Wednesday, November 04, 2015

How I think about the question of bathrooms, changing rooms, and transgender students in school

Looks like I am again on a different side of another social issue from a friend of mine. And potentially many of their friends and family. This time, it's about whether transgender kids can use the bathroom of the sex they identify as (as opposed to the one they were assigned at birth.) As a preface, I don't know how my perspective stacks up with that of the "social justice warrior" types which tend to flog these issues with authoritarian zeal we so often see associated with authoritarian mindsets, but I think that I can say that my perspective is likely (hopefully) somewhat different. But I want to first start with the position that one's conclusions may likely differ greatly depending on whether you believe sex and gender to be the same or different.

This is what my friend's comment was on the topic:
While I sympathesize with transgender individuals, I will not let [my daughter] share a locker room with a male. ... The school already made reasonable accommodations. If this is how public schools will work, [my daughter] will not be attending.

As a biologist, I read my friend's comment and thought, "How are you defining 'male' here, since we both know the dominant role that hormones play in determining primary sex characteristics during development and secondary sex characteristics during puberty?" From this perspective, we can see how biological sex and socially defined gender don't always match up. Given the various ways that biological outcomes don't align with strict US gender norms of recent history, there are a number of cases where a child can be sex-ambiguous, but have their gender assigned to them by a doctor at birth, only to have that designation change later in life, as in the case of intersex and hormone-deficient individuals. Neither of these cases are necessarily "transsexual" (let alone transgender), but given how little people understand about physiology and gender identity, they will likely get folded in with transgenderism.
  • Therefore, would you have a problem with your daughter sharing a locker room with a school mate who is intersex, was assigned the male sex at birth, but then developed as a female during puberty?
  • Also, would you have a problem with your daughter sharing a locker room with a school mate who, due to a hormone deficiency condition, has been taking hormone therapy since before they started puberty?
  • Furthermore, in both of the above cases, even if these classmates developed as female throughout puberty, what would your position be if they publicly identified (or privately confided to your daughter) that they were male?

These issues of how biological sex doesn't align with socially defined gender create some problems with consistency, since saying that an intersex child who was designated male at birth but then naturally develops as female *should* be allowed to use the girls locker room, despite believing themselves to be male can easily appear to be creating a double standard on sex and gender identity. True, you could make the big lift of attempting to educate the entire populace about the biological definition of intersex and how it's different from questions of transgender, but I doubt that it will be very successful. But beyond the problems that biology throws in the path of sex and gender, there are alternate scenarios that are actually about transgenderism and identity:

  • Imagine a scenario in which one of your daughter's classmates (or friends) underwent sex transition and became male (i.e., took their transgenderism into transsexualism, which is currently quite rare, but could become more common in the next 17 years). Would you insist that this classmate (or friend) now use the male changing room (since they are now male) or continue to use the female changing room (since they were born female)? (Would that answer be different prior to starting the sex change? And, if so, at what point during that transition would you insist that this classmate use the other locker room?)
  • Given the size of public schools, it is quite possible that one of your daughter's schoolmates will be transgender. Would you have a problem with your daughter sharing a locker room with a school mate who doesn't publicly identify as transgender during their school years, but in adulthood comes out as transgender? Yes, this means that there could be a student who is born female, secretly (or publicly) identifies as male, and is in the locker rooms having fantasies about their classmates, and might even imagine what it could be like to marry one of their classmates after they change their sex or marry their classmate despite choosing not to change their sex or any number of adolescent fantasies about their crushes (who they happen to be sharing the locker room with, since locker room assignment is based solely on sex).

And then there is the personal scenario:
  • Would you have a problem if your daughter told you that she actually identified as male, and was being being barred from using a toilet and changing room by other parents' unfounded preconceptions about the motivations of your child?

In addition to the above biological and conditional questions, there is the humanitarian question of what to do with someone who, by announcing that they are a gender non-conformist, automatically out themselves as a major potential social pariah. From this perspective, what is the potential benefit that an individual would have in outing themselves as a "boy who says he's a girl"? Unlike what some people might fantasize, I would posit that this an announcement that is unlikely to win you any brownie points. Even if you can win the public fight to use toilets and changing rooms that better align with your identified gender, once you go into that room, you are only going to be met with suspicion, scorn and ostracism by the vast majority of fellow students in there. Your motivations will continue to be questioned at every turn, as will your worth as a person. For the imagined boy who is going to try this in order to take a peek at girls or somehow bully and abuse their female classmates, this is a markedly stupid and shortsighted plan; he will be ostracized from many male groups and he will be ostracized from many female groups; his potential options for "sneaking a peek" at his classmates will almost assuredly be thwarted, and any opportunity he does have will likely be punished by his new gender peers. And for the girl who identifies as male? It will likely be just as bad, but in different ways. So I doubt that the majority of students who are saying they identify as transsexual are doing it for the jollies.

In sum, with the ability that we have in changing biological sex - a technical capability that is continually advancing - we are moving into a world in which biological sex can be as arbitrary as cultural definitions of gender. I think that it is because of sex transition that I think is one of the major reasons why transgender has become increasingly visible. However, in the case of children and adolescents, there continues to be a general hesitancy in going through with sex reassignment (although there are some cases where it is happening, and it could well become more common as our children grow into adults), which reduces the question to one in which individuals with one set of sex organs can only say they don't identify as being part of the larger group of people who have those same sex organs, but remain unable to do much about it until they become adults. (With a proportion of those then choosing to undergo the sex transition they were unable to do as minors.)

At the end of the day, the genie is out of the bottle, Pandora's box has been opened, etc. The question (at least in my mind) is not how to continue to enforce what is becoming a set of social norms that are incongruous with physical, technical, and (increasingly) social reality, but rather how to seek ways in which we can reassess social norms (which are - in the end - highly arbitrary) to better match the world that we are becoming, while trying simultaneously to cleave to core tenets of what it means to be who we are. And no, I don't consider toilet and locker room sex assignments to be a core tenet, just like I don't consider slavery or women not being able to vote core tenets, despite them both playing central roles in shaping the US during its history.

On the question of toilet and locker room access, my position is actually to have gender neutral locker rooms as an option for students who don't identify with the sex they were assigned at birth or by society. If you do identify with the sex you were assigned at birth, then you use the sex-defined bathroom and changing room. Boom. This option can also include people who are non-sexual, many of whom have similar levels of angst and paranoia when it comes to the question of sex segregation and toilets. Yeah, some might call this special pleading based on gender, but I agree with that argument as much as I agree with the historical argument that allowing women to attend university is special pleading based on gender.

There are plenty of other points that could be raised (including a comparison of gender norms across societies and through US history, how toilets became sex segregated in the US, or how demanding sex segregation based on birth sex actually creates very troubling outcome scenarios, especially when it comes to people who have undergone a sex change transition), but one of the main problems that I see is that of imposing social gender norms on a perceived binary in which sex=gender, despite it being more complicated than that. And as the fluidity in sex moves toward the fluidity of gender, the strict sex=gender binary of bathrooms and locker rooms (as with anything where there is a strict sex=gender binary) will come increasingly under question, uncovering the real interesting complexity of humanity that the binary merely obscured, but actually existed there the whole time. The knee-jerk response of, "not for my society!" only serves to create second-class citizens within a democratic system that is meant to protect the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority. And those are my two cents.

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