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

Show 5 Newer Notes

Is the 'Trans Lobby' Disproportionately Strong?

A quick recap: This discussion thread began with reader Ben Denny—who “leans pretty right”—bemoaning the smug tone that much of the political left has in the public arena, namely when it comes to the fraught debate over transgender rights. Another reader noted the irony that supporters of bathroom bills like the one in North Carolina don’t seem to realize that reassignment surgery could jumble their goal of keeping male genitalia out of the ladies room. (I also broached the differences between bathrooms and locker rooms when it comes to personal privacy.) Meanwhile, a few readers scratched their heads over Caitlyn Jenner talking about her female soul, followed by a trans reader standing up for Jenner and her Republican views not fitting into a tidy political box. Most recently, two readers (one a transgender woman) proposed that everyone—trans or cis—should have access to private bathrooms, or at least private stalls.

A reader in Wyoming dissents from the discussion thus far:

A “good faith” debate when not a single conservative critic on board here, whom I can see? I doubt the transgender lobby seeks debate; it wants the nation to toe a party line on all aspects of transgender, including their claims of fact. The bathrooms and the religious legislators in North Carolina are mostly a red herring as well.

Our real issues will revolve around the teaching of gender ideology to young children, diagnosis of gender dysphoria in children, and initiation of hormone therapies and sex-reassignment surgery at the earliest possible age, which health insurers and Medicaid will be required to cover. Bathrooms will enter only insofar as schoolgirls at gym class may be disturbed at the sight of a swinging penis in their locker room.

From reader Hunter Oatman-Stanford:

I enjoyed the reader comment in your recent note that outlined how the so-called bathroom bills may actually require people to use bathrooms that don’t match their genitals:

Since people are, in fact, getting reassignment surgery across the country, one can imagine a scenario in which a transgender man who has received surgery and as such has male genitalia, who identifies as a heterosexual man, would be forced to use a women’s bathroom AS A RESULT OF THESE LAWS.

The laws implicitly assume that people are more comfortable using a restroom or locker room with only one gender, when it’s common knowledge that many people are uncomfortable even in gender-segregated spaces, hence the stereotype about middle-school kids hating to shower after gym class.

If locker room or bathroom anxiety is a common issue, why aren’t we pushing to make all of the spaces accommodating to people who want real privacy by offering gender-neutral, single-person stalls? Much like the retrofitting requirements of the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act], this seems the logical way to approach public accommodations.

A pricey one, though, and who’s going to pay to retrofit all those bathrooms? The local, state, or federal government? Presumably federal, given the recent directive from the Obama administration over transgender access to school bathrooms under Title IX. Perhaps it’s a relatively small price to pay—not only for trans Americans’ desired access, but privacy for all kinds of people.

This next reader and transgender woman, Emily, makes a similar case as Hunter’s. Her note is specifically responding to the one from reader Ben Denny, “Does the Left Have a Smug Problem?”—a call for intellectual honesty and openness to opposing views when it comes to the caustic debate over bathroom access. Here’s Emily:

None of us is immune from smugness. I can attest to it coming up in my own words or behavior at times. I agree with Mr. Denny in that it is helpful to remind oneself of ones foibles from time to time.

Interesting that he picks the transgender bathroom issue to use as an example. I am a transgender woman, and no one is going to be, or ever has been, endangered when I use the women’s restroom. (We are usually the ones subjected to violence and horrible discrimination due to nasty and untrue stereotypes about us.) The possibility that some man might dress up as a woman and commit perverted acts was there long before transgender people ever came into the consciousness of most Americans.

Is there a realistic fear of this sort of attack? Then make all restrooms single-use, gender-neutral spaces.

An especially valuable view from reader Adam:

Hi there! I have written in a few times before [with a dissent against Neal Gabler’s cover story and a pro-polyamory perspective] and I wanted to comment on the question of whether the trans movement is a spiritual one. I am transgender man; I transitioned more than six years ago and it saved my life.

Trans issues are not a left/right issue. They are a human issue. The suggestion by your reader that Caitlyn Jenner is part of “the left” is totally absurd. Her first pick in this election season was Ted Cruz. And “the left” is not broadly making spiritual claims in favor of trans rights. In fact, the mainstream left arguments all tend to come back to “born this way” narratives about being trans having a biological basis, which the evidence suggests it does. Caitlyn Jenner is an individual human being describing her own experience. She happens to be trans and quite conservative.

It is not unusual for trans people to talk about our lives this way; I certainly do. Trans people are not part of some anti-religion communist conspiracy. Many of us are religious, just like many non-trans people. A trans person sharing their perception of God’s will in their lives is no different from a person who says “I think it was God’s plan for me to fall in love with this person/pursue this career path/etc.”

As for circular definitions of the word “woman,” that’s not on trans people or our allies; it’s a flawed concept to start with.

