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.
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.
There is tremendous sexual and gender diversity in our species. There is no single biological measure than can be used to define a woman or man. It’s more like a messy venn diagram.
Intersex conditions are way more common that people think. Many people deviate from the male/female binary in our textbooks, from birth or from a later point. If one really scrutinizes it and goes looking for “man-ness” or “woman-ness,” one finds that nothing—not hormones, not chromosomes, not genitalia, not gonads, and certainly not any personality trait—is actually a completely reliable sure thing.
Gender is a social structure overlaid onto the spectrum of biological sexual difference. There is excellent reason to think our brains play key roles in how we navigate this system, as described in the articles you linked to. Some people just don’t fit the box, whether that be trans people, intersex people, gay, lesbian and bisexual people, and other folks, too.
Can you have compassion for us, and allow us to participate fully in our communities? Or do you care more about pink and blue divisions than you care about human beings?
Perhaps a bit of my own story would helpful here. I was not that kid who could say at age 3, “I’m supposed to be a boy.” I was that kid who was severely depressed by the time I started kindergarten. I suffered under the fog of clinical depression every day of my life from age 5 until I finally began to express my male self, a process when I was 17-22 years old.
Fifteen years is a lot of life to waste to misery. I remember being 5 or 6 and screaming at my mother till my voice went hoarse: “I hate you and I wish I had never been born.” This was a nightly occurrence for long stretches of my childhood. I truly wished I did not exist and I blamed my mother for giving me life.
I did not realize at the time that it had to do with gender. What I realized was that there was something profoundly, permanently wrong with me. It felt like everyone else could see it, but I could never put my finger on what it was.
Finally, in my late teens, after a lot of support from therapy, antidepressants, my family, my religion, and good friends, I somehow found the wherewithal to face it. I began allowing myself to wear the masculine clothing I had always secretly wanted, I cut my hair short, I took on a gender-neutral nickname. It was like I’d had a dull headache my entire life and it was suddenly gone.
Bit by bit, I grew up into a man. I knew hope for the first time in my life. I became able to imagine myself getting married, having a family, growing older, being someone.
Today it’s been some ten years since I first allowed myself to express my masculinity and more than six since my social, legal, and medical transition. I have an ordinary life. I am happier than I ever thought possible. It is no understatement to say that transition saved my life.
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:
“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:
No one is able to define the word “woman” in this context without resorting to metaphysical jargon (“female soul”) or a circular definition (“a woman is anyone who identifies as a woman”). People can and should do whatever they want to be happy, but I do not support crafting legislation and public policy around such an irrational concept and forcing the general public to accept it as truth (see the Obama administration’s recent guidelines regarding the definition of the term “sex” as it applies to Title IX). It is nonsense, no different from those who base their political ideology on religion.
“Trans people have brains that are different from males and females, a unique kind of brain,” [Antonio Guillamon of the National Distance Education University in Madrid] says. “It is simplistic to say that a female-to-male transgender person is a female trapped in a male body. It’s not because they have a male brain but a transsexual brain.”
And here’s a Wall Street Journal item looking through more brain science, concluding that “sometimes people are born with bodies whose gender is different from what they actually are.”
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.”)
Insights into the little-studied realm of last words
Mort Felix liked to say that his name, when read as two Latin words, meant “happy death.” When he was sick with the flu, he used to jokingly remind his wife, Susan, that he wanted Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” played at his deathbed. But when his life’s end arrived at the age of 77, he lay in his study in his Berkeley, California, home, his body besieged by cancer and his consciousness cradled in morphine, uninterested in music and refusing food as he dwindled away over three weeks in 2012. “Enough,” he told Susan. “Thank you, and I love you, and enough.” When she came downstairs the next morning, she found Felix dead.
During those three weeks, Felix had talked. He was a clinical psychologist who had also spent a lifetime writing poetry, and though his end-of-life speech often didn’t make sense, it seemed to draw from his attention to language. “There’s so much so in sorrow,” he said at one point. “Let me down from here,” he said at another. “I’ve lost my modality.” To the surprise of his family members, the lifelong atheist also began hallucinating angels and complaining about the crowded room—even though no one was there.
Once again, Trump tried and failed to strike a deal on Saturday.
President Donald Trump is trapped. He shut the government to impose his will on the incoming Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. That plan has miserably failed. Instead, Trump has found himself caught in the trap he supposed he had set for his opponents.
Now he is desperately seeking an exit.
Trump attempted Exit One on January 8.He spoke that evening to the nation from the Oval Office, hoping to mobilize public opinion behind him, pressing the Democratic leadership of the House to yield to him. That hope was miserably disappointed. Surveys post-speech found that Trump had swayed only 2 percent of TV viewers. In the 10 days since the speech, Trump’s approval ratings have dipped to about the lowest point in his presidency. The supposedly solid Trump base has measurably softened.
She beat George W. Bush on Social Security privatization, and she’ll beat Trump on the wall.
Democrats sometimes portray themselves as high-minded and naive—unwilling to play as rough as the GOP. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is, once again, proving that self-image wrong. She’s not only refusing Donald Trump’s demand for a border wall. She’s trying to cripple his presidency. And she may well succeed.
