Reporter's Notebook

A Good-Faith Debate on Transgender Rights
Show Description +

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 None Newer Notes

Much Ado About Genitalia

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.

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:

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.

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.

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.

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?