Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how quickly U.S. culture has grown with respect to LGBTQ equality. A movement that for all practical purposes started only in the early 1950s, and with relatively limited original goals, has accomplished strides for full equality that those original activists would have never even dreamt was possible. I was born in 1960. When I was born, being LGBTQ was almost universally considered a mental illness, sin, perversion. It was equated with being a pedophile. It was illegal, grounds for arrest and public villification, being fired, being thrown out of one’s home, being institutionalized, lobotomized, given electroshock “therapy.”
Today, there are still very real problems with homophobia within our society. Reactionary voices in a number of states continue to try to carve out ways to legally discriminate against this segment – my segment – of our population. These attempts are often based on religious grounds, through legislation that claims to protect the supposed religious freedom to discriminate and obstruct others’ civil rights. Sadly, the church itself is still the single most stubborn holdout and obstacle for equal civil rights for that portion of American citizens who identify as LGBTQ. The pain and injustice endured by LGBTQ people – certainly in the past and in lesser measure, even to this day – has been immense.
Without attempting to diminish the reality of the lives destroyed or at least severely injured during these years, though, it still seems truly amazing that this immense cultural shift has occurred within the single lifespan of many people still living today. Imagine the cognitive whiplash of a person who was taught as an adolescent in, say, 1955, about the supposed evil and perversion of homosexuality by way of Sunday sermons and grainy black-and-white “educational” films in school health classes, navigating a world today in their seventies where encountering out gays and lesbians, including married couples, is quite commonplace at work, around town, at church, and on television. Many who find themselves in this demographic will never accept this social upheaval, but many others have, mostly due to knowing and loving a family member or good friend who has come out as LGBTQ and made the idea less scary to them.
As members of the LGBTQ community, we really need to recognize the incredible leap that we’ve asked these people to make in their lives, and that many of them, at least, have successfully made. We need to honor their stretch, and express our gratitude to them all for having done so. In my case, that includes expressing thanks to my own two parents.
I was thinking about this phenomenon in recent days because, of course, we’re in the midst of another part of this major social shift – that of focusing more closely on the “T” component of the LGBTQ community, transgender individuals. The most visible issue in that regard is the would-be “bathroom wars” we seem to be embroiled in at the moment.
I recently read The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman. It’s an excellent, incredibly well-researched, and extremely readable book that taught me much I didn’t know, and reminded me of much I’d already known, or experienced for myself. One of the things that stood out for me as I read it was how much of the current situation is just a replay, sometimes identically so, of past battles fought and won in the overall struggle for LGBTQ equality. State legislators are attempting to legalize discrimination in ways that have been tried in the past and found to be unconstitutional in countless court decisions – perhaps most significantly with regard to North Carolina’s infamous HB2, in the Supreme Court case Romer v. Evans. Transgender people are being cast as pedophiles or other sexual predators, as mentally disturbed, as perverts, people dying for a chance to pounce on some unsuspecting child in a public restroom when all they really want is a safe place to pee.
Those who oppose moves to permit transgender people to use the restrooms and locker rooms of their own gender identity fall into several categories. Of course, there are those who are simply hateful, ignorant, transphobic individulas, and no amount of reason will ever steer them from their hatred.
But I suspect that many opponents are just trying to make sense out of a situation that they don’t fully understand. They aren’t inherently hateful. They really want to be fair, but like those people who have had to make that large leap of acceptance for LGB, now they’re faced with a call to make another, similar stretch for the T folk. They hear a lot of accusations, and they obviously don’t want to increase the risks of people being assaulted in public restrooms (although requiring transgender people to use the restroom of their birth sex will actually increase, not decrease potential violence, against the transgender person). But they’re stuck. This whole idea of being transgender seems odd, and maybe even a bit “icky”to them, and they don’t quite know how to make sense of it all.
I get that. To be honest, even as a gay man I had to go through a learning curve about transgender people, and I try to keep fairly up to speed with news within the LGBTQ community. It’s perfectly understandable to me if someone who isn’t swimming in that particular lake as part of their daily or weekly routine isn’t fully up to speed with regard to transgender issues. It’s to those of you in that second group of well-intentioned but confused or frustrated folk just trying to do the right thing that I offer the following thoughts.
Maybe we start by defining what transgender means – and what it doesn’t mean, as well. Two helpful references here are the GLAAD Media Reference Guide to Transgender Issues and the Transgender FAQ of the Human Rights Campaign.
