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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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!
Moreover, in arguing that a biological man can have a female brain or vice versa, the transgender movement seems to be saying that gender is not a social construct, but is instead rooted in biology—but, apparently, not the biology dictated by chromosomes. The alternative theory is that trans people’s bodies don’t align with their souls—a notion that, as a few readers pointed out, raises some interesting religious questions.
How to reconcile these contradictions? Is gender a mere social construct, or is it biological? And if gender is a meaningless social construct, while sex is a set of immutable biological characteristics, then why is there a push in progressive circles to eliminate sex-based protections in favour of gender-based ones?
Thank you for the thoughtful reply and the opportunity to participate, Chris! I am a longtime fan of The Dish and Andrew Sullivan and very glad to see your tradition of high-quality conversation continue at The Atlantic. And thanks also for thinking of me with that comment. I will offer a few thoughts.
My view, based on my life experience and a lot of reading, is that neither pure social constructionism nor biological determinism are adequate to explain the phenomenon of gender. Gender is a complex interaction of underlying biological difference and social norms, not a simplistic either/or.
I encourage people to research for themselves the science on gender difference and trans people. The transgender movement adamantly does not contend that a person is a man or a woman based on a stereotypical outward presentation. What we argue is that people have the right to express their gender in the way that feels right. And for the record, many, many trans people do not conform to gender stereotypes of any kind, before or after transition.
He also gets to what I’ve always seen as the silver bullet for the dilemma over whether to allow kids to transition: hormone blockers.
On the question of minors, the approach advocated by most experts is that parents be accepting (not trying to force the child to conform) and simply watch and wait to see what the child figures out. Medically, the most recommended for youngsters is hormone blockers that delay the onset of puberty while the child has time to develop a bit more and figure things out. If the child turns out not to be trans, they cease the hormone blockers and go through puberty as usual, no harm done.
In addition to pausing puberty to give an adolescent time to figure out if he or she is really a she or he, hormone blockers prevent intrusive and expensive things down the line. From that American Prospect piece I linked to earlier:
For adolescents who continue their transition, hormone blockers also help to prevent later surgeries; a boy like Alex who never grows breasts in the first place need not have them removed. By around age 16, Alex could start on cross-sex hormones, which would deepen his voice, cause hair to grow on his face and his chest, and prompt the other hormonal changes of a typical teenage boy. Genital surgery—a much less common choice in transgender men since the surgical techniques are less advanced than they are for transgender women—can happen as early as age 18.
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.
For instance, my city has a large number of immigrants from South Asia and the Middle East, and the local swimming club accommodates them by offering women-only swim teams. Even fathers of the girls are not permitted to observe their practices, out of respect. Requiring that biological males who identify as female be allowed to participate would not only disadvantage biological women in athletic competition (another issue entirely), it may actually erode female participation in the sport, since girls would no longer be assured that their privacy and cultural values will be respected.
Is this a worthwhile tradeoff? I’m not so sure.
And what would happen if women-only rape crisis centres or women’s shelters were forced to open their doors to biological males who claim—sincerely or not—to identify as female? What if those men have a history of sexual violence? Would said shelters have any legal standing to turn them away? (This is not a mere hypothetical.)
Of course, trans individuals also have a right to safety and privacy. It seems the most practical solution would be to offer a single-use, gender-neutral space—something many facilities already provide. [Previous readers made the same case.] But requiring that trans folk be given full access to the sex-segregated spaces of their choice is not necessary to protect their safety, and it would lead to a number of undesirable trade-offs, especially for women’s rights and privacy.
By the same token, mandating that trans people can only use the restrooms corresponding with their biological sex also has some pitfalls. One wonders if legislators should simply leave this one alone.
Disagree? Are there sensible ways to mitigate the concerns of that mother and others like her? Drop us a note and we’ll update.
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.
If an adult decides to pursue this lifestyle (and it is ultimately a choice), I have no problem with that. I don’t favor bringing back the old “impersonating a woman” laws against cross-dressing. Yet I’m gonna resist the notion that a vocal, highly politicized minority comprising 0.008 percent of the U.S. population should drive public policy. [CB: Estimates are actually closer to .3 percent.] Yet they’ve applied enough pressure to bend the American Psychological Association to create a diagnosis to order for them.
With the exception of bullies who lay hands on transgender persons, or rare instances of employment and housing discrimination, none of the issues this lobby raises are matters of human rights. Rather, I think children should be insulated from these adult issues until they come of age. In my opinion, transgender in the USA is a cultural construct, with the hormones and surgeries its rite of passage.
If you’re generally a supporter of transgender causes, here’s a challenge: Is there anything about that reader’s note you even vaguely agree with? For instance, regarding “the initiation of hormone therapies and sex-reassignment surgery at the earliest possible age”: Should there be any limitations on minors when it comes to such medical procedures, especially the irreversible ones? How does a young child know for sure that he or she is the opposite gender?
Those are some tricky questions addressed in a fantastic and fair-minded piece from the left-leaning American Prospect in 2013: “Transgender activists believe that when children insist their birth sex is the wrong sex, their wishes should be honored. Dr. Kenneth Zucker disagrees.” Zucker is one of the leading experts in the field of transgender and gender-variant children, but he was fired from his clinic in December following intense pressure from certain trans activists. New York’s Jesse Singal has a solid report on that saga if you’re interested.
If you’d like to address that subject in general—hormone therapy and reassignment surgery for minors—please send a note to email@example.com. Pushback against that Wyoming reader also very welcome. Update with some pushback from a reader, Emmanuel, below. But first, here’s some quick context from Slate’s Hugh Ryan regarding Emmanuel’s use of “trans*”:
[T]he asterisk stems from common computing usage wherein it represents a wildcard—any number of other characters attached to the original prefix. Thus, a computer search for trans*might pull up transmission,transitory, or transsexual. But in this neologism, the * is used metaphorically to capture all the identities—from drag queen to genderqueer—that fall outside traditional gender norms.
For the purposes of the original topic in this discussion thread, I am a young liberal who is trying to become less “smug” by genuinely listening to the concerns of those on the Right. I can agree with the Wyoming reader that the kind of trans* activists who pressured Dr. Zucker are overzealous when it comes to children. Children are often still developing their understanding of gender, so we should be careful not to push irreversible surgeries and hormone treatments on a little girl who really only wanted to try out toys and clothes in the boy aisle.
However, I’d challenge the reader’s dismissal of trans* issues are rare or not real human rights concerns. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, “One in five transgender people in the United States has been discriminated when seeking a home, and more than one in ten have been evicted from their homes, because of their gender identity” while one in five have been homeless at some point. [A government report (PDF) put that eviction rate at 11 percent.] “More than one in four transgender people have lost a job due to bias, and more than three-fourths have experienced some form of workplace discrimination...one in eight become involved in underground economies—such as sex and drug work—in order to survive.”
The site also points out that it can be difficult for trans* people to find physical and mental health professionals who are knowledgeable and willing to care for them. The Youth Suicide Prevention Program states that “More than 50% of transgender youth will have had at least one suicide attempt by their 20th birthday.” [Another study, vetted by The Washington Post, puts the suicide-attempt rate for all trans people in similar territory: 41 percent.]
For the two or three people I know who work as LGBTQ advocates, these issues are much more pressing than bathroom use. Maybe the Wisconsin reader has better data to show that human rights concerns really are “rare” among the trans* advocates, but I haven’t seen it. If North Carolina’s bathroom bill dominates the media, it’s not because that’s trans* activists first or only concern. Maybe the Wisconsin reader can explain why he thinks real human rights concerns are rare in the trans* lobby, but everything I’ve seen says otherwise.
