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 email@example.com.
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.
Different states have different rules about whether, how, and in what circumstances sex can be altered on a birth certificate, and I would imagine the states proposing these laws are likely less accommodating on that front. 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.
Essentially, these laws, because of the lack of understanding of issues of gender and sexual identity on the part of the people writing them, create exactly the “nightmare scenario” (a sexually interested member of the opposite sex in a bathroom with “our women”) they’re intending to forestall. Does anyone else find that kind of funny, or just me?
The reader makes a good point, showing the incoherence of a lot of these bathroom bills. But reassignment surgery or not, genitalia is rarely seen in public restrooms anyway, primarily due to stalls, so the much more visible—and thus disruptive—factor is hair and clothing. A transgender woman, conventionally dressed as a woman, perhaps in a dress, is a startling sight in a men’s bathroom if the law forces her to use the bathroom of the gender on her birth certificate (male). If that person got hormone and reassignment surgery, providing her breasts and female genitalia, that would still be much less of a visible factor than feminine clothing, hair, and makeup.
Locker rooms, however, are a different story; people in them change clothes in front of other people or take showers nearby, and both activities involve full or partial nudity. Transgender individuals with genitalia different than everyone else in the locker room are far more noticeable than transgender individuals using a bathroom stall. Would the presence of a transgender guy with breasts and female genitalia showering in a guy’s locker room, for example, increase the likelihood of sexual or nonsexual assault? That’s one of the tricky questions that doesn’t seem relevant to the bathroom bills.
Do you have any thoughts along these lines—the differences between bathrooms and locker rooms—or about the transgender debate in general? Drop us a note. By this point there are countless Atlantic pieces to use as a reference point, but Emma’s recent essay, “America’s Profound Gender Anxiety,” has a lot of things to grab on to. One commenter on her piece, a self-described progressive, makes an essential point about the political debate right now:
The T has always rested uneasily with the L and G in GLBT. Gays and lesbians tend to be—whether they realize it or not—pretty gender essentialist. It’s a not well-kept secret in the “movement,” and it's an issue of long standing. The T for transgender as currently being dogmatized by academics is nothing like the T for transvestite, which actually plays ON gender essentialism and evaporates with the New Transgenderism.
The New Yorker’s Michelle Goldberg has a must-read essay about that long-standing tension over gender essentialism, “What Is a Woman? The dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism.” Emma’s reader also makes this meta point: “The problem with epistemic bubbles today is that if people read their opponents, it’s mostly to confirm themselves in their Right-Thinking (TM), instead of actually considering that their own arguments may not be as persuasive as they realized.” So if you’re interested in popping these bubbles, away from the epistemic closure of the comments section and social media, please let us know.
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.
This would have had a positive effect for the folks for whom the law was designed, but the law was also not without potential issues. Any law that allows trans people to use whichever restroom they feel more comfortable with also allows anyone to do so, unless an arbiter of some sort is empowered to declare who is and isn’t genuinely trans. Nobody would dare do this, and as such trans is as trans says it is. Anyone could have used any bathroom, and anyone who wasn’t trans but was called on it would have had avenue to sue. It was a mess waiting to happen.
Proponents of the bill were quick to point out that trans people aren’t known for violence when using the opposite sex's bathrooms, and I agree with them on this. Even if every trans person was a celibate asexual, though, it wouldn’t matter. The danger is not from the law when used correctly, but when a poorly designed law without necessary fail-safes is abused by those it wasn’t designed for.
Proponents will be quick to point out that there’s no record of this happening, either, but laws that would allow them to do so don’t exist yet. Hunting season isn’t open yet, but I think that anybody who trusts the criminal perverts of America to do the right thing on this issue is probably a little more optimistic than reality will back up.
This isn’t to say that there weren’t hateful reasons for fighting the bill, as I’m sure there were, but every concern of any kind related to HERO was dismissed as hatred and ignorance by the act’s proponents. The narrative was quintessential smugness: Our side is 100% right, and your side is 100% hateful bigots whose opinions don’t matter.
