Monday, May 2, 2016

The Transgender Bathroom Post: What Should Those Motivated by Christian Love Think of the North Carolina Law?

As everyone reading this is surely aware, a recent North Carolina law requires everyone to use male- and female-designated bathrooms according to the sex they were assigned at birth, rather than according to their gender identity. In other words, the law requires that transgender women use the men’s restroom and transgender men use the women’s restroom.

What should Christians think about such a law? I have specifically in mind Christians who take seriously the command to love their neighbors as themselves. This love command, of course, would extend to our trans neighbors.

It seems to me that the law doesn’t just affect transgendered persons, but also intersexed persons (those who have the physiological genitalia of both sexes). Exactly what those implications are isn’t clear to me. Any non-arbitrary sex-assignment at birth would either be “neither” (in which case the intersexed would be prohibited from using both restrooms) or “both” (in which case they could choose). I suppose some hospital might decide to impose a sex-assignment arbitrarily. If so, would this law require the intersexed person to use bathrooms according to that arbitrary decision in all its arbitrariness, even if their gender identity doesn’t conform?

Whatever we think of these difficulties, it’s clear that the Christian love ethic calls us to love our intersexed neighbors as ourselves. But let’s focus on the group that the NC law most clearly targets: our transgender neighbors. Is this law something that those of us who are called to love our neighbors as ourselves—including our transgender neighbors—should support?

In addressing this question, I’d like to make three points.

1. The Main Impact of the Law is on our Trans-Neighbors

Some supporters of the bill invoke concern for the welfare of children as a motivating factor behind the law. And, of course, the call to love our neighbors as ourselves encompasses children everywhere. Is this law needed in order to keep children safe—children we are called to love?

The reality is this: There are no reports of children being molested by transgender persons in bathrooms, and the idea that child molesters will fake a trans identity in order to gain access to victims—while suggested a few times—doesn’t seem to reflect the tragic realities of child molestation.

The sad truth is that children are targeted by molesters in all kinds of venues—churches and summer camps, for example. And molesters typically groom their victims before offending. That is, they work their way into the child’s circle of trust. Public restrooms are not the ideal venue for such “grooming,” and so it seems unlikely that we will do much to limit the abuse of children by focusing our energies there.

Some might argue that permitting trans women to use women's restrooms is likely to make some women uncomfortable. It might. But discomfort as such is a fairly trivial issue, and my love for you is a call to promote your good, not your comfort level. And the deeper issue is that the current NC law is hardly a recipe for eliminating discomfort, as the following popular meme demonstrates quite vividly:

Some say that creepers--men who want to spy on women using the bathroom--will use the excuse that they are trans to get into women's bathrooms so they can peek under stalls. I doubt this is a widespread problem (although maybe the current broohaha has given some creepers the idea). But here't the thing. We already have laws that criminalize such things as men peeking under bathroom stalls to look at women while they pee. If something like this is going on, the solution is to call the cops on people doing these things, not to prohibit every transgender person from peeing in the restroom where they're less likely to get abused.

In short, the arguments that appeal to public safety are trading in hypothetical scenarios that don't seem to be a real problem. Meanwhile, trans people actually face non-hypothetical bullying and bashing.

This means that the people who are affected by the law are overwhelmingly our transgender neighbors. The question is how they are affected.

2. We Must Listen

First, if we want to know how our trans neighbors are affected by such laws, we need to listen. Listening is the starting point of love. If we are to love our transgender neighbors as ourselves, we need to pay attention to them, to understand their perspective and experience as we understand our own. And this can only be done through compassionate listening.

Have you heard how fraught with peril and distress using a public restroom is for your trans neighbors? Do you know that transgender persons suffer from higher rates of urinary tract problems than the general population because they are more likely to “hold it in” when they’re in public, even to the point of harming their own health? Did you know that when our transgender neighbors stand in front of the two restroom options, they are often trying to decide whether they should risk getting arrested if they go to the one door and getting beaten up or harassed if they go to the other?

If you are thinking about supporting such laws and haven’t sought out your trans neighbors and asked them to share their stories with you—if you haven’t made a concerted effort to hear their stories with empathy and attention—then you aren’t really in a position to base your thinking on neighbor-love.