This week at the Aspen Ideas Festival (which The Atlantic is covering at length), Caitlyn Jenner made an appearance with her memoirist, Buzz Bissinger, who asked her the question, “What has it been like to finally reach your soul?” Jenner’s response:

From a subsequent segment, here’s a quote that Julie captured:

“This is how I explain myself,” [Jenner] said. “God’s looking down and he’s making little Bruce. He said, ‘What are we gonna do with this one? Let’s give him good looks, make him intelligent, make him athletic, that’s kind of cool. Let’s make him really athletic—that’s even cooler.’ He gets to the end and goes, ‘Look at all these wonderful qualities we’ve given this one. But everybody’s got their stuff, what are we going to give this one to deal with?’ He sits back, chuckles, and says, ‘Let’s give this one the soul of a female and see what happens.’”

A reader responds to that personal parable:

This discussion is so weird for the left to be having. On the one hand, they can’t explain transgenderism biologically. Someone who is physically male, with male chromosomes, and male sex organs is, by definition, “male.” Yet they also proclaim that “nothing is ‘wrong’ or ‘abnormal’” with transgenderism. To them it cannot be a mental health issue. So if it can’t be a biological issue, nor a mental health issue, then it’s a “spiritual issue.”

And, hot damn, that’s a really odd position for the left to take. What the left is essentially arguing, unbeknownst to them, is that a person’s “soul” doesn’t fit their biological state. Not a “mental soul” or a “brain state” but a true “spiritual self.” The left is arguing in favor of religion, they don’t even realize they are doing it.

(For Jenner’s part, she is not exactly of the left; she’s outspoken as a Republican and has said better things about Trump and Cruz than Hillary Clinton.) Another reader also sees a religious parallel in the rhetoric:

A reader writes:

I was a longtime subscriber and sometimes contributor to The Dish, so it’s nice to see you up and running again with all this bloggy goodness. Anyway, as this debate (if it really can properly be called one) about restrictions on transgender bathroom use goes on and on, I’ve had a question that I’ve not yet seen addressed.

From what I understand, this [North Carolina] legislation seems to be provoked primarily by the concern that someone with a penis will end up in a women’s bathroom and commit an act of sexual assault, and that they will have gotten the right to use this bathroom on the basis of a real or malingered transgender identity. And, because you can’t convincingly know someone else’s experience, it seems like the legislation being passed is primarily aimed at the issue of someone with a penis being in a women’s bathroom.

Now, as things currently stand, yes, it’s possible that an individual who identifies as a woman will still have male genitalia, and in choosing to use a woman’s restroom will create a situation in which one room is playing host to people with both male and female genitalia. That said, these laws, as currently constructed (i.e. the idea that one must use the bathroom designated by their sex as determined by birth certificate), ensure this will happen for some percentage of people regardless, based on reassignment surgery.

Last week, Vox’s Emmett Rensin wrote a blistering critique called “The Smug Style in American Liberalism.” Whatever you think of the essay’s merits, Vox deserves a lot of respect for running it, since Rensin implicitly casts criticism on the left-leaning explainer site:

Elites, real elites, might recognize one another by their superior knowledge. The smug recognize one another by their mutual knowing.

Knowing, for example, that the Founding Fathers were all secular deists. Knowing that you’re actually, like, 30 times more likely to shoot yourself than an intruder. Knowing that those fools out in Kansas are voting against their own self-interest and that the trouble is Kansas doesn’t know any better. Knowing all the jokes that signal this knowledge.

The studies, about Daily Show viewers and better-sized amygdalae, are knowing. It is the smug style’s first premise: a politics defined by a command of the Correct Facts and signaled by an allegiance to the Correct Culture. A politics that is just the politics of smart people in command of Good Facts. A politics that insists it has no ideology at all, only facts. No moral convictions, only charts, the kind that keep them from “imposing their morals” like the bad guys do.

One of The Atlantic’s most frequent reader contributors, Ben Denny, highly recommends the essay and applies it to a few examples in the political discourse:

I lean pretty right, so I’ve been thinking the general uncharitably of the left for a long time. The essay mentions Jon Stewart as a driving force of the smugness movement, and I think that’s pretty on-point. Before the dominance of The Daily Show, the people I knew on the left who would make a snide, complete-sounding comment devoid of actual content and consider the argument settled were the dumb ones. During and after Stewart’s reign, though? All of them, or nearly so.

With few precious exceptions I can’t find anybody who is interested in political conversation anymore. Most of the kind of people I used to be able to have a friendly argument with are now convinced that anyone not on their side is either stupid, a bigot, or both. Many others can tell that isn’t true but can’t have the argument anyway. After being told that the other side is arguing in hateful bad faith for the majority of their adult lives, they never learned how.

A good example of this smugness in play is the common “If you are for the decent treatment of women, you are a feminist. We have a word for non-feminists: Sexists.” Let’s disregard that feminism is a giant movement with many complex offshoots advocating for any number of things ranging from reasonable to bat-shit crazy. If you don’t sign on with us, 100%, you are either a sexist or just ignorant. Maybe more soundbites will fix it.

Another decent but heavier example of how this forced “Anyone who doesn't agree with us is evil” dialogue works out can be seen in the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which would have let trans-gendered people use whichever restroom they felt comfortable with.