There are some men who occasionally wear clothing and makeup traditionally associated with women. These are individuals who identify as heterosexual men and who do not wish to permanently change their sex or live full-time as women. These men are crossdressers (formerly known by the now-obsolete term “transvestite“). They are not transgender.
There are other men who will dress as women, often in a highly campy or caricateurish manner, for entertainment purposes. These are individuals who typically identify as gay men who, like crossdressers, do not wish to permanently change their sex or live full-time as women. These men are typically referred to as drag queens. Like the crossdressers, they are not transgender.
Transgender people are people with a gender identity different from the one that they were physically assigned, by way of physical sexual organs, at birth. These are men or women whose innermost sense of being, and of self, is and always has been opposite to the physical body they were born with. A transgender person looks in a mirror and feels like an alien within their own body – they know there’s a different person inside than what the physical manifestations indicate.
Transgender men and women will often undergo a transition process, in order to live authentically as the person they feel themselves to be. This can include hormone therapy and a battery of sex reassignment surgeries and other medical procedures, but even if it doesn’t, a transitioned transgender person is living life day to day as a person of their particular gender identity, in all aspects of their lives.
So now, back to restrooms and locker rooms.
Regarding the restrooms, many people have worried that allowing transgender people to use the facilities corresponding to their gender identity will increase the likelihood of sex offenders posing as transgender people, in order to gain access to the restrooms where they’ll prey on others. This argument really doesn’t make any sense for several reasons, but most importantly, because police departments in the locales that have permitted transgender access to their preferred restroom for some time are universal in their affirmation that there have been no cases of this happening. So the “increased risk” restroom argument is a non-issue. Despite the frothy-mouthed rantings of some, there’s simply no “there” there.
The other restroom claim is that while in the restroom, a person will actually see another person’s genitals, and that they won’t match their own, and that the person will somehow be traumatized by the incident. Consider that for a moment. All restroom usage in women’s rooms are designed to take place in enclosed stalls. Half of all restroom usage in men’s rooms are designed to take place in stalls. Virtually all transgender people, men and women alike, always use an enclosed stall. This means that if you’re scoping out another person’s genitals in a public restroom – trans or otherwise – you’re not only working really hard to do it, you’re also committing a voyeuristic crime. In other words, at that point you’re the creepy criminal in the restroom, not the transgender person.
That leaves locker rooms and shared shower facilities.
According to the best available information, transgender people make up approximately 0.3% of the population, or about 700,000 people in the United States. That number includes transgender people of every age, and those who have surgically transitioned and those who haven’t. So the number of non-surgically reassigned transgender people of the appropriate age and gender to potentially be in your child’s locker room gets smaller and smaller. Still, it’s true that in some situation, a child or youth might actually encounter an undressed, non-surgically reassigned trans person. Maybe it would be in a changing room at a swimming pool, or the locker and shower facilities at a school or health club. But if this happened, I have to ask – is this really such a big deal? Is this really something so terrible and to be avoided that it’s worth depriving the civil rights of an estimated 700,000 people?
No reasonable people shield their children from paintings, sculpture, or other works of art that portray nudity. For that matter, in many, if not most, other cultures around the world – and frankly, in parts of our own – children and youth are routinely in the presence of disrobed members of the opposite sex, whether family members or otherwise, without anyone giving it a second thought, and often for lengths of time far exceeding the fleeting moments of taking a quick gym shower or changing clothes. In these cultures, children and youth in the age range we seem so worried about are routinely exposed to unclothed people of both sexes, on regular broadcast television, sunbathing in public parks (the natives of Finland, for example, value every bit of warm sunny days and think nothing of sunbathing nude on those occasions – and of course, they also have the whole sauna culture, too), and in other settings, and they grow up to be normal, healthy, quite well-adjusted adults in the same proportion as anyone else. They’re not any more exposed to sexual molestation. They aren’t any less religious or spiritual because of it. They aren’t flooding psychologist’s offices trying to sort out lives that have been psychosexually scarred by the experience. If anything, they’re more emotionally healthy and well-balanced.
Modesty is certainly a virtue – but taken to an extreme, it can become an irrational and even harmful obsession.
