Dismissing the Legitimate Concerns of Cisgender Students Jeopardizes Transgender Rights

In a time when the Trump administration has rolled back Obama-era guidelines protecting transgender students and state and local legislators are considering so-called bathroom bills despite the negative economic impact in North Carolina over HB2, it is not a time for transgender advocates to maintain a hard line on locker room access for transgender students. These advocates are equating locker room access with bathroom access when these two issues are very, very different. Bathrooms, despite being places where people perform private functions, are by design places that maximise privacy. Despite the proximity of a bathroom’s occupants, those occupants need never witness the nakedness of others or expose their own. Whilst moving through the bathroom’s common areas, the occupants are fully clothed. Most locker rooms, on the other hand, are designed in such a way that it is impossible not to expose one’s nakedness or witness that of others. The debate over transgender access to locker rooms has played out chiefly as it pertains to schools. Youth opposed to transgender access have two very valid objections to allowing transgdender students unfettered access to bathrooms. Firstly, irrespective of whether a transgender student is given a private area to change clothes, that transgender student has full access to the common areas of the locker room and is therefore able to witness the nakedness of all the other occupants. Secondly, in situations where a transgender student is not provided a separate changing area, the cisgender occupants are forced to witness the nakedness of the transgender student. Adolescence is a very sensitive time for many youth and it is not at all uncommon for people with rapidly developing bodies to be very self-conscious about those bodies. It is not unreasonable for these students to desire privacy and to not be exposed to others who might make them uncomfortable. Transgender activists argue that transgender students feel isolated and excluded when compelled to change in facilities separate from those of other students but prescribe the very same solution for students who are uncomfortable disrobing in the presence of a transgender student. This is very, very wrong and insisting on full transgender access whilst ignoring or belittling the legitimate claims of cisgender students risks a backlash that could easily sour public opinion towards other transgender rights as well.

Boyertown High SchoolIn the latest case, student Joel Doe, a cisgender boy in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, has filed suit against the school district to reverse its policy of allowing transgender students unfettered access to the locker rooms of the gender with which they identify. Doe has stated that he felt uncomfortable when he witnessed a transgender student walking around the locker room in shorts and a bra. The response of the district to Doe’s concerns is troubling. Dr. Brett Cooper, the principal of Boyertown High School, offered the uncomfortable cisgender student the opportunity to change in the nurse’s office. Dr. Richard Faidley, the Boyertown School District superintendent, told Doe that if he was uncomfortable, he could be home-schooled and attend classes at a vocational center. In essence, the school’s response to the student’s discomfort has been to offer solutions that isolate and exclude him as well as damaging his educational prospects. The response of transgender advocates was no less troubling. Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, also proposed isolating and excluding the cisgender complainant by saying that he could have been allowed to use single occupancy or staff facilities. If the goal of integrating transgender students by allowing them full access to locker rooms is to prevent transgender students from feeling isolated and excluded, how is it right to impose similar isolation and exclusion upon cisgender students who find themselves uncomfortable in the naked presence of somebody who is anatomically different from them? Punishing cisgender students who are uncomfortable in the presence of anatomically different transgender students is patently ludicrous. School officials and transgender advocates who propose solutions like this should be ashamed of themselves for attempting to transfer the stigma from the transgender person to faultless cisgender persons.

Sigourney and Aryn CoyleLast year, cisgender girl Sigourney Coyle began sitting out her gym class after her the Obama administration issued guidance requiring schools to allow transgender students unfettered access to bathrooms and locker rooms. In her case, just like in Boyertown, the gym classes are mandatory. She is uncomfortable undressing and being seen naked in the presence of somebody who is anatomically different. One may discount her objections because she has said her objections have a basis in her religious beliefs, but there are plenty of non-religious cisgender students who are similarly uncomfortable. In her testimony before the school board, Miss Coyle said “I also feel nothing against transgenders [sic]. I know some and I don’t have anything wrong with them. I would just not like their rights to overrule my own. We are equals. They are not better and I am not better.” She also testified that the school had offered to let her take gym class in the summer in order to accommodate her. Later, her mother made it clear that their objection was only to transgender access to areas where Sigourney could be seen naked and that they had no objection to sharing bathrooms because the stalls provide a modicum of privacy. Miss Coyle’s concerns are valid. In the rush to accommodate transgender students by providing them with unfettered locker room access, many schools have provided the transgender students with more private areas to conceal their anatomical differences, but often have not offered the same level of privacy to cisgender students. The transgender student can emerge fully dressed from the private area but the cisgender students are still exposed and can be viewed in their nakedness by the transgender student.