A trans guy piles on more statistics:
Your reader in Wyoming who mentions “bullies” and “rare instances of discrimination” has no idea what [he’s] talking about. Trans people face a truly appalling level of violence and discrimination in the USA and around the world, and I speak from personal experience. I’d point interested parties to the largest survey conducted of trans people for the harrowing realities (pdf of executive summary). It’s not a random sample—that’s not feasible with a small, stigmatized minority—but it is nonetheless highly valuable and illuminating. In that study, 41 percent of participants had attempted suicide (compared to 1.6 percent in the general population), 15 percent were living on less than $10k/year (4 percent in the general population), 78 percent has been harassed at school, 90 percent had been harassed at work, 19 percent reported having been homeless due to discrimination for being trans ...
It goes on and on and on. The trans community has an annual somber observance called Trans Day of Remembrance where we read the names of trans people murdered in the past year. It takes a long time.
The Wyoming reader offers a final reply, which I happen to find unpersuasive but you can judge for yourself:
I certainly learned something by participating in this exercise. Such as that neither I, nor most of the trans activists, are doctors or psychologists. I’m fairly open-minded to the idea of allowing children to dress and school with the alternate gender in the classroom on a trial basis. Will the other kids accept it, however? Will the trans kid become a prima donna, or a target of negative attention, either of which is bad? I don’t know.
Hormones are mind-altering drugs which carry substantial risks, and even puberty blockers, by interfering with normal biological events, can’t be considered innocuous. There should be very good medical or psychological reason for using these, more so if under 18.
Bullies and beatings are common incidents the schools and the sheriff’s star should suppress. It’s unbecoming a civil society. I’m old enough to recall when jocks or bikers out with baseball bats for “queers” was almost overlooked. In gym, a smaller or “different” child faces a bear even having private chambers would address incompletely. Kids are cruel to one another whence fallout extends into adulthood.
Yet the 11 percent bias-motive rental eviction rate in the Federal Register (Proposed Rule HUD; 76-15-IV, 24 Jan. 2011) is from self-reporting and unverifiable. Frequencies of the adverse events in question need to be compared versus the general population, which also experiences them. This might tell us whether the homelessness or sex trafficking is weighted by transgender, as other variables: IQ, SES, and substance abuse figure here. HUD’s rule—that landlords dipping into Uncle Sugar’s money cannot ask prospective tenants about gender background, not a business matter anyway—is reasonable.
In the end, do we have the conundrum of a girl trapped in a boy body, or does our society fail providing an honorable role for children who are different?
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.
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.
This would both make sure that anyone using the restroom will be able to securely lock the door and solve the problem of parents out in public with their opposite-sex children, caretakers assisting people with disabilities who need help in the rest room, and transgender people who do not see themselves as male or female. [CB: Hunter also made a strong point that’s relevant here: “When the justification of these bills is to prevent sexual assault, why is it not brought up that children can (and are) assaulted by members of their same biological sex, sometimes in bathrooms? Why do we insist on ignoring the evidence of cases like Dennis Hastert or the many Catholic Church officials who assaulted boys in male-only spaces?”]
Mr. Denny asks for healthy pushback toward both the left and right side of the spectrum when they overreach. How is it not overreach to pass the bathroom bill aimed at transgender people without consulting us? Perhaps some of the reaction has been imperfect. It is still a fact that some of the proponents of these bills do think we transgender people are just “deciding to change genders”—an inaccurate view that renders us non-existent and has been used to hurt us in palpable ways.
I would be happy to have a reasonable discussion with Mr. Denny on this subject. I would point out, at the same time, that idea markets are not always fair; much can depend on who has the power to enforce their ideas.
I was denied gender confirming surgery by my healthcare provider based on Medicare’s denial—a denial that had been disputed by the AMA, APA and WPATH for more than a decade. Their reasoned, evidence-based statements did little to change this unjust denial until the political situation changed, and that was in large part due to some of the admittedly sometimes messy and loud advocacy by transgender people and their allies. The people who stood firm against this change were little affected by reasonable debate. I know because I tried for over a year with my provider with no success.
I am not against reasoned debate; to the contrary, I spent 14 months attempting to have a reasoned debate with my provider over their denial, one which they had it in their power to change. And if some of the people pushing for these bathroom bills have their way, we transgender people will be pushed back into the closet. In fact, not being able to find a safe restroom will have exactly that effect for many people. The closet is a painful place to live; I know from personal experience.