Pelosi’s strategy resembles the one she employed to debilitate another Republican president: George W. Bush. Bush returned to Washington after his 2004 reelection victory determined to partially privatize Social Security. “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital,” he told the press, “and I intend to spend it.” Bush’s plan contained two main elements. The first was convincing the public that there was a crisis. Social Security, he declared in his 2005 State of the Union address, “is headed toward bankruptcy.” The second was persuading Democrats to offer their own proposals for changing it.
Starting the process will rein in a president who is undermining American ideals—and bring the debate about his fitness for office into Congress, where it belongs.
On January 20, 2017,Donald Trump stood on the steps of the Capitol, raised his right hand, and solemnly swore to faithfully execute the office of president of the United States and, to the best of his ability, to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. He has not kept that promise.
Instead, he has mounted a concerted challenge to the separation of powers, to the rule of law, and to the civil liberties enshrined in our founding documents. He has purposefully inflamed America’s divisions. He has set himself against the American idea, the principle that all of us—of every race, gender, and creed—are created equal.
[Please see Updates at the end of this post.] I don’t know who the young man in the MAGA hat in this photo is. And I don’t care to know.
His name, which the internet will inevitably turn up, really doesn’t matter. It matters to his parents, of course—and to his teachers. I hope they will be reflective, and I know they should be ashamed: of this smirking young man and the scores of other (nearly all white) students from a Catholic school in Kentucky. Today, on the National Mall in Washington, they apparently mocked, harassed, and menaced a Native American man who had fought for the United States in Vietnam and who today represented both the U.S. and his Omaha nation with poise, courage, and dignity.
The senator from Massachusetts announced she was running for president on New Year’s Eve—and then had the field largely to herself.
CLAREMONT, N.H.—Elizabeth Warren wants the look on her face to be funny. It’s somewhere between stern and confused and disappointed, complete with fists briefly on her hips, like she’s playing a mom in a commercial who just found an adorable kid making a mess on the floor.
That’s how the senator from Massachusetts responds late Friday when I ask her what she thinks will happen if the rest of the Democratic primary field doesn’t follow her lead and put talking about the economy at the center of their campaigns.
“I don’t know how anyone could not talk about the economy—and corruption!—and diagnose what’s wrong in America today. I just don’t know how they could do it,” she said, then added with a little snark creeping in to her voice, “Good luck …”
Strategists considered sacrificing older pilots to patrol the skies in flying reactors. An Object Lesson.
The U.S. Navy recently asked Congress for $139 billion to update its fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. Unlike “conventional” submarines, which need to surface frequently, nuclear submarines can cruise below the sea at high speeds for decades without ever needing to refuel. Defense planners expect that the new submarines will run on one fueling for the entirety of deployment—up to a half century.
The advantages of nuclear submarines over their conventional cousins raise a question about another component of the military arsenal: Why don’t airplanes run on nuclear power?
The reasons are many. Making a nuclear reactor flightworthy is difficult. Shielding it from spewing dangerous radiation into the bodies of its crew might be impossible. During the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear apocalypse led to surprisingly pragmatic plans, engineers proposed to solve the problem by hiring elderly Air Force crews to pilot the hypothetical nuclear planes, because they would die before radiation exposure gave them fatal cancers.
Surely, users know that Facebook uses information about their behaviors and friendships to deduce a constantly updating list of their interests. This detailed information about people constitutes Facebook’s competitive advantage: If it knows what people like, it can put ads in front of them that are likely to result in purchases.
But, no—a new Pew study indicates that after all this time, a large majority of users still don’t know that Facebook compiles this kind of information.
Pew researchers called up almost a thousand Americans and asked them if they knew about the list of “traits and interests” that Facebook keeps for almost all active users. The company provides users easy access to it—you can see your own list here—yet 74 percent of respondents to the survey said they did not know about the list’s existence.
A delightful “Weekend Update” appearance from John Mulaney and Pete Davidson gave a jolt of energy to an otherwise uninspired episode.
Pete Davidson has been largely absent from Saturday Night Live for the past couple of months. The 25-year-old comedian has had a tabloid spotlight trained on him since June 2018, when his engagement to the pop star Ariana Grande became the story of the summer. Davidson, whose comedic approach is raw and personal, would often stop by SNL’s “Weekend Update” segment to joke about the volatility of his relationship, which eventually collapsed. In November, he apologized to then-incoming Republican Representative Dan Crenshaw for mocking the veteran’s combat injury on the air. Less than a month later, Davidson posted on Instagram about feeling suicidal, alarming people enough that a police officer was sent to the SNL studios to check on him.
For someone who actively avoids criticizing the president, Senator Jim Risch has a lot to say about how he will deal with Trump.
It’s a familiar pattern: President Donald Trump’s Republican allies disagree with him on a major issue. They send statements and tweets, and repeat talking points on cable news. But will those in positions of power actually stand up to the president when they are at odds with him?
For Jim Risch, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a big test could come if Trump decides to withdraw from NATO, the military alliance with Europe that the U.S. has led for more than 70 years, as he has reportedly suggested he may do.
“There is zero appetite in the United States Congress to leave NATO,” Risch told me on Wednesday. “Fair statement?” he asked, turning to an adviser. “Maybe one voice,” the adviser joked. Risch amended his statement: “Almost zero appetite.”