When nature calls in public, we usually face a simple choice: the men’s or the women’s room. Yet that simple bifurcation does not cover everyone. Transgender people do not fit so easily into our traditional categories, and the battle over bathrooms again flares up.
One of the first lessons students enrolled in Introductory Logic learn is the fallacy of “false dichotomy.” That’s when someone states that either X or Y must be the case, and nothing else. For example, “You’re either with us or against us.” The problem is that things often are not so black and white. There are other possibilities, areas of grey.
Public bathrooms are such a false dichotomy. You’re either a man or a woman. Biologically, that captures most people, but not everyone. Sexuality (and surgery) offer other options. Transgender people identify as sexually different from their anatomy or DNA.
Yet the beautiful panoply of human sexuality makes some people uncomfortable, especially in a public bathroom.
Their sensitivity is not without some justification. Bathrooms are inherently embarrassing places. We go into them, expose our privates, and release waste material. Scatological humor thrives on our discomfort.
Discomfort, however, is a poor excuse to treat some people as outsiders.
Gay rights activists have made tremendous strides in recent years. A majority of Americans now support marriage equality. Fewer people worry about whether someone in the locker room with them might be gay. And young people in particular don’t care if you like boys, girls or both.
Transgender people have not seen the same gains. Adam Winkler puts it well in a recent New Republic piece — “We often talk about ‘LGBT rights,’ but many of the reforms to date, like civil unions and marriage equality, are primarily benefiting the Ls and the Gs (and, by extension, the Bs). … The legal issues surrounding full acceptance of trans-people are likely to be messier and more confusing.”
Part of the problem is numbers. A 2011 report estimated 3.5 percent of American adults identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, but only .3 percent identify as transgender. The LGBs outnumber the Ts more than 10-to-1. Many people have friends and family who are gay or at least know someone who is open. LBGs appear on television and in movies. Familiarity breeds acceptance.
That .3 percent is 700,000 adults. They need to use the bathroom just like anyone else. It’s not their fault that social acceptance and media exposure have not caught up with reality.
Straight people might find sharing the restroom awkward, but transgender people often find it dangerous. When a transgender woman must walk into a public men’s room in a skirt, she must be on guard. Harassment and even violence is common in places of public accommodation.
That problem is particularly acute for students. Grant High School in Portland, Ore., recently set aside six unisex bathrooms for its transgender students, faculty and staff.
“I did not drink liquids from the hours of 6 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.,” a student at the school who was born female but identifies as male told the school’s student news magazine. “If I had to drink something, I’d go into the women’s bathroom. I would rather feel kind of unpleasant (in there) than terrified in the men’s bathroom.”
The Maine Supreme Court recently heard arguments in the case of a student who was born male but who identified as female since a young age. When she was in fifth grade, school administrators forced her to use a separate staff bathroom. She, her parents and their attorneys argue that the special treatment discriminated against her under the state’s Human Rights Act.
Some communities are acting proactively. Multnomah County, Ore., which includes Portland, and Philadelphia, Pa. are the most recent to adopt policies to require unisex bathrooms in all new government buildings. They are the forefront of a public conversation that will bring broader understanding, just as past conversations illuminated race and homosexuality.
Bathrooms are only one difficult discussion, too. Society must grapple with how other spheres of public life can accommodate all people. Government identification cards and sports, especially youth and college athletics, traditionally embrace an untenable bifurcation of sex.
Providing a separate unisex alternative dodges the immediate problem, but it does not solve the more fundamental challenge. Separate but equal is not how we do things in this country. Someday we will get over our remaining bathroom hang-ups.
Christian Trejbal is a member of the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists and chair of the Open Government Committee. Overcoming graduate degrees in philosophy, he worked as an editorial writer at The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times for more than a decade. In 2013, he and his wife moved to Portland, Ore., where he writes freelance and provides public policy analysis. Or, as his wife prefers to say, he is a stay-at-home dude. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal.
Image Source: By Kurt Löwenstein Educational Center International Team from Germany (ws’08 (20)) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons