In the last month, I’ve watched countless news broadcasts and social media updates focusing on first, North Carolina’s HB2 with its restriction on bathroom access, and then, a directive from the Obama administration to allow transgender youth access to bathrooms in their public schools that corresponds to their gender identity. I’ve waited to put my thoughts on paper (err….screen, I guess is more appropriate here) because I needed to reflect upon my own ignorance to others’ ignorance.
Okay, first, you’ve been using bathrooms with transgender people forever and you probably didn’t even know it. Here’s why: transgender folks sometimes still conform to societal standards of gender expression/performance even if their biological sex isn’t congruent. So, unless you’re peering through the cracks in the bathroom door or over/under the dividers (which is actually really, really creepy and probably illegal), you’ve done your business with a transgender person in the same room. I can guarantee it.
Second, if you’re afraid of what would happen if a transgender person were in the bathroom with your children, stop projecting your fear of sexual violence (which is a real fear) onto transgender individuals! Transgender persons are NOT pedophiles! They are simply (or complexly) individuals whose biological sex is incongruent with their gender identity. I know that these can sometimes be confusing terms, so I’ll summarize each below:
- Biological Sex: made up of presence of genitalia, hormones, chromosome pairings, secondary sex characteristics (like voice changes, hip widening, breast development). For simplicity sake–we boil this down to man and woman, even though there are many other sexes, including intersex folks (if you’re interested, which you should be), visit the Intersex Society of North America). Yes, there are individuals who are born with multiple distinctions of genitalia, but, from a social structure perspective, we’ve forced them into boxes.
- Gender: social construction that patterns, rewards, and punishes attitudes and behaviors that are congruent or incongruent with gender norms which are culturally and historically changeable. What all of that boils down to is that we created genders based upon what we thought people with certain genitalia should or should not be doing/wearing/thinking/feeling. We label these as male and female–again, too simple.
- Gender Identity: our own concept of who we are as it relates to various constructions of gender. Can take on many different labels: trans, trans man, trans woman, genderqueer, gender fluid, non-gender, male, female, boi, grrl (as an example, read up on how Facebook allows you to identify.)
- Transgender: a term for those whose biological sex isn’t the same as their gender/gender identity. (Here’s an awesome resource from the American Psychological Association).
- Cisgender: a term for those whose biological sex and gender/gender identity are the same.
So, since we’ve structured gender to be these boxes of expectations (including, where one should be able to process a biological function), why can’t we structure it differently? The current system doesn’t work for everyone. I’ll continue using the bathroom example–why is it that here in U.S. culture, we are completely okay with having individuals display their intimate body parts for others to see? As a man, I am presented with the option to use a urinal in full view of other men. If I go to the gym and want to shower after, I usually have to do this in full view of other men (although some gyms have private shower areas). For MANY reasons, I don’t feel comfortable showering in front of people or even using a urinal. I can’t be the only guy out there that feels this way, yet, we keep building facilities that lack privacy for, well, private matters like showering or urinating.
Perhaps there’s an answer there–can’t we just provide private spaces for everyone instead of creating angst, shame, fear, hatred, and even downright violence toward those that don’t conform to a standard that DOESN’T WORK ANYWAY? Perhaps high schools could create divided locker room shower areas so each person can do what they need to do in private? How about bathroom stalls that don’t have cracks in the door/wall divider? Allow whomever needs to use the bathroom to do so? This can help so many more individuals than just trans* folks (not that this isn’t reason enough already). Parents can take their opposite sex child into a restroom stall. Children (or other care providers) can take elderly individuals in and provide assistance without worrying about being the same sex.
Why the fear? Well, this is what I needed to reflect on. Initially, I guess, everyone can be fearful of things they don’t quite understand or are confused by. We conflate sex and gender constantly and really just assume that men are men and women are women and should act accordingly, even though we really know deep down that it isn’t that simple. We keep it simple because it actually benefits us as cisgender people.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 provide us all the information we need:
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
We need to get on board folks, and in a hurry. The law is clear. We need to catch up. How can you do this? Read more, ask questions, don’t jump to conclusions. There are plenty of organizations out there that can provide some fantastic information: