Much Ado About Restrooms
While our aging republic is setting itself up for the most regrettable choice of presidential candidates in its history, how are the American people occupying themselves? Watching TV, of course — especially the antics of Lena Dunham and other habitually naked and/or potty-mouthed pay-cable darlings. Rewarding Beyoncé for taking a baseball bat to multiple car windows in her latest video. Mourning the premature death of pop idol Prince, posthumously acclaimed by some experts as the greatest musician of all time. Roll over, Paganini.
They’re also in a tizzy over toilets — specifically the right of transgender folk to use facilities originally intended for the opposite biological sex. First the government of North Carolina stirred up a tempest by enacting legislation that curtailed those rights. Progressives were outraged; boycotts and acrimony ensued. Now Target has scandalized conservatives by launching a transgender-friendly bathroom policy in all its stores. A million traditionalists, led by the American Family Association, have promised to boycott the retail giant.
Restrooms, like just about everything else in our fractured red-blue nation, have suddenly become politicized. Colorful memes mocking one side or the other are popping up daily on my Facebook feed. Conservatives command us to stand guard while our wives and daughters attend to their necessities, while progressives caution us that the ones we need to guard against are the creepy Republicans peeking under the stalls.
The whole transgender category is a relatively recent addition to the cultural landscape; it used to be that someone who felt marooned in the wrong body had a sex-change operation to clarify his or her gender status. Witness travel writer James/Jan Morris, musician Walter/Wendy Carlos, celebrity scion Chastity/Chaz Bono. Surgery eliminated the ambiguity, and all was right with the world. Where gender was concerned, we were still operating on the binary system.
That’s history now, if we’re to accept the progressive perspective on the subject. (Since progressives almost always shape our future attitudes on social issues, we have little choice but to yield to their wisdom or be trodden under with fundamentalist Christians and other troglodytes.) Gender is no longer a superficial matter of genitals, chromosomes or outward appearance, they tell us; it’s certainly not in the eye of the beholder. A man who looks, sounds and acts like a man can still call himself a woman if he feels like one, and that person is entitled (except in Paleolithic states like North Carolina) to use the ladies’ room.
I really don’t mean to sound flippant. As a living relic of the binary gender era, I’m taking a while to adjust. (We Baby Boomers have had a deluge of social changes to deal with since the Eisenhower administration.) I can understand the existence of a gender spectrum: manly men and womanly women at one end, shading toward gender-fluid individuals and finally, at the opposite end, those who feel convinced that the gods stranded them in the wrong body.
I sympathize with anyone who feels maladjusted, including the unfortunate gender misfits. It has to be a vexing and difficult life. Yet I’m still not sure I understand the idea that gender is a subjective social construct… that a biologically intact man can be a woman — and be treated as a woman by society — as long as he believes he’s a woman. All in good time, I suppose.
The restroom controversy didn’t disturb me as much as it seemed to disturb our cultural conservatives. A male-to-female transgender person who uses a ladies’ room will be hidden inside a stall, since ladies’ rooms offer no other options. No cause for alarm there.
Similarly, a female-to-male transgender person will also occupy a stall — although that person might catch a fleeting glimpse of actual biological men relieving themselves at the communal pissoir. Again, hardly a cause for ruffled feathers. Men who’d rather not be glimpsed can also use a stall.
I’m a little more tentative when it comes to transgender people who still look like members of their biologically assigned sex. A lone woman washing up in a restroom has every right to be alarmed by a bearded individual bursting into her sanctuary. Most men would be startled, too, if a pixieish five-foot-tall human surprised them in mid-stream. Most likely these are exceptions, but they’re part of the strange future we’ll all be confronting.
Locker rooms and changing rooms are another story — I don’t think we can treat them as an automatic extension of the transgender restroom issue. (A true moderate is rarely all in favor or all against; we generally find ourselves drawing wobbly lines of demarcation between the acceptable and the unacceptable.) If I had a six-year-old daughter, I’d be livid if a biological male stripped down and paraded his man-parts in front of her. No exceptions, even if the biological male thinks he’s more feminine than Loretta Young.
If public changing areas are to be open to transgender people, they need to be made less public. In other words, build them with private stalls and private showers. This isn’t bigotry. Until we as a society endorse public nudity, it’s simple common sense.
But that raises a larger and more perplexing question: since when is common sense a guiding factor in contemporary life? Maybe I need to sit in front of a screen and learn to applaud as Beyoncé smashes those car windows. It’s art, isn’t it? It must be art if the critics say it is, just as that bearded person must be a woman if she insists she is. As Pope Francis famously said, Who am I to judge?
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.