Reporter's Notebook

A Good-Faith Debate on Transgender Rights
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Readers go back and forth regarding the best ways to address the contentious politics surrounding bathrooms and other areas of transgender rights and identity. To join in, especially if you’re transgender yourself or a conservative critic, please send a note to hello@theatlantic.com.

Show None Newer Notes

What About Transgender Women in Women's Shelters?

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.

A reader gets to the heart of the internal tension on the left when it comes to transgenderism:

I am confused by some of the ideological positions of gender progressives, and would appreciate if some of your readers can clarify an apparent contradiction.

On one hand, we are told that gender is simply a social construct; that there is no such thing as a “male brain” or “female brain,” as we all exist on a spectrum; and that we should break out of the rigid “binary” modes of thinking about male and female, allowing for a broader range of personal expression. This makes some intuitive sense: Men should be able to enjoy ballet and poetry and child-rearing without being cast as effeminate and unmanly, just as women who eschew oppressive standards of feminine beauty and sexuality are still women. A man or a woman is simply one who possesses male or female chromosomes and (except in rare cases) the corresponding sex organs.

But the transgender movement seems to disagree. It argues that a person who conforms outwardly to socially conditioned, feminine gender roles is actually and truly a woman, irrespective of sex, while a person who adopts stereotypical male behaviours and dress is actually and truly a man. How regressive!

A few readers made the case earlier that single-person bathrooms or private stalls in locker rooms might be the best way to accommodate transgender Americans and Americans in general. If that happens, who pays for all that new construction? The local, state, or federal government, or the private sector? This next reader’s logic leads her to conclude that pay toilets could be coming:

I see this on both the right and the left: People think they can change something dramatic as to how society is structured and nothing else will change. Sometimes it works out that way, sometimes it doesn’t. Like Kansas thinks it can destroy its tax rolls, suck the money out of the department of transportation, and that will be just fine for the state’s highway system. On the other hand, conservatives predicted dire consequences for allowing gay marriage, and that doesn’t seem to have happened.

Here’s what I see happening on this transgender issue. If conservative states are required to allow trans people to use the bathroom of their choice, that is the same thing as not having sex-segregated bathrooms at all. Will most people use the bathroom that most conforms to their gender identity? Probably. But there will be cisgender male creeps and jerks who will insist on their right to hang out in women’s locker rooms, and it will be un-actionable. Sure, everyone will know they are being a creep. But we can’t/shouldn’t police people’s gender identity. How do you draft a law that allows pre-transition bio-males in women’s spaces, but keeps out completely cisgender creepy men? [A previous reader highlighted Washington State’s approach.]

That’s going to make a lot of people uncomfortable. And I think it’s going to lead to a breakdown in public toilets.

A transgender reader, Diane, has a simple and persuasive reply to the “woman who was exposed to a male using the wrong swimming pool changing room”:

I’m a male-to-female transsexual, post-op for 20+ years. I used women’s facilities during my pre-op days, but I worked hard to hide male genitalia. The goal for most of us is to live and be socially recognized as a member of the opposite sex. To that end, we go to great, very expensive lengths to fit in with social expectations of masculinity or femininity, as appropriate. Exposing our non-blendy selves is not what we intend.

For the record, I’d find a male exposing himself within “women's space,” whether intentional or not, to be worthy of whatever social stigmatization he gets.

Diane quickly follows up:

Dang! My bad for writing before I saw the Germaine Greer video you posted [in which Greer respectfully asserts that transgender women are “not women”]. First off, Germaine Greer rocks! She’s entitled to her opinion and should receive the honorary doctorate she so richly deserves.

I knew by the age of 3 that I’d rather be female. I didn’t understand the desire, and my mother made it very clear that I was a boy, that I’d never be a girl. In the late 1940s and 1950s, my survival depended on accepting the privileges of male childhood that were never extended to my female siblings. So from that perspective I was socialized as male, which means I’m not really the woman Ms. Greer expects. I accept that fact. But at the age of 70, I’m not going to march down Main Street wearing a sandwich board, declaring my trans-status.

Within the transgender community, my experience is similar to the norm. The LGB community needed people who were willing to push the boundaries that started the social conversation about homosexuality that resulted in mostly legal equality (discrimination exists despite SCOTUS rulings), making them mainstream. Transpeople will achieve social equality because of those willing to be public about their identity. [On Thursday] DoD removed the restrictions on military service. The more we’re in the public eye, the closer we get to acceptance.

Chris, thanks for the series on the debate. The anti-science absolutists will be on the wrong side of history.

This next reader, Frank (from the comments section on the DoD post I linked to above), is also on the wrong side of history—when it comes to trans servicemembers:

On Emma’s latest piece on transgender rights—specifically Massachusetts’s relatively slow pace to fully enact them compared to gay rights—the most up-voted comment from a reader is simply, “Why exactly are gay issues mashed together with transgender issues?” Reader Liam’s view:

The T in LGBT has never rested easily with LG because the L & G tend to be gender/sex essentialists. (TERF wars, anyone? [TERF stands for “trans exclusionary radicals feminists,” and their tension with trans people is covered in Notes here and here.] Armistead Maupin memorably satirized this very issue over 30 years ago with his book Babycakes). The T issues don’t map neatly into the L&G issues.

Another reader is on the same page:

LGBT—which of these letters is not like the other?