Lastly, reader Michael relays a sensible approach to prevent the exploitation of bathroom laws by non-trans people merely dressing up:
Think Progress had a good explanation of the Washington State restroom ordinance that addresses specific concerns about the possibility of abuse of the ordinance. (Full disclosure, I used to work at Center for American Progress.) The ordinance does not fine or jail people if they question or deny access to a trans person who tries to use the restroom that conforms to their gender as long as the denial of access is based on a reasonable, good-faith assumption that the person is not trans and may be trying to gain access to the restroom to engage in illegal activity.
If a non-trans person tries to get into the opposite-gender bathroom for nefarious purposes under the false pretense that they are trans and is denied access, either that person would not file a discrimination complaint or, if they did, the complaint would easily be dismissed upon a quick investigation.
Granted, a conservative troll could file a complaint and try to fight it tooth and nail just to prove a point, but we should not require laws to be so airtight as to be immune to aggressive trolling. Conversely, if a trans person is legitimately trying to use a bathroom that conforms to their gender and they are denied access based on the access-denier’s good faith belief that the person is not really trans and may be up to no good, and as a result the trans person files a complaint, then the Washington State human rights commission does not have the authority to jail or fine the access-denier. Instead, the commission carries out a mediation that allows both parties to resolve their misunderstanding amicably.
This shows that the state allows for the possibility that you are not a bigot and are acting in good faith if you deny access, as long as you allow for the possibility that the person you denied access to might actually be trans and are willing to apologize if they are. As long as both sides act in good faith, misunderstandings can be resolved and the state can facilitate their resolution with a well-crafted ordinance.
I understand that popular cynicism assumes that vindictive litigiousness will always win the day in American society, but well-crafted laws and fair-minded institutions are capable of ameliorating that … if, of course, people would stop being so smug.
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.”)
Through the 2016 campaign, I posted a series called “Trump Time Capsule” in this space. The idea was to record, in real time, what was known about Donald Trump’s fitness for office—and to do so not when people were looking back on our era but while the Republican Party was deciding whether to line up behind him and voters were preparing to make their choice.
The series reached 152 installments by election day. I argued that even then there was no doubt of Trump’s mental, emotional, civic, and ethical unfitness for national leadership. If you’re hazy on the details, the series is (once again) here.
That background has equipped me to view Trump’s performance in office as consistently shocking but rarely surprising. He lied on the campaign trail, and he lies in office. He insulted women, minorities, “the other” as a candidate, and he does it as a president. He led “lock her up!” cheers at the Republican National Convention and he smiles at “send them back!” cheers now. He did not know how the “nuclear triad” worked then, and he does not know how tariffs work now. He flared at perceived personal slights when they came from Senator John McCain, and he does so when they come from the Prime Minister of Denmark. He is who he was.
What speech should be protected by the First Amendment is open to debate. Americans can, and should, argue about what the law ought to be. That’s what free people do. But while we’re all entitled to our own opinions, we’re not entitled to our own facts, even in 2019. In fact, the First Amendment is broad, robust, aggressively and consistently protected by the Supreme Court, and not subject to the many exceptions and qualifications that commentators seek to graft upon it. The majority of contemptible, bigoted speech is protected.
He understands men in America better than most people do. The rest of the country should start paying attention.
Every morning of my Joe Rogan experience began the same way Joe Rogan begins his: with the mushroom coffee.
It’s a pour-and-stir powder made from lion’s mane and chaga—“two rock-star mushrooms,” according to Joe—and it’s made by a company called Four Sigmatic, a regular advertiser on Joe Rogan’s wildly popular podcast. As a coffee lover, the mere existence of mushroom coffee offends me. (“I’ll have your most delicious thing, made from your least delicious things, please,” a friend said, scornfully.) But it tastes fine, and even better after another cup of actual coffee.
