Sunday, May 22, 2016

All Genders Restroom

Here's the door to one of the restrooms at the Seattle Aquarium.

We'd been able to book our flight home from LA with a six hour layover in Seattle and we were meeting our daughter and granddaughter at the aquarium.
  We looped around over downtown Seattle and could see the aquarium, but they wouldn't let us out until they landed a few minutes south at the airport.

Since my granddaughter started walking, it's been a minor dilemma when she and I were out together and one of us had to pee.  I obviously couldn't take her into the women's room, but should I take her into the men's room?

If I had to go, there was no choice.  I wasn't going to leave her outside the restroom where I couldn't see her.  She came into the men's room.  And as she got older and knew when she had to go, I still have had to take her into the men's room.

No one got excited.  No one ever made a fuss about her presence in the men's room.  I wasn't totally comfortable.  While I believe in openness and that we should be able to talk about anything that a kid raises, I also feel it important to let her mother be the guide on this.  And we haven't talked about this.  And what if my granddaughter doesn't raise questions, out loud?  But sometimes you have to make a decision on the spot.

I also understand that it's different when an adult male goes into a women's restroom, especially when a woman is alone in the restroom, especially if she's ever been sexually abused.  But that could happen any time, any where.  With or without laws about transgender access to restrooms.

As I see this issue there are several key points.  But the absolutely most important is simply understanding the fluidity of gender.  And for the current situation - what a transgender identity is about.  I'm certainly no expert on this, but I seem to know a lot more than the folks freaking out over transgender rights and bathrooms.

Understanding transgender.    From the moment of birth, we are segregated into boy or girl. Pink or blue.  I wrote about my experiences on this with my granddaughter at the playground two years ago.  We know there is more than black or white, good or bad, open or closed, up or down, smart or dumb, and every other pair of opposites.  There are shades of gray.  A person  can be good at some things and bad at others.  A car can be good at one time and bad at another.  But male or female, to many people, are absolutes.  Penis or no penis.

But it's not that simple.  Every year, about 2000 babies are born with "ambiguous genitals."
Ambiguous genitals refer to the uncertain appearance of a baby's external sexual features. Sometimes a female foetus is born with ovaries but male-like external genitals (female pseudo-hermaphroditism). A male may be born with testicles (which have yet to descend from the pelvis) but with female-like external genitalia (male pseudo-hermaphroditism). Rarely, newborns may even have both ovaries and testicles and ambiguous genitals (true hermaphroditism). In addition, there may be other congenital defects present in these newborns, such as hypospadias in males. This is a condition in which the urethral (urinary) opening is not in its normal position on the tip of a penis but is on the underside.  [From Gender Centre]

So what happens when babies are born with ambiguous genitals?
Approximately 10 times a year in Houston, at the birth of a certain type of baby, a special crisis team at Texas Children's Hospital springs into action. Assembled in 2001, the unusual team includes a psychologist, urologist, geneticist, endocrinologist, and ethicist. Its mission: to counsel parents of infants sometimes referred to as "intersex" babies—that is, babies of indeterminate physical gender. That such a team exists—and that it often counsels deferring surgery for infants who are otherwise healthy—reflects a radical new thinking among doctors about gender identity and outside efforts to shape it. Instead of surgically "fixing" such children to make them (visually, at least) either male or female, a handful of U.S. specialists now argue that such infants should be left alone and eventually be allowed to choose their gender identity. The approach challenges decades of conventional wisdom about what to do with infants whose genitalia don't conform to the "norm." Until very recently, such children were automatically altered with surgery, often with tragic consequences. Each year, about one in 2,000 children is born with ambiguous-looking genitalia.

One in 2000 children a year.  In 2014 there were 3,988,076 babies born in the US, so that comes to just under 2000 babies who weren't physically classifiable as clearly a boy or a girl. One in 2,000 is a tiny fraction of the population, but it's still 2000 people a year.  For Anchorage, assuming a random distribution, with a population of about 300,000, given one in 2000,  there should be 150 transgender folks.  That's a tiny minority.  So it's reasonable that most people don't know anyone who is transgender, especially since it isn't something people tell you when they meet you.  But it's not reasonable to stay ignorant, given the attention in this issue, and to treat these folks poorly.

Given the importance our society attaches to whether someone is male or female - remember, it's the first thing we ask when a new baby is born - being of ambiguous gender has to be one of the most difficult identity issues one can imagine. Especially when everyone assumes that you have to be either a boy or a girl. What do these 2000 people a year have to deal with every day of their lives?

