Gender is in the air.
Over dinner recently with friends, a question arose: Do women have a right to women-only space?
We happened upon the subject when one friend spoke favorably of efforts by some schools to desegregate bathrooms by gender. Her argument was that gender-specific restrooms were offensive and inconvenient to people whose gender identity contradicts their anatomy. To women or girls who are afraid of having male-bodied people in their restrooms, my friend would say: trans people are not dangerous by virtue of being trans. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
My friend spoke passionately on this subject. As the mother of a female-to-male transsexual, she has been front row and center to the frustrations, misunderstandings and agonies that permeate the day to day life of a person in transition from one gender to another.
As the mother of a daughter who has been emotionally and psychologically damaged by a man, who carries a legacy of trauma into all her dealings with men, and who would be disturbed to find herself sharing a restroom with someone she knew to be male-bodied, my perspective is inevitably different. I found it striking that my friend, a feminist, was unhesitating in saying that women and girls have no right to space that is defined as female-bodied only.
In the week or so since that conversation, I’ve come across no less than three different articles in widely different publications on what I now think of as the bathroom question, though it could by implication affect all spaces, institutions, activities and endeavors whose access or membership is defined by identity – gender identity, ethnic, national or religious identity, and so on.
In the latest of these articles, a lawyer named James Ehrhard, writing in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, discussed the Massachusetts ban of last July on gender identity discrimination, and the state’s recent educational guidelines in response to that ban, directing schools to permit students to use the restrooms (and locker rooms, showers, and so on) of their choice, based upon their internal sense of gender, and also to provide gender neutral restrooms. Ehrhard noted that proponents of the law claim that people with gender identity issues make up approximately half of one percent of the population of Massachusetts. He went on to say that the law specifies that a male-bodied person’s desire to use a girls’ restroom trumps the possible discomfort some girls may feel with this situation.
This discussion emerges at a time when we are daily reminded of the vulnerability of women and girls, when reports of violence and sexual violence against women seem omnipresent, from the rape culture of college campuses to the brutally misogynist online harassment of girls by their male peers. It’s within this context that I struggle to understand how and why the needs of half of one percent of the population trump the needs of fifty percent of the population.
My friend’s point that trans people are not, as a group, dangerous to girls and women, is true. Unfortunately, the same can’t so easily be said of men. Some children go in and out of gender identities as they grow. I’ve known several who passed through periods of identifying as the opposite gender only to settle comfortably into the gender indicated by their bodies in adolescence. Shifting, fluid identities could be more easily accommodated in an ungendered world. But we don’t live in an ungendered world. Many of us don’t believe an ungendered world is possible, whether we wish it or not. In my experience with a transgendered ex-husband, “gender neutral” were dirty words. I was told quite forcibly and repeatedly that gender is in fact the most important, most elemental and immutable aspect of being human.
For women under siege, subject to violence, violation, economic, social and religious oppression based upon our female bodies, gender identity and its consequences indeed appear elemental and immutable.