Next, I took several vitamin supplements from a company called Onnit, whose core philosophy is “total human optimization” and whose website sells all kinds of wicked-cool fitness gear—a Darth Vader kettlebell ($199.95); a 50-foot roll of two-and-a-half-inch-thick battle rope ($249.95); a 25-pound quad mace ($147.95), which according to one fitness-equipment site is a weapon dating back to 11th-century Persia. I stuck to the health products, though, because you know how it goes—you buy one quad mace and soon your apartment is filled with them. I stirred a packet of Onnit Gut Health powder into my mushroom coffee, then downed an enormous pair of Alpha Brain pills, filled with nootropics to help with “memory and focus.”
The president crossed an important line when he canceled a meeting with the Danish prime minister.
Yesterday, President Donald Trump canceled a meeting with the new Danish prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, because she refuses to discuss the sale of Greenland. Greenland used to be a Danish colony but now belongs to the people of Greenland—the Danish government could not sell the island even if it wanted to. Trump likely did not know that Denmark is one of America’s most reliable allies. Danish troops, for example, fought alongside U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and suffered 50 fatalities, and Danish forces were among the earliest to join the fight against the Islamic State.
Many Americans may laugh off Trump’s latest outrage, but Trump crossed an important line. It is one thing to float a cockamamie idea that no one believes is serious or will go anywhere. “Let’s buy Greenland!” Yes, very funny. A good distraction from the economy, the failure to deal with white supremacy, White House staff problems, or whatever is the news of the day. It is quite another to use leverage and impose costs on Denmark in pursuit of that goal—and make no mistake, canceling a presidential visit is using leverage and imposing costs. What’s next, refusing to exempt Denmark from various tariffs because it won’t discuss Greenland? Musing on Twitter that America’s defense commitments to Denmark are conditional on the negotiation? Intellectual justifications from Trump-friendly publications, citing previous purchase proposals and noting Greenland’s strategic value and abundance of natural resources? (That last one has already happened.)
Meritocracy prizes achievement above all else, making everyone—even the rich—miserable. Maybe there’s a way out.
In the summer of 1987, I graduated from a public high school in Austin, Texas, and headed northeast to attend Yale. I then spent nearly 15 years studying at various universities—the London School of Economics, the University of Oxford, Harvard, and finally Yale Law School—picking up a string of degrees along the way. Today, I teach at Yale Law, where my students unnervingly resemble my younger self: They are, overwhelmingly, products of professional parents and high-class universities. I pass on to them the advantages that my own teachers bestowed on me. They, and I, owe our prosperity and our caste to meritocracy.
Two decades ago, when I started writing about economic inequality, meritocracy seemed more likely a cure than a cause. Meritocracy’s early advocates championed social mobility. In the 1960s, for instance, Yale President Kingman Brewster brought meritocratic admissions to the university with the express aim of breaking a hereditary elite. Alumni had long believed that their sons had a birthright to follow them to Yale; now prospective students would gain admission based on achievement rather than breeding. Meritocracy—for a time—replaced complacent insiders with talented and hardworking outsiders.
The famed economist’s “shareholder theory” provides corporations with too much room to violate consumers’ rights and trust.
On Monday, the Business Roundtable, a group that represents CEOs of big corporations, declared that it had changed its mind about the “purpose of a corporation.” That purpose is no longer to maximize profits for shareholders, but to benefit other “stakeholders” as well, including employees, customers, and citizens.
While the statement is a welcome repudiation of a highly influential but spurious theory of corporate responsibility, this new philosophy will not likely change the way corporations behave. The only way to force corporations to act in the public interest is to subject them to legal regulation.
The shareholder theory is usually credited to Milton Friedman, the University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate. In a famous 1970 New York Timesarticle, Friedman argued that because the CEO is an “employee” of the shareholders, he or she must act in their interest, which is to give them the highest return possible. Friedman pointed out that if a CEO acts otherwise—let’s say, donates corporate funds to an environmental cause or to an anti-poverty program—the CEO must get those funds from customers (through higher prices), workers (through lower wages), or shareholders (through lower returns). But then the CEO is just imposing a “tax” on other people, and using the funds for a social cause that he or she has no particular expertise in. It would be better to let customers, workers, or investors use that money to make their own charitable contributions if they wish to.
