Relatively few Americans considered bathroom access a civil rights issue until last week. They deserve to hear the arguments pro and con before making up their own minds. Much remains to be said and learned about the issue; truncating this conversation just as it is beginning is wrong (and arguably violates the Administrative Procedure Act).
Here are just a few questions that people might have asked before making up their minds. How uncomfortable are people with the prospect of those with different anatomies sharing their bathrooms? Is this discomfort likely to grow or decline? Since gender identity cannot be confirmed before entering bathrooms, how great is the risk of voyeurism or other abuses? How costly will it be to provide gender-neutral bathrooms, and how would people of all genders feel about such alternatives? Will market pressures such as the boycotts against North Carolina’s bathroom regulation produce a better mix of solutions than the government’s one size fits all?
And how many transgender people actually experience indignity when using traditional bathrooms, and what is the nature of this indignity? Discomfort about using a urinal when men at nearby urinals think one is a woman? Annoyance at having to wait for a stall to conceal one’s anatomy?
Feminists objected to the use of ‘he’ to refer to people in general, which made women as a class invisible. The new politics of gender identity, by contrast, is concerned with the way pronouns are used in reference to specific individuals. As the writer I quoted earlier explains, pronouns are ‘a big deal’ because
They’re the definitive way we acknowledge and respect a person’s gender in everyday conversation.
The principle that underlies this assertion is that individuals have a right to be referred to with the pronouns which, in their own view, most appropriately reflect their gender identity. It should not be assumed that everyone is either ‘he’ or ‘she’: individuals who identify as trans, non-binary, agender or genderqueer may prefer an alternative, epicene form. ‘They’ is one of the available options, but sources which aim to document non-traditional pronoun use exhaustively, like this tumblr, list scores of other possibilities.
The acceptance of this principle has produced a new form of linguistic etiquette: announcing one’s ‘preferred pronouns’ and taking steps to ascertain the preferred pronouns of others. Some universities now invite students to register their pronouns: at Harvard around half the student body so far have availed themselves of this option (though only about 50 students out of 10,000 have specified a pronoun other than ‘he’ or ‘she’). And the New York City Human Rights Commission recently issued legal guidance which made clear that an employer or landlord who failed to use an employee or tenant’s preferred name, title and pronouns would be guilty of unlawful discrimination.
When words mean two or more things, or when they mean something other than what they seem, this means trouble. This kind of double-speak is indispensible to any totalitarian movement. The transgender movement is no exception.
The word “woman” itself is Orwellian in a patriarchy. It can refer to someone who is biologically female, or someone who has a “feminine” persona (as defined by their society), or both at once. It can mean different things on different days, depending on the whims of the speaker.
This is why children have a hard time understanding what it means to be a boy or girl, and think that biological femalehood is equated with social femalehood. It’s why they have this idea of a girl with a penis or a boy with a vagina. “Boy” and “girl” can mean anything people want them to mean, and, in the case of transactivists and conservatives, both at once.
Jaqueline Rose recently wrote 15,000 breathless, muddled words on transness for the LRB. “Transsexual people are brilliant at telling their stories,” she declared. They are interesting, you see, unlike cis women, those dullards, unquestioning conscripts to the gender regime who see themselves as “normal” because they lack the trans person’s unique ability to inhabit a liminal space:
The ‘cis’ – i.e. non-trans – woman or man is a decoy, the outcome of multiple repressions whose unlived stories surface nightly in our dreams. From the Latin root meaning ‘on this side of’ as opposed to ‘across from’, ‘cis’ is generally conflated with normativity, implying ‘comfortable in your skin’, as if that were the beginning and end of the matter.
Who, exactly, we may therefore ask – trans or non-trans – is fooling whom? Who do you think you are? – the question anyone hostile to transsexual people should surely be asking themselves. So-called normality can be the cover for a multitude of ‘sins’.
Cis woman, as far as Rose is concerned, restricts herself to a surface-only existence. She is Woolf’s looking glass, now providing an outline to be filled with someone else’s deep, meaningful knowledge of what it is to truly live as neither one thing nor another. The patriarchal insistence that women do not have souls gets an update; cis woman does not know her own soul, but that is her fault. She condemns herself to inauthenticity through her own lack of curiosity, content to remain tits and ass, “the cover for a multitude of ‘sins’.”
If you had told my younger self that I would be writing an article in support of Republican legislation I might have laughed at you. But as a leftist who prioritizes women’s rights I find myself in support of Republican Gov. McRory and the new bathroom laws in my state of North Carolina.
All mainstream discussions of North Carolina’s new bathroom laws are using memes to criticize it. Which is useful if you’re not a fan of critical thinking, but it seems memes and messages like them are adequate legal arguments in the court of public opinion. So what’s the deal?
Appropriating the language of feminism for misogyny is a problem. That is not about denying trans women anything. Trans women need the discussion of structural inequality that they face part of. Feminism is not about controlling the worlds women so they have to concentrate on managing your identity instead of the lives they face because of structural inequality imposed on them for being women. Women did not choose the things attributed to our gender, even if you value them. They are not an innate part of womanhood. If your identity is so fragile you need women to manage it for you, that is about you, not them. There is no female brain that meant women wanted to be subservient for years. There is the responsibilities that still fall disproportionately to women, there is economic inequality rooted in this, there is the reason feminism existed in the first place. Which has not gone away.