For me, the first serious introduction to these questions came in Jeffrey Eugenides' book Middlesex, which tells three generations of familial history of Calliope Stephanides, a Greek American girl who doesn't feel like a girl.  It won a Pulitzer Prize and I recommend it - not only for what one can learn about intersex people, but because it's a wonderful novel.

Closing Thoughts

We're having this debate about transgender bathrooms because people are ignorant.  That's not a judgmental statement, merely descriptive.  People really don't understand about intersex or transgender or ambiguous genitalia.  They don't understand it because they don't even know it exists. We've been taught that you're either male or female.

Some people are naturally ignorant.  That is they have been taught people are male or female and their life experiences match what they've been taught.  Gays and lesbians have given them some cognitive dissonance, but even gay folk are still identified as male or female.

Some people are willfully ignorant.  They refuse to seek information that challenges what they 'know.'

Some people, in this election year, see this as an issue that could help the Republican Party overcome what looks like a hopeless presidential race for them.  Wedge issues have been a big part of the party's strategy over the years.  For a more academic approach on this click here.  I'm sure there were Republicans clapping with glee when the Obama administration announced it was suing North Carolina.  But I'm guessing there will be a lot of education in the next six months.  Not only on transgender issues, but also on the other aspects of North Carolina's HB 2 which attacks things like minimum wage and the right to sue over employment discrimination.

When my granddaughter had to go potty (her language, not mine) we weren't near the all genders  restroom and I took her into the men's room.  There were stalls as well as urinals.  We used a stall and no one's privacy was disturbed.

[Yes, Feedburner problems continue. I'm reposting what I put up earlier.  Finding a better RSS feed is on my todo list.  Anyone with suggestions let me know.]


  1. I agree with you totally that restrooms are a non-issue in the world at large, that nobody stops predators from going into ladies rooms (or any other place) if they want to grab a victim, that there are stalls with doors in all varieties of restrooms so nobody has to see your equipment, and that this is yet another wedge issue by the social conservatives.

    But after thinking about it for a while and following the media coverage this year, I have come to the conclusion that there's another nasty element playing out: the desire to make things hard on teenagers.

    We know that many people like to give teenagers a hard time. For example, laws that make it illegal for teenagers to use a cellphone while driving (but it's OK for adults). The harassment of teens by cops (and I don't just mean black males; my own very white sons were frequently harassed when out and about late at night). Also the denial of certain types of due process to kids who run afoul of the law, especially in school. I think this is a case of water running downhill -- people always finding somebody lower on the food chain whom they can bully or punish. Or maybe it's slightly more benign, like hazing (I was a miserable teenager, and I'm going to pass it along to you, all with the best of intentions of course...).

    So it's no coincidence that the bathroom "issue" is arising not in the Trump Tower, where any adult can go into any restroom he or she chooses and nobody will think twice, but in schools, where the kids are a captive population and where everybody knows everybody else. One of the teens quoted in a recent NYTimes article said that when he's out in public he uses the men's room and has never had any problems -- but at school they still remember him from kindergarten on as Amanda so there's no possibility of MYOB. And I think a lot of adults are really happy to make up rules that will make teenagers' lives more difficult, especially teenagers who are different or troubled or in some way won't or can't get with the program. Just my two cents.

    1. Good point kathy. There are so many threads here, so many ways people's emotional scabs can be picked.

  2. It could just be me, but, to get this comment out of the way first, your (Steve's) post on transgender seems to maintain the usual fusion/confusion between sex (male, female) and gender (masculine, feminine). Obviously a small (very small) percentage of persons are intersex or some variation thereof, but the fluidity of gender is due to its being socially/culturally constructed. (An aside; genitalia can be "constructed" too, surgically--for a price--ask Caitlyn.) This issue seems really about gender choice, in the context of being in a specific sex of one's own non-choosing. Despite being constructed, social/cultural structures are pretty enduring, and while often arbitrary, and irrational, have fierce adherents. Indeed, I think much of the anxiety about bathrooms and the like is due to the fact that a lot of established categories are in jeopardy, and there are plenty of unknowns about what will be gained and what will be lost with their demise. Of course, in most of the world, gender differences are not exactly in flux; this is primarily an issue in the modern west as far as I can tell.

    1. Paul, thanks for your thoughtful expansion of the topic. About your last line - public restrooms don't even exist everywhere.


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