Even if the party sweeps Congress and the White House in 2020, the Senate rule would let a faction of the reddest, whitest states stymie its agenda.
Even if Democrats regain unified control of the White House and Congress in 2020, the fate of their ambitious legislative agenda will still likely hinge on a fundamental question: Do they try to end the Senate filibuster?
If the party chooses to keep the filibuster, it faces a daunting prospect: Democrats elected primarily by voters in states at the forefront of the country’s demographic, cultural, and economic changes will likely have their agenda blocked by Republican senators largely representing the smaller, rural states least touched by all of those changes. In fact, since the Senate gives each state two seats, the filibuster allows Republican senators from states representing only about one-fifth of the country’s population to be in a position to stymie Democratic legislation.
The U.S. president canceled his visit to the kingdom over his failed attempt to buy Greenland. Danes are reacting with bewilderment, anger, and humor.
COPENHAGEN—At first there was disbelief, then anger, and then, following a script now familiar to a growing number of nations, Denmark turned, in its attempt to explain the inexplicable, to speculation. After waking yesterday morning to the news that the president of the United States had canceled a state visit that he himself had requested, Danes found themselves moving through the stages of Donald Trump grief.
Trump tweeted early yesterday here, just two weeks before he was to come to Denmark, that the trip was off. “Based on Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s comments, that she would have no interest in discussing the purchase of Greenland, I will be postponing our meeting,” he wrote. (His tweet was sent just hours after Carla Sands, the U.S. ambassador to Denmark, tweeted: “Denmark is ready for the POTUS.”)
Is it a cruelty or a kindness to suggest friendship during a breakup?
A weird thing happened to Rebecca Griffith, a graduate student at the University of Kansas, when she began presenting her research findings on “post-dissolution friendships”—friendships between two people who have broken off a romantic relationship—at conferences a few years ago. It was unusual research, certainly; only a few studies had ever attempted to suss out what factors made a post-breakup friendship a success or a bust, and after her presentations, Griffith often took questions from other scientists and peers in her field. But the query she encountered most often was not about her conclusions, or her methodology, or her data analysis. It was, “Should I stay friends with my ex?”
The questions of whether and how to stay friends with an ex–romantic partner are, as Griffith can attest, both complex and universal. Scan through the portion of the internet that’s devoted to crowd-sourcing answers to hard questions, for example, and you’ll find endless iterations of this conundrum: On forum sites like Quora and Yahoo! Answers, as well as Reddit pages like r/relationships, r/teenagers, and r/AskReddit, both dumpers and dumpees seek advice on what it means to want to stay friends, whether to agree to stay friends, and whether to ask to stay friends.
Once derided as a “novelty candidate,” the outsider Democrat is poised to hang on longer than many senators and governors in the 2020 primary race.
CLEAR LAKE, Iowa—The Best Western Holiday Lodge off Route 18 in northern Iowa feels like the right place to talk about how maybe it’s too late. Accept it, deal with it, Andrew Yang tells me, but try to make the best of it, and maybe we’ll even get somewhere decent along the way. But there’s no “patching the dam,” as he put it. “The world has changed; the world is changing. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle, try as we might or wish as we might,” he told me. “We have to start dealing with the world as it is.”
(Our conversation can be heard in full on the Radio Atlantic podcast below.)
Yang has already qualified for the third Democratic-primary debate next month, while most of his competitors will not. Several candidates who fail to make the cut are expected to drop out by the end of September. Yang believes his support is much greater than polls can measure, claiming that his supporters—the “Yang Gang”—primarily use cellphones instead of the landlines that tend to make up the average polling groups. The Tesla founder Elon Musk tweeted “I support Yang” last week. “We’re going to shock the world come next February,” Yang told me, referring to the Iowa caucuses on February 3, 2020.