Identity – the Other Side

Of course, there’s always the other side.

I thought of it reading the paper today. There is an editorial ripping into Initiative 1515, a proposal in Washington State to limit the liability of businesses that reserve their bathrooms for persons of one biological/genetic sex or the other and to require schools to deny permission to children who identify with the opposite sex to enter that bathroom, while making an attempt to provide them with suitable facilities.

You can read it here.

What gets me about the above article is this statement: “These laws (anti-discrimination laws from 2006) have functioned as intended, until socially conservative lawmakers this year ginned up absurd, fantastical scenarios about transgender people flashing their genitals at children in bathrooms and locker rooms.”

Um, that’s not quite right.

The scenarios don’t involve transgender people at all. They involve men, full men, men that identify entirely as men, using the law as a way to expose themselves to women and children, for whatever bizarre reason that men do this.

I’ve been flashed several times, and I still don’t understand why men do it. But I know that it makes women feel small and powerless, and a little bit afraid. It reminds us that it’s only a few steps up from a flash to a rape. So it’s illegal. How difficult would it be, honestly, for a man to flash a woman in a locker room, and then tell the authority that she imagined it, he was just minding his own business trying to get dressed. Behavior matters, like I said before, but it sometimes takes a while for certain behavior to be caught and punished. That’s how sexual harassment works: a woman has to endure it a long time, documenting it, before she can be believed.

I have known transgendered women, and one who was in the process. This guy, a coworker, told me that in order for him to be approved for the surgery, he had to live like a woman. He had to “live her truth” so to speak, and using the women’s bathroom was only one of the last stops in a long process. I am sure I’ve shared women’s bathrooms with a dozen men and have not noticed – because that’s the point. Behavior matters. If there’s no way to tell if your man is transitioning, if he/she makes no effort to “live their truth” and then exposes quite another truth to you, then how do you know? If you write the law and leave out protections that recognize this conundrum, then you’ve failed to protect at least 49% of the population from the kind of people who could use the law as a shield. That’s a real concern; it has nothing to do with hate. I have no interest in walking in on the full monty in the YMCA shower room and then trying to determine if it’s safe to take my clothes off.

Rather than accusing people who struggle with these issues of “hatred” we would do well to find a third way, one that does not involve entrenching ourselves in the purity of our positions. Those businesses working to improve the privacy of their bathrooms are to be commended. Schools can employ adult “bathroom monitors” to ensure that children are not violating one another’s privacy while allowing transgendered kids the freedom to use the restroom they need to. Whatever! Let’s just think practically and assume the best of those who care enough to argue about it.

Today I learned that the entire town of Fallujah, in Iraq, is starving to death. Literally starving to death, because two sides are entrenched in their positions and can’t agree long enough to get food to them.

We can do better.

Identity

I identify as a feminist.

Mostly, I am an old-school feminist from the 70’s and 80’s. Old school feminists tend to hold on to the notion that to be feminist means that you believe that women are capable of doing anything that men can. Radical old-school feminism believes that all gender difference, outside of reproductive equipment, is culturally defined, that there are no true differences between the sexes. Therefore, women should have the same opportunities as men, women should be paid the same as men for the same work, and women should not be relegated to a subservient role in the family – marriage is a pact between equals.

By the 90’s, this position softened a bit. Statistically, some tendencies were identified as feminine and others as masculine. The point then became to value that which is feminine and that which is masculine equally, and to accept that these characteristics can appear in either gender.

I will know that this attitude has taken hold when a man can dress in women’s clothes without social stigma, just as women can dress in men’s clothes. That hasn’t happened yet. We understand and applaud women who want to take on male characteristics and male occupations, but we’re not all there yet when it comes to men. While the growing number of men who put in equal time caring for their small children is heartening, the stay-at-home dad is still sometimes considered a freeloader.

Identity is tricky, because consistency is something we long for as human beings, yet the world is just not that consistent.