It boggles my mind that theses concerns are not taken more seriously by school officials and transgender advocates alike. The fact of the matter is that it is often difficult for adolescent cisgender students to appear naked before other cisgender students. Students who develop early, students who develop late and many students who have body image or self-esteem issues dread the collective disrobing and showering that comes along with gym classes. In high school, I dreaded physical education classes. My physical development and appearance were completely normal. My body did not stand out in any way from that of the other boys in my gym class, but I already suffered from an immense level of bullying and I often ended up in gym class with my chief antagonists who used every opportunity to ridicule my appearance and demean me. Any rational person would have been able to tell me that their words were not true, that my body was completely normal and without defect, but rational arguments were of no use to me. I was already vulnerable, I already had low self-esteem, I already felt like an outcast. The daily agony of the locker room simply exacerbated all of these feelings. I reached the point where I simply stopped showering after gym class, choosing instead to change as quickly as possible into my street clothes and flee the locker room. Returning to the classroom sweaty and dirty was preferable to subjecting myself to the cruelty of bullies.

No student, transgender or cisgender, deserves to be forced into a situation where he or she feels uncomfortable. The locker room is already an uncomfortable place for students without adding the additional strain of forcing them to disrobe in the presence of people who are anatomically different. The only equitable solution is to provide all students with a private area to change and shower. No student should be forced to use a gang locker room or a gang shower. If every student has access to a private changing and showering area, no student is singled out, isolated or excluded and no student has to be seen naked by any other student.

Transgender People Who Pass Are Not The Ones Affected By “Bathroom Bills”

It is unsurprising that HB2, the statute passed in North Carolina in March, requiring transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to the gender listed on their birth certificates, has met with widespread condemnation. This opposition has come from such diverse quarters as major corporations, certain Republican politicians, a number of public individuals and a plethora of LGBT advocacy groups. Unfortunately, some of these advocacy groups are attacking this measure by pointing out how ludicrous the measure is by parading transgender individuals who pass, i.e., who are indistinguishable from cisgender people of the gender with which they identify. These individuals are the least likely to be challenged as nobody can tell that they are transgender unless they advertise the fact. Therefore, these efforts do not adequately address the issue as those of us who do not pass are the ones who are really affected by such laws.

Zeke Christopoulos

Recently the advocacy group Freedom for All Americans published an ad that illustrates this point. The ad features Zeke Christopoulos, a photogenic transgender male from North Carolina who passes. The fact that he is transgender is irrelevant. Unless he carries a sign proclaiming that he is transgender, nobody at all is going to raise an eyebrow if he enters the men’s bathroom. It does not matter one iota if he has had the gender marker on his birth certificate changed or had gender reassignment surgery. The general public perceives him to be male. Caitlyn Jenner’s recent publicity stunt where she entered a women’s restroom in Trump Tower is similarly ineffective at addressing the issue. Even if she were not a high profile public figure, she also passes and would not be challenged for entering the women’s restroom.

Girl with a Hoop

The population that is adversely affected by these laws is those transgender individuals like me who do not pass. Although I am routinely recognized and addressed as female, it is evident that I am transgender. Even in a generally tolerant place like New York City, enough people look at me askance when I enter a women’s restroom that I try to avoid them unless I am accompanied by other women. The fact that my birth certificate and every other form of identification that I own states that I am female is irrelevant. In jurisdictions where this sort of discriminatory legislation is in place, I would be at risk of arrest if I were to use the women’s room. I would have to carry my birth certificate around with me to demonstrate to the police that it identified me as female. I imagine that even then the authorities would be unhappy that I was compliant with the letter rather than the spirit of the law. On the other hand, using the men’s room would put me at personal risk of aggression or assault by men intolerant of my gender identity. My only option then would be to locate non-gendered restroom facilities.