I tried, in writing this email, to find any article that acknowledged that “the law can be abused” angle as legitimate, but I was unable to. [CB note: If you are able to, please email.] The narrative was simple: fall in line, or we will call you a bigot. When the people of Houston saw every concern—legitimate or not—hand-waved away, they rejected the bill entirely.
Is it surprising that this bill failed and that other bills are being introduced and passed to preemptively counter this “threat”? I don’t think so. I think a massive amount of Americans have come to the realization that the establishment left doesn’t accept anything but absolute party-line adherence. I think it would have been impossible for them to not notice that debate and discussion aren’t allowed anymore and that the media as a whole isn’t willing to give a fair representation to arguments that run counter to a generally socially progressive agenda, even where legitimate points of debate are to be had. Faced with the reality that they would be considered racist, bigoted homophobes unless they completely abandoned every single element of their beliefs and political convictions, massive amounts of Americans have stopped caring about any media influence’s opinions.
Everyone loses here. I don’t think any reasonable person really believes that either side of our political spectrum can be healthy without push-back from the other side; no powerful group is without its excesses, and without competition to trim them, overreaches can become dangerous. Neither side can be 100% right; we need dialogue and disagreement to refine us.
While I’d like to be glad about the current revert to the right the country is going through, I think Trump is a very good example of why I can’t be. His candidacy doesn’t happen in an idea-market where reasonable debate between people of differing party affiliations is possible, but without change I suspect our future holds more of the same. This is bad for all of us.
Disagree with Denny? Does Rensin’s essay miss the mark? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll air the strongest counterpoints. Or, if you agree with Rensin and Denny and want to highlight notable examples of the “smug style,” we’ll consider those too. (Personally I think they unfairly single out Jon Stewart, whose self-deprecating style is much less smug than, say, Bill Maher. Update: Rensin clarifies via Twitter: “For what it’s worth, I don’t think Stewart is personally smug, just that he was weaponized by Knowing.”)
The Constitution should be the sturdy vessel of our ideals and aspirations, not a derelict sailing ship locked in the ice of a world far from our own.
During her confirmation hearings, Amy Coney Barrett argued that the judicial philosophy known as “originalism” should guide judges in their interpretation and application of constitutional principles. Most famously associated with the late Justice Antonin Scalia (for whom Judge Barrett clerked), this idea sounds simple and sensible: In determining what the Constitution permits, a judge must first look to the plain meaning of the text, and if that isn’t clear, then apply what was in the minds of the 55 men who wrote it in 1787. Period. Anything else is “judicial lawmaking.”
In some cases, interpreting the Constitution with an originalist lens is pretty easy; for example, the Constitution says that the president must be at least 35 years old (“35” means, well, 35), that each state has two senators (not three and not one), and that Congress is authorized to establish and support an Army and a Navy. But wait a minute. What about the Air Force? Is it mentioned in the text? Nope. Is there any ambiguity in the text? Again, no. It doesn’t say “armed forces”; it explicitly says “Army” and “Navy.” Did the Framers have in mind the Air Force 115 years before the Wright brothers? Not likely.
The vocalist flaunted her personality, not her pipes—in an assertion that her stardom is bigger than singing.
It’s been almost five years since Adele Adkins released new music. Her last album, 25, delivered emotional, vocally masterful, classicist pop just in time to soothe listeners during taxing election seasons in the U.S. and U.K. An excellent Saturday Night Live sketch back then even posited that her hit “Hello” could be the one thing to bring together feuding family members at Thanksgiving dinners. Continuing Adele’s streak of blazing commercial success, 25 ended up being the best-selling album in the world that year.
With campaign stress—and the melancholic chill of sweater weather—in the air again, now would seem an ideal time for listeners to be comforted by her voice once more. Earlier this year, Adele told congregants at a wedding that 25’s follow-up would arrive in September, but that month came and went without any new music from her. There was, however, one tantalizing bit of news: Adele was booked to play last night’s SNL. Today, her status as the queen of heartbreak remains intact; the role she played was not musical guest but teasing, affable, yet ultimately unmemorable host.