I was going to stay out of the bathroom debate, until I saw this video:

Because I find it vaguely annoying that someone would go to my alma mater to play “Gotcha” with young students who don’t have enough experience in the world to respond thoughtfully, I think someone needs to educate the Family Policy Institute on just what constitutes “identity.”

Family Policy Institute, like many Christian organizations, finds it necessary to remind people that yes, there is absolute, objective truth out there. They’ve reduced the truth about human identity to the following: Men are men because they have a penis, women are women because they have a vagina and mammaries. So the interviewer, Joseph Backholm, decided to drive this reductionist point home by taking on some other identities and seeing how UW students reacted. He asked them what they would say if he told them he was 7 years old. Or Chinese. Or 6’5″. All of which left the students uncomfortable, but standing their ground on his right to identify himself however he wished, physical evidence to the contrary. FPI takes this as evidence that today’s youth are doomed.

Obviously, Backholm isn’t 7 years old. Chronologically. Yet there’s a 29 year old woman at my church who has the mind and skill set of a 7 year old. She wears her hair in pigtails, plays with toys, watches cartoons, and in a sing-song voice reminds me about her birthday 2 months in advance. She requires care and supervision. While she is physically able to have children, I would not have put my children in her care because for all practical purposes, she is a child herself.

Backholm doesn’t look Chinese. However, I have a Filipina friend who looks African American. She was born and raised in the Philippines, however, so that makes her Filipina, does it not? My Mexican coworker’s father was Swedish. She doesn’t look Mexican, but she speaks Spanish and makes tamales and misses her country. There are people born and raised in China of British parentage. Backholm could very well be Chinese, and it’s certainly his prerogative to say he’s Chinese. What makes a person American? Can you tell by looking at them?

Backholm is not 6’5″. Ok, there you got me. I could get a ruler and measure him and say nope, you are only 5’10”. Or, 70″. Or 177.8 cm. But that isn’t identity, is it? That’s merely a physical characteristic. I thought we were getting away from basing identity on physical characteristics, such as the color of one’s skin, or height, or dress size.

The point is that sex and height are physical characteristics that are small parts of identity. Gender, on the other hand, is a social construct that is a result of two things: 1) statistical preferences and skill sets associated with a given sex, 2) social roles associated with, and sometimes assigned to, a person of a given sex. Because human society has spent hundreds of years determining the full meaning of gender, for better or worse, it’s not going away soon. People whose desires and preferences and skill sets match the opposite sex are in something of a social bind. Our human drive for consistency will lead us to try and make a match. Technology has made that possible for transgendered persons.

The reason those college students were uncomfortable was because Backholm’s behavior did not match his claims. He did not dress like a woman, he did not speak with a Chinese accent, and he was not carrying his toy truck with him. A transgendered person is in that bathroom to behave consistently with their gender, and their privacy needs are more like those of the opposite sex. Therefore, he will be dressed and shaved like a woman in the woman’s bathroom, and she will have her lady parts covered in the men’s bathroom. If this is not so then yes, you can be suspicious and uncomfortable. Behavior matters. A pair of size 12 pumps in the stall next to me worries me a lot less than the woman’s face peering in through a crack in the stall door (no doubt checking to be sure I don’t have a penis).

Take faith, for example. I identify as a Christian. We know there are Christians who look like they just stepped out of gangs, with piercings and tattoos and the like. We know Christians who swear and listen to rough music. We don’t judge Christians by their appearance, but by their beliefs and behavior. Gradually, we find that Christians adopt a “look” and a standard of behavior that is consistent with mature belief informed by the Bible, while at the same time we recognize the diversity of cultures that fit under the Christian umbrella.

Family Policy Institute would do well to concentrate on bathroom policy that truly helps families, such as baby changing tables in men’s bathrooms, than to try and convince people that adopting a simplistic view of the world is going to make abuse disappear. We’ve attached a lot of complicated baggage to the sexes, and it’s going to take a while before men can be comfortable as men in dresses, or women can likewise be themselves around other women.