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The Transgender Bathroom Controversy

Why has the debate over equal access become so contentious?

What is all the fuss about?

To me, it is obvious why transgender women and men value and deserve equal access to public facilities, including bathrooms. It is less obvious why anyone would care to oppose them. Chances are, opponents of equal access have shared a public restroom with a transgender woman or man without realizing it, let alone being harmed by it. Moreover, the resistance does not stem from genuine concerns over safety—allowing equal access is not a security risk (see my prior post). By the same reasoning, it always struck me as illogical that anyone would oppose marriage equality. Allowing same-sex couples to marry has no direct effect on anyone else’s marriage. So again, what is all the fuss about?

Unfortunately, opposition to equality is rarely rational and many Americans are (sadly) unaccepting of sexual and gender minorities. In the 1960s, allowing black Americans equal access to public facilities did not limit access for white Americans, yet opposition to integration was virulent, even violent. Arguably, LGBT rights is the civil rights issue of our generation and laws ensuring equal access to marriage and bathrooms represent the unraveling of institutionalized discrimination, just as the 1960s civil rights era dismantled Jim Crow laws. That is, bathroom equality has become the latest frontier on the battle against homophobia, transphobia, and gender-policing.

But the furor also reflects a wider anxiety about the meaning of sex, gender, and sexuality. Transgender individuals illustrate the disjoint between sex and gender, challenging popular, gender-essentialist assumptions about innate gender differences between biological men and women. Gender-essentialism asserts that there are exactly two sexes and two genders and that sex and gender are inevitably aligned—in other words, that babies are born male or female and this automatically makes them stereotypically-masculine or feminine. Transgender individuals refute this assumption most clearly, but cisgender (non-transgender) women and men also demonstrate enormous variability in adherence to gender stereotypes.

In fact, the increasing gender flexibility among cisgender men and women and the broader decoupling of social roles from biological sex may drive much of the opposition to transgender rights. Likewise, the anxiety over same-sex marriage may reflect a wider discomfort with the decoupling of biological sex and marital roles, already well under way in heterosexual marriages. The belief that “women’s place is in the home” is predicated on the assumption that biological sex determines gender and that feminine gender is defined by heterosexual domesticity. This worldview is already threatened by women’s advances into the public sphere and men’s increasing participation in housework and childcare. Granting marriage equality to same-sex couples and equal access to transgender couples signals defeat in the battle to define social roles, such as husband/wife/spouse/parent/worker, on the basis of sex/gender.1

Thus, opposition to equality for sexual and gender minorities may reflect discomfort with increasingly flexible gendered behavior among cisgender Americans, as well as intolerance for sexual minorities per se. Obviously, neither reason is a valid excuse. The battle for marriage equality took decades and even after a decisive Supreme Court ruling (in June 2015), it took Mississippi another year to order clerks to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples (in June 2016; Campbell 2016). I can only hope that the battle for equal access to public facilities will be resolved much more expeditiously and that opponents will soon realize that equal access helps the transgender women and men (and others outside the gender binary; see my earlier post) without harming cisgender individuals.

1This battle is largely symbolic. Denying marriage or bathroom equality would not stop or reverse changes in heterosexual family and gender flexibility. Women’s entry into paid employment, men’s advances into housework and childcare, and associated changes in gender and sexual expectations are rooted in deep social changes—whether one loves or hates these changes, they are here to stay.

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Campbell, Larrison. 2016. “Judge rules clerks must issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.”…

Carlson, Brady. 2016. “Before North Carolina, There Were Other Contentious 'Bathroom Bill' Fights.”…

Frank, Nathaniel. 2016. “Liberals: How Strong Is Your Support for Transgender Equality?”…

Human rights campaign. “Restroom Access for Transgender Employees.”

Lambda Legal. “FAQ: Answers to Some Common Questions about Equal Access to Public Restrooms.”

McClintock, Elizabeth Aura. 2016. “The Transgender Bathroom Battle.”…

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