3. We Must Be Realistic

The NC bathroom law isn’t going to make transgender persons suddenly stop being transgendered. It will simply make their lives harder.

Someone is transgendered if their experience of themselves in terms of gender is in conflict with their biological sex. That is, they feel like a woman trapped in a man’s body, or a man trapped in a woman’s body. In a world that expects "men to be men and women to be women" (according to traditional ideas of gender), this can be an anguished situation, especially as they move into adolescence and become painfully aware of how different they are from those around them.

In a society that simply assumes that gender identity and biological sex do and should go together, many transgender people deal with their experience by pretending. They try to act and feel in accord with the gender associated with their biological sex, even though they know it’s an act. For many, this continues for decades.

Now, there is considerable evidence that with psychological propensities that are genuinely malleable, one way to change them is through a process of habituation. This is an idea that stretches back to Aristotle. You fake it ’til you make it. Want to become courageous? Act courageously until it takes. The fact that transgender women have often behaved in hyper-masculine ways for decades in an attempt to make their minds fit with their bodies testifies to the fact that this is not something that is malleable. If you discover in childhood that you experience yourself as a girl even though you have boy parts, it’s because something in your brain is so hard-wired to experience yourself as a girl that pretending to be a boy for the next fifty years won’t change that. You’ll just end up a fifty-year old who feels like you’ve been a woman trapped in a man’d body for the last fifty years, playing a role that isn’t you.

(If you doubt me, I invite you to reread #2 above and follow the advice there; I am simply reporting what numerous transgender people have said to me in person and what I have read again and again in personal narratives.)

Many who have spent decades pretending to be the gender associated with their body-parts finally reach the point where they can’t stand living a lie any longer. And so, at last, they come out and begin to “transition.” That is, they start to dress and behave in ways that fit better with the gender they identify with. Others, especially in recent years, begin the process sooner. Either way, the process of transitioning is dangerous, given social stigma and the often violent enforcement of gender norms. That they transition anyway is a testament to just how intolerable the continued pretense is. They’d rather risk getting beaten to a pulp than keep on living a lie.

Given these psychological realities, we can’t expect that doubling-down on the demand that people adopt gender identities that “fit” with their biological sex will somehow achieve what years of faking it can’t. We can’t expect that transgender women will stop feeling like women trapped in male bodies just because they are now required to go to the men’s bathroom. We can’t expect that transgender men will suddenly embrace their inner womanhood because they face punishment for going to the men’s room. These things won’t happen. What will happen is that our trans neighbors will feel more rejected, more alienated from society, more marginalized for their inability to conform with our society’s gender norms.

In other words, if we are realistic, we can reasonably reach only one conclusion about the effect that these laws will have: They will magnify the sense of rejection and isolation that our trans neighbors experience. The question, then, is whether that effect is one that Christians, trying to live by an ethic of love, should try to achieve.


  1. It is so ridiculous. Imagine having to try to enforce a law like this. What a waste of everyone's time. It's clearly fear-mongering with no basis in reality.

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  3. your use of the words "seems" and "doubt" is somewhat concerning. Something "seeming" to not effect someone, is not concrete, and should not be something to base an argument on, one that if what "seems" correct is wrong (i.e., children being endangered) can be devastating and traumatizing to the individual. My point is, we can't nonchalantly make decisions on things that could have long-term detrimental effects. However, as you point out, and as others have too, the transgender law still isolates and polarizes a group of people. If we didn't live in a world where people felt a need to pick a side and stay on it, we could have an actual conversation about what should be done about bathrooms. There was a story not long ago about a little girl being physically abused in a bathroom by another girl. This is able to happen because the privacy (i.e., no security cameras) bathrooms entail. But while being private, most public restrooms are just that, public, allowing multiple people to be in an unmonitored space. Hopefully, the concerns of people on both sides of the HB2 issue, can be realized that, bathrooms in general are environments encouraging abuse regardless of who is "allowed" in them. The real solution to protect everyone would be to move to all private bathrooms. This would be costly, but if it was enacted in new building codes the transition could at least be somewhat of a smooth one. And when has the US ever put a price on safety and security of its citizens?