Much Ado About Genitalia

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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.

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.