What About Transgender Women in Women's Shelters?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That question is broached by the second reader below, along with a few other considerations of safe spaces for people such as conservative Muslim women in swimming clubs and locker rooms. But first, a short note from a Christian pastor who is sympathetic to the plight of trans people:

I’m personally somewhat conservative, politically liberal, and have several LGBT friends I’ve been discussing the transgender movement with. What I find unreasonable is how quickly the left expects people on the right to shift their personal beliefs. As soon as the left takes up an issue, we demand everyone else to join us, with little time to spare. We are outraged even at the slightest hesitation. A little bit of patience is called for if it’s not only change that we want, but a culture of real openness. Openness and tolerance must run in every direction.

From the reader with concerns over the need for psychologically safe places for certain cisgender women:

Thank you for convening this discussion; it seems like a valuable way to try to build some empathy and understanding on both sides of a very difficult subject. Following are some thoughts from a (more or less) conservative perspective.

On a recent vacation, I was at a swimming pool with my daughter. When I entered the women’s change room after exiting the pool, I discovered a middle-aged man undressing in front of the locker adjacent to mine. It is not clear what the man was doing in the women’s locker room. It seems likely he was there in error, since the pool was about to close, and there were no other patrons whose presence might have tipped him off. It is somewhat less likely that he identified as a woman.

Either way, I promptly turned around and left, as I was not about to undress in the presence of a biological male. This is not because I fear being physically or sexually assault per se, nor is it motivated by any personal animus or hostility. I simply do not wish to subject myself or my daughter to the male gaze while in a state of undress.

My values might be considered archaic or puritanical by some, but I hardly think I am alone. For all sorts of reasons, many women are profoundly uncomfortable undressing in front of biological males, irrespective of how they may identify. Sexual assault survivors have good reason to prefer sex-segregated spaces, as do conservative Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Muslim women, and others who place value on sexual modesty.

If, as a result of legislation striking down the legality of sex-segregated space, all these women are denied the right to privacy, this will lead to a number of unintended consequences.

For instance, my city has a large number of immigrants from South Asia and the Middle East, and the local swimming club accommodates them by offering women-only swim teams. Even fathers of the girls are not permitted to observe their practices, out of respect. Requiring that biological males who identify as female be allowed to participate would not only disadvantage biological women in athletic competition (another issue entirely), it may actually erode female participation in the sport, since girls would no longer be assured that their privacy and cultural values will be respected.

Is this a worthwhile tradeoff? I’m not so sure.

And what would happen if women-only rape crisis centres or women’s shelters were forced to open their doors to biological males who claim—sincerely or not—to identify as female? What if those men have a history of sexual violence? Would said shelters have any legal standing to turn them away? (This is not a mere hypothetical.)

Of course, trans individuals also have a right to safety and privacy. It seems the most practical solution would be to offer a single-use, gender-neutral space—something many facilities already provide. [Previous readers made the same case.] But requiring that trans folk be given full access to the sex-segregated spaces of their choice is not necessary to protect their safety, and it would lead to a number of undesirable trade-offs, especially for women’s rights and privacy.

By the same token, mandating that trans people can only use the restrooms corresponding with their biological sex also has some pitfalls. One wonders if legislators should simply leave this one alone.

Disagree? Are there sensible ways to mitigate the concerns of that mother and others like her? Drop us a note and we’ll update.