The smugness of the statements by passing transgender persons that these laws are risible is, quite frankly, offensive to those of us who do not. For us, these regulations are ludicrous only on an intellectual level. There is no evidence to suggest that we are likely to harass or assault anybody whilst using the bathroom or that incidents of harassment or sexual assault have increased as a result of allowing transgender people access to to the bathrooms of their choice. Still, we are the ones who are targeted by so-called bathroom bills. I am really happy that people like Mr. Christopoulos do not have to worry about discrimination when entering the restroom, but advocacy groups really ought to be emphasizing not the ridiculousness of requiring passing transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to their birth gender, but the real risks that non-passing individuals face when this sort of discriminatory legislation is enacted.

Has Caitlin Jenner Caused More Harm Than Good?

The last few years have seen an enormous increase in public awareness of transgender issues. From the emergence of Janet Mock and Chaz Bono as powerful voices for the transgender community, to the emergence of television programs about or featuring transgender actresses like Laverne Cox to the discussion of issues like transgender access to bathrooms and discrimination and violence against transgender people, the media have latched onto the transgender cause like never before. The single biggest transgender media sensation, however, has been the public coming out of Caitlin Jenner, formerly Olympic star Bruce Jenner. Her emergence as the most recognizable face of the transgender cause is not at all surprising. She provides what the media and the public with a narrative that is convenient and safe: an attractive male sports icon identifies as a woman, undergoes extensive plastic surgery that enables her to pass as a woman and presents herself to the public as a photogenic media darling. Unfortunately, the reality many other transgender people face is utterly contrary to Caitlyn Jenner’s experience. We are unable to afford any sort of cosmetic procedures, much of the public considers our appearance to be awkward or freakish and it is unlikely that we will ever pass as the gender with which we identify. Jenner’s manner of coming out suggests that one is legitimately a man or a woman only if he or she can pass as that gender and instills that expectation in the public. Unfortunately, this emphasis on physical characteristics diverts attention from the pressing issues that many transgender people face: poverty, unemployment, stigma, discrimination, violence and depression.

When Caitlyn, then Bruce, gave her interview to Diane Sawyer, there were a number of issues that were very confusing for many transgender people. First, she stated that she was, for all intents and purposes, a female. This was a remarkably equivocal statement, particularly from a person who had been undergoing transition intermittently for over twenty years. Most of us do not sort of feel like whichever gender we identify with. We are either women or men. Our affirmation of that gender is a major catharsis. After years of trying to play a gender role that was alien to us, we are liberated by embracing our gender identity. Of course, there are people who have an ambiguous gender identity and that is valid. But it is not common for somebody remain on the fence if they are embracing a binary gender identity different from that which they were assigned at birth. Secondly, it was very odd that Caitlyn, instructed us to continue to refer to her as Bruce and continue using masculine pronouns. Once again, most transgender people, once they have decided to come out, flee from the pronouns that have for so long invalidated their true gender identity. Most of use actively do whatever is possible to eradicate all traces of the incorrect gender. We ask people to use correct pronouns and change our names and our documents to reflect our true gender identity. Hearing our former names and being referred to by incorrect pronouns is as unpleasant as chalk screeching on a blackboard. Thirdly, Caitlyn’s mindset was surprising when she was asked about her sexual orientation. She emphatically stated that she was not gay, that she had never been attracted to men and that she was exclusively attracted to women. Of course, a woman who is attracted exclusively to women and has never been attracted to men is by definition gay. Lastly, Caitlyn repeatedly talked about her “female persona” as if it was some sort of separate identity. This is precisely what one would expect a genderqueer person to say, but it is not something that most transgender people would say. We do not feel as if we have two people inside of us. We are women or we are men, irrespective of which body we might have. We are not at all ambiguous about our gender; it is an integral part of our being.

Once Jenner publicly unveiled herself as Caitlyn (without any comment as to whether there was a Bruce persona still lurking inside her somewhere), it began to appear as though her previous ambiguous statements were calculated to generate suspense and interest in her reality TV show. If that was actually the case, it was a crass and cynical ploy by somebody who was already fantastically rich and famous to garner yet more eyeballs for the Kardashian-Jenner franchise and perpetuate their penchant for portraying a plastic and shallow reality to their audience. More disturbing however, was how this unveiling took place. After asking the public to treat her as a man, Caitlyn underwent extensive surgery to feminize herself, recruited an army of stylists, hairdressers and makeup artists to dress her up and then called in a world renown fashion photographer to take some flattering photos of her. Only then did she ask us to call her Caitlyn and treat her as a woman. The message was clear: you can only ask the public to call you a woman (or a man) when you can conform to the public’s perception of what that gender should look like.