Many Americans who brand Trump and his allies as fascists are paying too little attention to abuses in Hong Kong and cultural genocide in Xinjiang.
How do Americans decide what to be outraged about? It seems like ancient history now, but that was one of the questions TheNew York Times inadvertently raised in June when it appended an editor’s note to an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton—a piece that some on the Times staff saw as presenting a physical danger not only to the country but to themselves.
The op-ed called for American troops to be sent to “restore order” to cities experiencing violent protests. Outside and inside the Times, it was widely condemned as “fascist” or fascist-adjacent. More recently, though, the Times published an op-ed of a similar vein, except this time readers had the opportunity to glimpse what actual fascism looks like. Fascism, in today’s context, isn’t mere authoritarianism, but the attempt to suppress all dissent, public or private, in the name of the nation; it is the expression of a regimented society that elevates order as both the means and end of all political life.
“Our boyfriends, our significant others, and our husbands are supposed to be No. 1. Our worlds are backward.”
Kami West had been dating her current boyfriend for a few weeks when she told him that he was outranked by her best friend. West knew her boyfriend had caught snatches of her daily calls with Kate Tillotson, which she often placed on speaker mode. But she figured that he, like the men she’d dated before, didn’t quite grasp the nature of their friendship. West explained to him, “I need you to know that she’s not going anywhere. She is my No. 1.” Tillotson was there before him, and, West told him, “she will be there after you. And if you think at any point that this isn’t going to be my No. 1, you’re wrong.”
If West’s comments sound blunt, it’s because she was determined not to repeat a distressing experience from her mid-20s. Her boyfriend at that time had sensed that he wasn’t her top priority. In what West saw as an attempt to keep her away from her friend, he disparaged Tillotson, calling her a slut and a bad influence. After the relationship ended, West, 31, vowed to never let another man strain her friendship. She decided that any future romantic partners would have to adapt to her friendship with Tillotson, rather than the other way around.
To raise doubts about the Democratic nominee, right-wing-media smears don’t even need to make sense.
On Tuesday, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham broke some news: An “investigative journalist” named Matthew Tyrmand had uncovered a cache of 26,000 emails belonging to Hunter Biden’s disgraced business partner Bevan Cooney, who is now in jail. Tyrmand claimed that he had gotten hold of the emails via a person in the same facility as Cooney (a “federal work camp for white-collar infractions,” is how Tyrmand put it). Tyrmand explained that Cooney felt stiffed by Biden, the son of the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, and implied that Cooney had handed over his own Gmail password in an act of revenge.
Perhaps that’s what happened. Or perhaps not: I have good reason to doubt the reliability of the source. The last time I saw Tyrmand was in October 2017. I was speaking at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and he was in the audience. Security guards were keeping an eye on him after I warned them that he might show up: He’d come to another public lecture of mine the previous day in New York City, then had turned up in Boston and announced on Twitter that he was following me to Cambridge. His goal, I think, was to shout at me and draw attention to himself while waving a cellphone camera in the air, which is what he’d done in the past. But the lecture went off smoothly; afterward, a very gentle and very tall Harvard professor stood firmly between us, engaging Tyrmand in vigorous conversation so that I could slip away unharassed. I didn’t hear directly from Tyrmand after that—I block the social-media accounts of tiresome trolls. But I gather that, year in and year out, he continues to post obsessively about me and my husband, a Polish politician, including photographs taken surreptitiously in public places. I have no idea why.
What the happiest Springsteen album in decades can teach us about Joe Biden, the wisdom of maturity, and the meaning of life
I recently saw a photo of Lyndon B. Johnson in the first year of his presidency. He looked like a classic old guy—wrinkled, mature, in the late season of life. It was a shock to learn that he was only 55 at the time, roughly the same age as Chris Rock is now. He left the presidency, broken, and beaten, at 60, the same age as, say, Colin Firth is now.
