On Sunday, science and medicine journalist Faye Flam explained via Bloomberg, reasons why nature isn’t as simple as some people believe, as revealed by the the contentious debate over transgender access to bathrooms. Last week, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory attempted damage control after backlash from a bill requiring transgender people to use public bathrooms matching the gender on their birth certificate in schools and government facilities and banning local governments from extending civil rights protections to gay and transgender people. The law garnered protests from celebrities and businesses such as Bruce Springsteen and Paypal, while Bryan Adams cancelled his concert in Mississippi over recent “religious freedom” legislation there. The pattern could continue as at least seven other states are considering restricting bathroom access for transgender people.
The arguments have already gotten further into the weeds elsewhere. Last week, the Washington Post reported a transgender male student in Virginia who began using the boys’ bathroom his sophomore year prompted angry parents to pressure the school board into passing a policy that requires students to use school bathrooms corresponding with their biological gender and transgender students to use a separate unisex bathroom. He sued the school board in federal court, arguing the new rule is a violation of Title IX.
Issues surrounding what constitutes “transgender” are not well understood and often shrouded in notions not based in psychology, medicine or science. Concerns often seem clouded by lumping issues of sexuality, sexual orientation and perversion together. Ignorance often seems to lead to fear of the unknown.
However, there are also legitimate concerns to be addressed, less about those who are genuinely transgender than someone who might use inclusive bathroom or locker room laws for voyeuristic or predatory purposes.
Understanding transgenderism should be the starting point. The primary origins lie in gender dysphoria, also known as gender identity disorder. WebMD describes the condition as a “mismatch between body and internal sense of gender” and “the stress, anxiety, and depression that go along with it.”
One thing the science has established is that male and female brains are not the same. Anne Moir and David Jessel wrote in Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Male and Female:
“virtually every professional scientist and researcher into the subject has concluded that the brains of men and women are different. . . . [T]he nature and cause of brain differences are now known beyond speculation, beyond prejudice, and beyond reasonable doubt.”
Professor Alice Eagly from Northwestern University, a major contributor to the field of the social psychology of gender difference, adds:
“Out of the thirty thousand genes in the human genome, the less than one percent variation between the sexes is small. But that percentage difference influences every single cell in our bodies—from the nerves that register pleasure and pain to neurons that transmit perception, thoughts, feelings and emotions.”
Recent science indicates gender identity may be more biology than choice. Psychologist Frederick Coolidge of the University of Colorado found genetic variation, hormones, and differences in brain structure and function provide biological evidence that GID is 62% heritable, indicating a strong genetic component and influence by prenatal development.
In layman’s terms, this means a person may have male genitals but not a male brain, caused by factors such as genes and heredity, hormone supply and nutrition giving a fetus testes while failing to “masculinize” the brain. Flam also notes conditions such as 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, which can lead to a state between having and not having a penis. “As all human embryos are equipped with the starter kits for both male and female sexual anatomy,” she writes, “whether it eventually becomes a penis is determined by a multistep process” with “lots of possible outcomes….”
How to best address the situation when it occurs, especially in young children, is made more complex by society’s struggle with finding a balance between inclusion and judgment. Noted “rogue feminist,” lesbian and social critic Camille Paglia believes people are pushed into making choices about surgical interventions and hormones. She points out that while there are legitimate transgender people with genetic issues, they are a tiny minority of the population and the medical science is still developing. “But now it’s become a fashion statement, or a mask [for other problems],” she says, and we need to pay attention to those and not assume it’s all about gender.
Nevertheless, the musings of many social conservatives, as personified by the infamous Facebook posting of former ESPN commentator Curt Schilling, indicate that perhaps not everyone understands what transgenderism is.
There are of course, legitimate concerns that do not involve bigotry or hate. Some of that comes from the misunderstandings about who is legitimately transgender as opposed to a sexual predator who pretends to be one and might use non-discrimination rules for insidious reasons. And of course, some of it is natural based on what we’re accustomed to. Linda Chavez writes in the New York Post,
“No doubt many Americans’ aversion to sharing toilet facilities…is cultural. The first time I went to Paris…I was astounded…that men and women shared the same bathroom, albeit with stalls that provided maximum privacy. It was awkward for me…to stand next to a male stranger while washing my hands after answering nature’s call. And most American restrooms aren’t set up like unisex European facilities.”
But the real concerns seem to be the idea that inclusive bathrooms will be a pathway for sexual predators to take advantage. Clearly, any man can pretend to be a woman and no law is going to prevent that; however in states and schools where transgender protections have been instituted, no ensuing problems have been reported.
Perhaps more notable is the unintended consequences that proponents of limited government often correctly point out about many laws but seem oblivious to in this case: unless they advocate trans men breaking the law, very male-looking people like Michael Hughes will be in the women’s restroom, and that can’t be ideal.
Chavez continues, “Transgender individuals should be treated with dignity, as all human beings should. But when their right to self-identification comes up against others’ right to privacy, we need to find a resolution that accommodates both interests in the public square.” Transgender advocates also need to realize that people of good character have genuine concerns and there may have to be some steps to legitimize who is legitimate, such as obtaining the proper government-issued ID. That is something required of women who change names as a result of marriage or divorce so surely it can’t be too much of a burden.
A productive conversation starts with suspending preconceived notions and putting aside inaccurate broad generalizations. Understanding problems and finding solutions should be based on science, medicine and psychology rather than fear based on ignorance. We also need to look at culture and history and understand that things don’t change overnight. Education is key but demonizing people of good character asking fair questions, not so much.