Just when you thought our political discourse couldn’t get any crazier, bathrooms are suddenly the center of heated debate. Progressives are up in arms about a North Carolina law requiring people to use public bathrooms matching the sex listed on their birth certificates, widely seen as discriminatory and intolerant toward transgender people. At least 15 other state legislatures have considered a similar law this year.
Many liberals argue that transgender people have used bathroom and other gender-specific public facilities for decades (sex reassignment surgery has been around since the 1930s and possibly even longer) and suggest that this is a non-issue ginned up by conservatives looking to sow and exploit a panic about men in women’s bathrooms. Many conservatives respond that the mere fact that it’s controversial to require people to use public facilities matching their biological sex shows the triumph of political correctness over common sense.
But the issues are actually more complicated than either side wants to recognize.
Some conservatives’ insistence that biological sex at birth should be treated as immutable — anyone with XY chromosomes is a man or boy, anyone with XX chromosomes is a woman or girl — is much too simplistic, not only culturally but scientifically. Some people’s bodies at birth don’t match their chromosomes (hence genetic testing for female athletes). Intersex conditions are rare but real. While the biology of transgenderism is still poorly understood, it’s likely that many who feel “trapped in the wrong body” have a very real brain-body mismatch due to genetic and hormonal abnormalities.
To insist that a transgender man with a male physical appearance and hormonal makeup is “really” a woman because of DNA is hardly common-sensical. Yet the North Carolina law would technically require him to use the women’s room until he’s had his birth certificate changed to reflect the sex reassignment, which transgender advocates say is a lengthy and cumbersome process. A law passed and vetoed in South Dakota earlier this year went further, restricting bathroom access by sex at birth.
But the bathroom panic isn’t quite as baseless or bigoted as progressives claim. The truth is that transgenderism has changed dramatically in recent years. Today, a person who is anatomically male and has not undergone any surgical or hormonal treatments may “identify as female.” There is also a growing population, particularly in college, of people who consider themselves “non-binary” — neither male nor female — and demand to use whichever restroom they feel like.
Are women bigoted if they don’t want a person with a bushy beard in their public restroom? Are men bigoted if they don’t want a person with breasts sharing theirs? For most, it’s less a question of safety than privacy (an even bigger concern in locker rooms and fitting rooms). But the scenario of a sexual predator putting on lipstick and claiming a female identity to gain access to a women’s facility is not entirely far-fetched.
Some propose phasing out all “gendered” restrooms for ones with fully enclosed stalls and common areas for hand-washing. However, this would entail huge expense and discomfort for most people used to gender-specific facilities.
More gender-neutral single-user bathrooms would benefit many people, not necessarily transgender — for instance, parents accompanying an opposite-sex child. Locker-room issues can also be resolved with private accommodations. But compassionate and common-sense solutions may require compromises. The absolutist demand for a “civil right” to have your preferred gender identity validated regardless of appearance or anatomy can only lead to more culture wars.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.