Something has happened to aging. Whether because of better diet or health care or something else, a 73-year-old in 2020 looks like a 53-year-old in 1935. The speaker of the House is 80 and going strong. The presidential candidates are 77 and 74. Even our rock stars are getting up there. Bob Dylan produced a remarkable album this year at 79. Bruce Springsteen released an album today at 71. “Active aging” is now a decades-long phase of life. As the nation becomes a gerontocracy, it’s worth pondering: What do people gain when they age, and what do they lose? What does successful aging look like?
Donald Trump barely won the state in 2016. Here’s how Democrats plan to flip it back.
In 2016, Donald Trump won Michigan by the narrowest margin of any state—10,704 votes.
“There are 11,000 more votes in Detroit,” Garlin Gilchrist told himself that night. “There are 11,000 Black men who could vote to change that.”
A few months later, Gilchrist,then just 35,entered the race for Detroit city clerk—the city’s chief elections officer. His pitch: He could help engage more voters, and help make it easier for them to vote. As a young Black man, he felt he could understand why so many other Black men had sat out the presidential election—and why some thought their vote didn’t matter. Black men had shown up twice for Barack Obama, and their life hadn’t changed that much. Hillary Clinton wasn’t even Black.
As society gets richer, people chase the wrong things.
“How to Build a Life” is a biweekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
One of the greatest paradoxes in American life is that while, on average, existence has gotten more comfortable over time, happiness has fallen.
According to the United States Census Bureau, average household income in the U.S., adjusted for inflation, was higher in 2019 than has ever been recorded for every income quintile. And although income inequality has risen, this has not been mirrored by inequality in the consumption of goods and services. For example, from 2008 to 2019, households in the lowest income quintile increased spending on eating out by an average of about 22 percent after correcting for inflation; the top quintile increased spending on eating out by an average of just under 8 percent. Meanwhile, domestic government services have increased significantly: For example, federal spending on education, training, employment, and social services increased from 2000 to 2019 by about 30 percent in inflation-adjusted terms.
The president of the United States poses a threat to our collective existence. The choice voters face is spectacularly obvious.
In 1973, a United States Air Force officer, Major Harold Hering, asked a question that the Air Force did not want asked. Hering, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, was then in training to become a Minuteman-missile crewman. The question he asked one of his instructors was this: “How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?”
The writer Ron Rosenbaum would later call this the “forbidden question.” Missile officers are allowed to ask certain sorts of questions—about the various fail-safe systems built to prevent the accidental launching of nuclear weapons, for instance. But the Air Force would not answer Hering’s question, and it moved to discharge him after determining that officers responsible for launching nuclear weapons did not “need to know” the answer. “I have to say I feel I do have a need to know because I am a human being,” Hering said in response.
In normal times, Americans don’t think much about democracy. Our Constitution, with its guarantees of free press, speech, and assembly, was written more than two centuries ago. Our electoral system has never failed, not during two world wars, not even during the Civil War. Citizenship requires very little of us, only that we show up to vote occasionally. Many of us are so complacent that we don’t bother. Nearly 40 percent of eligible voters failed to participate in the 2016 presidential election; nearly half stayed home for the midterm election two years later. We treat democracy like clean water, something that just comes out of the tap, something we exert no effort to procure.
But these are not normal times. The coronavirus pandemic—which has killed more than 200,000 Americans and sickened millions, including President Donald Trump—has made many voters anxious about going to the polls on November 3. The pandemic has also created new opportunities for Trump and his allies to subvert the election.The warning signs are multiplying: If Trump gets his way, the presidential election on November 3 will not be free and fair. My Atlantic colleague Barton Gellman has laid out an entirely plausible scenario, one in which Trump challenges the validity of mail-in ballots, more numerous this year, and persuades state legislatures to overrule them, imposing an undemocratic result. He reported that Republican Party officials are preparing for this outcome.