we, the television audience, still have no clue.
On the other hand, do the characters in the skit really know Pat’s gender, or do they simply know the character’s gender identity? Did Pat choose the restroom that corresponds with her anatomy, or with her self identity as a man or a woman?
So we now find ourselves embroiled in the great transgender bathroom debate of 2016, because…you know…why not?
What I find interesting, if not a little troubling, however, is that the nature of the debate is skipping over the issue of identity for a more troublesome discourse on rights and safety. Consequently, we cannot adequately negotiate the norms that will be necessary for resolving the ambiguities of our expanding understanding of gender, identity and equality.
The confusion begins with the opposition. Those who are uncomfortable with transgendered women using the ladies’ room and transgendered men using the men’s room are claiming that they have a right to be secure with the fact that nobody with a penis is in the same facility with their wives or daughters.
Really? That’s a right? Where, exactly, can I find a copy of this Restroom Bill of Rights?
Now what’s immediately interesting about this claim is that it is most often made by those who normally follow a rather rigid concept of rights. Suggest that people have a right to health care, housing, food, education and a clean environment and they will respond with, “where in the Constitution does it say these are rights?” Well, it doesn’t. Nor does the Constitution say anything about restroom security.
We might be well served by figuring out exactly what constitutes a “right.” Fortunately, I’ve done that, but it will have to be a post for another day. Suffice it to say that I don’t believe that this is a rights issue on either side of the debate. I have a hard time accepting that a person has a right to a predetermined genital construction in any particular room. At the same time, I would have to add that this also holds true for a presumed right to use a restroom that corresponds with one’s self concept rather than one’s anatomy.
We do have a right to equal protection under the law. However, this seems to be inadequate for understanding and negotiating the norms of transgender use of public restrooms. After all, nobody is stopping a transgender person from using a restroom. They are simply being restricted in using the room of their preference. Nobody, however, is guaranteed a right to any particular preference. If the claim is made that a transgender person is more comfortable in a restroom that confirms their personal identity, then the counter argument, that others are more comfortable knowing that they are sharing a restroom with anatomically appropriate individuals, is equally valid. One way or the other, someone is going to be uncomfortable, and nobody is responsible for the comfort of another.
So then we have to ask, “well, what is it that makes you uncomfortable about, say, a transgender woman using the ladies’ room?”
Well, this is where the opposition gets a bit confusing. Let’s face it. The real answer to the question above is, “those people freak me out!” or “men who dress as women are perverts, and perverts are a threat to our wives and daughters.” Well, that sounds pretty bigoted and doesn’t make for a strong claim in a society that is increasingly accepting of alternative and diverse sexualities. Yes, it might play well in certain bigoted circles, but outside of that millieu, bigotry simply doesn’t play.
So, instead, the counterclaim is made that if transgender women are allowed in the ladies’ room, what’s to stop any man in a dress from just walking into the women’s restroom and victimizing a little girl? See. It’s not transgender people, per se. It’s bad people who could exploit the law for their own malign purposes. Of course, the effect is to associate transgender people, especially transgender women, with rapists and pedophiles. The best response to this claim is summarized by a Facebook reply posted to a discussion on this topic:
There’re a couple of problems with the “protect the women” claim. First and foremost, there is absolutely zero evidence that allowing transgender people to use an identity appropriate restroom increases the risk of victimization for anyone. It turns out that donning a dress and skulking into the ladies room just isn’t a thing.
On the other hand, being required to use anatomically appropriate restrooms might pose a threat to transgendered people. According to a Williams Institute study, 70% of transgender respondents report being verbally harrassed when using a public restroom, while 9% report having been physically assaulted. Transgender people, especially transgender women are disproportionately victims of violence and sexual assault overall (here and here). If anyone can make a claim of being at increased risk with regard to restroom policy, it’s transgender people.
A second problem is a bit more abstract. How do we justify penalizing one group of people based on the actions of another group of people. If the threat does not come directly from transgender people, then why should they bear the burden.
Thirdly, what’s to keep a potential predator from donning a dress or, even more likely, dressing as a plumber or a contractor, and entering the ladies’ room anyway, regardless of policy?
No. restricting transgender people to the genitally designated restroom boils down to pure bigotry. “Those people” give opponents the skeeves. Nothing more. The “rights” argument is predicated on feeling unsafe in the presence of a transgender person, or the potential for a transgender woman, or a man disguised as a transgender woman, sharing the same space with one’s wife/daughter. That fear, however, is demonstrably unfounded.
So this debate is not about identifiable rights. Nor is it about protecting the safety of cisgendered women subject to nefarious men who might wish to abuse this privelege. What this issue boils down to is a debate about expanding our concepts of gender and treating each other, regardless of our personal differences, with basic human dignity. Our concepts of gender, sexuality and identity are being challenged and are, thus, evolving to become more expansive and inclusive. Traditional norms on gender are being challenged, and any time norms are challenged there will be those who are uncomfortable.