There seem to be two equally significant things contributing to the irrational hysteria that so many people have with regard to transgender people, and specifically, this restroom/locker room issue. The first is simply that, compared with the rest of the world, our culture has a warped and unhealthy attitude toward the human body in general. In an odd mix, the rigid and prudish repression of our past, combined with the current hypersexualization of our culture (itself just a reaction to that repressive past), have made the unclothed human body something inherently “dirty” in the minds of many, and certainly something to protect our young people from – as if they were some delicate creatures who have never encountered the naked humanity of themselves, their parents and siblings, their friends, in art, or elsewhere, and who would be traumatized for life if they did.
The second contributor to the problem is the phenomenon that we humans seem to need to identify ourselves as an “us”- as an identifiable culture or group – by way of the negative; by establishing some kind of boundaries specifically designed to create a “them.” In so doing, we not only give ourselves justification to see ourselves as superior in the equation, but we also create justification for treating “them” as something less worthy of equal treatment, something even less human. Having a “them” creates justification for violence in the name of self-protection, and gives us a convenient recipient for moral or religious disapproval and indignation, thereby taking the moral heat off of ourselves. Overlapping aspects of this phenomenon have been researched and addressed by numerous people.
R.I. Moore writes about the origins of a “persecuting society” in medieval Europe, in which both church and state set particular groups of people as undesirable – as “dangerous pollutants”. This was done for all of the previously mentioned reasons, and especially to solidify the power of the particular ruling structure. As student Hope Greenberg summarized: “In each case the group is defined not by what it is or by what it does but what those in power, either sacred or secular, perceive and define it to be. That definition is refined and polished until an easily identifiable, albeit patently false, picture emerges of what then becomes the stereotypic object of persecution.”
The anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote of the theory of “purity and danger,”and the establishment of what fit into each of those categories by both religious and secular authorities. In A Queer History of the United States, Michael Bronski writes of Douglas’ work, “[T]he founding of modern society was predicated on the creation of minority groups whose only purpose was to be vilified as unclean and persecuted for the illusion of a comprehensive sense of society safety…The idea of purifying religious and secular thought and society was at the heart of Puritan identity. (p.17)”
Students of philosophy, theology, anthropology, and a host of other disciplines are undoubtedly familiar with Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory and the necessity for an individual or communal scapegoat, a victim singled out for persecution for the supposed good of the larger social structure.
During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson once summarized all of those academic writings, and succinctly identified the self-interest of the ruling class in all of it, in his now-famous quote: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” The same concept, made more from the vantage point of the ruled than the ruling class, was illustrated in the “My Daddy Killed that Mule” scene from the film Mississippi Burning (click image to play):
The take-home of all of this is that trans people in our society are being vilified, persecuted, assaulted, even killed, not because of any actual threat they pose to the well-being of society, or because of anything inherently wrong or ill or evil about them. Trans people are being victimized because we’ve been taught that we need a scapegoat to feel good about ourselves. [Click to tweet] Given that, then, who is the truly “sick” and perverted group – the trans people, or the people who feel a need to vilify them?
But back to locker rooms.
I’m imagining a scenario where a a mother and daughter are changing into their swimsuits at the local public swimming pool, and in that rarest of occasions, the daughter notices a non-surgically reassigned trans woman changing nearby, and the ensuing conversation:
“Mommy, that person over there isn’t like us – they have body parts like a boy.”
“Oh, yes, that’s true.”
“Well then why are they in here with us, instead of the boy’s changing room?”
“Well, because there are some people who are girls on the inside, but they’re born with the body parts of a boy. And sometimes, there are people who are boys on the inside, but they’re born with the body parts of a girl.”
“Wow, that’s weird!”
“Well, it’s different from the way we were born, but it happens sometimes – that’s just the way things are; we don’t really know why. Sometimes, people treat them very badly, and even try to hurt them because of that, just because of the way they’re born. And that’s not really nice; in fact, it’s very wrong. Really, besides the different body parts, they’re just like you or me, and they deserve to be treated with respect and dignity just like everyone else – just like we want to be respected for who we are inside, and not on what we might look like on the outside.”
“Oh. OK. So when we get out to the pool, can we go down the slide first?”
And that’s it. No drama. No trauma.
I know, call me an unrealistic dreamer. But why, why, can’t it be so simple?
I’d write more, but now I have to go to the bathroom. Thankfully, the North Carolina state legislature won’t need to get involved.