This statement invalidates many transgender people who are unable, and unlikely ever to be able, to meet these high expectations. The fact is that it is exceedingly difficult for anybody who began transition after the age of thirty to pass in society. Unless we have extensive financial resources like Caitlyn Jenner, most of us will never be able to afford electrolysis, plastic surgery, and other procedures that would enable us to meet these standards of appearance. Instead, our appearance will continue to make many people uncomfortable and earn us stares, scorn and hurtful comments. In reality, transgender people are more likely to be poor and unemployed than society at large. We are more likely to experience discrimination, scorn and violence. We are more likely to suffer from depression and are significantly more likely to attempt suicide. Yet our gender identity is every bit as valid as that of Caitlyn Jenner, or the transgender people who were fortunate enough to transition in their youth or early adulthood. We do the best that we can with our appearance even as many of use long to look different. We may be marginalized, but we are proud. We might be depressed, but we are determined. Society may not see us as the gender with which we identify, but we know within ourselves who and what we are. We do not need divas like Caitlyn Jenner to turn transition into a beauty contest. We resent her trivialization of transgender experience and stridently insist that we are transgender men or women, regardless of how we look. For many of us, her antics have done more damage than good. We already inhabited these shores long before she sailed here from afar. She is the newcomer, not us. Columbus, go back to Spain.

The So-Called Transgender Murder Epidemic

I have been waiting until I finished the design of this blog before starting regular posting, but I really don’t know when I am going to get around to that and there are too many things now that merit commenting upon. Forgive the uninspiring appearance; I promise to sort things out. Eventually.

The news media have been trumpeting what is being called an “alarming rise in anti-transgender violence” and a “state of emergency” in the United States. Certainly, any number of murders is too many. As a transgender person, I find the murder of others because of their gender identity to be particularly saddening, but as a rational person, I do not believe that the sky is falling. Statistically, the number of murdered transgender persons is astonishingly small and the fomenting of a panic is misplaced and could ultimately become counterproductive.

An article yesterday in the Guardian proclaimed that the United States was failing to properly track this new state of emergency, saying that the correct number of hate-related murders of transgender people was not seventeen, but eighteen. Once, again, eighteen murders is eighteen too many, but is it really a major escalation of violence? Conservative estimates place the number of transgender people in the United States at 700,000. More liberal estimates put the number at 1% of the total population, around 3.1 million. At the current rate, we can project the number of transgender murders to be 27 by the end of the year. That means that the chance of a transgender person being murdered in any given year because of their gender identity is 1 in 25,925. If we assume the more liberal transgender population of 3.1 million, the odds become 1 in 114,814. These are surprising odds, considering that, according to the FBI, there were 14,196 murders in 2013 making the odds of any American being murdered in any particular year 1 in 21,791. In other words, the odds of being murdered for being transgender are smaller than for the population as a whole.

The only reason that people perceive a drastic rise in anti-transgender violence is that they are only beginning to pay attention to it. It is only recently that the transgender issue has emerged in the American psyche, only recently that a spate of openly transgender people have become very visible in the public conscience. It is only this year, despite the prior existence of far more capable ambassadors for the transgender cause, that Caitlyn Jenner has sparked the meteoric rise in concern about the plight of transgender people. Transgender violence, however, is not the real problem. There are far more pressing issues such as discrimination, harassment, mental health and the plight of transgender youth, particularly those in intolerant homes and communities. Transgender people are far, far more likely to kill themselves than to be murdered. They are far more likely to be homeless, unemployed, uninsured and depressed than the population at large. Transgender youth are particularly vulnerable as they are often not allowed to make decisions for themselves and may be forcibly subjected to “corrective therapy” by woefully misguided parents. I understand that murder is very sensational, but expending a huge amount of energy decrying hate crimes diverts attention from key issues that are a far greater threat to the well-being of transgender people.

Ultimately, Americans may grow weary of this exaggeration of a transgender murder epidemic once it becomes apparent that it is not as severe as it is being portrayed in the media. Unfortunately, that could result in weariness over the transgender issue at large. That would be tragic, as many have fought long and hard to increase awareness and are only now beginning to realize that goal. Hopefully, those who are dictating the narrative will see this and not squander the good will transgender people currently enjoy on a fruitless crusade to combat a nearly non-existent threat.