If You're Hunting for a Penis in the Women's Restroom, the Penis Is You
LAST WEEK, FLORIDA governor and all-but-declared Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis signed a batch of belligerently anti-trans measures into law: outlawing transition medical treatments for minors, blocking schools from using trans students' preferred pronouns, classifying drag performances as adults-only, and restricting restrooms or locker rooms in government buildings—including public schools, universities, and prisons—according to the would-be user's assigned sex at birth, not their gender identity.
All of the measures were ugly, but the last one had its own special kind of rudeness. Self-styled liberals and objective journalists, in the year or so before this surge of repression, had deemed gender-affirming care and pronoun usage to be valid areas of controversy—not that they ever wanted to go as far as Ron DeSantis, of course. Still there were, they agreed, questions about the whole speed and direction of this youth trans stuff. Drag queen story hour at the libraries, on the other hand, was a nice thing, and it was upsetting to see people suddenly rallying against it.
But bathroom bans! Bathroom bans had reared up and been defeated, by what felt like consensus, two whole presidential cycles ago. No one, it seemed, wanted to see people bothering other people when they were just trying to use the toilet.
That apparent point of agreement, though, depended on everyone seeing trans people as people—ordinary human beings, who would use the toilet for ordinary human reasons. The anti-trans movement has been working very hard to change that point of view, to convince enough people that when trans people try to use the toilet, they want to use it to advance an agenda, or to menace other people.
Here is what genuine social contagion looks like. The argument for banning trans people from their gender-appropriate restrooms or locker rooms is, at face value, profoundly humiliating to the people making it—paranoid, senseless, and voyeuristic. Yet anti-trans crusaders have convinced each other that it sounds righteous and sane.
Anti-trans British people, in particular, seem obsessed with the idea that allowing trans women into women's restrooms is unsafe for other people. If people are allowed to freely change their public gender identity, what's to stop nefarious male-born people—who still, in secret, identify as men—from entering women's private spaces, armed with trans rights, and forcing themselves on women?
How do restrooms work, in these people's minds? Somehow, the setup is that restrooms are so carefully supervised at the door that a predator would need to obtain and present a government-issued gender certificate to enter—but once inside, anything goes? Lydia Polgreen, writing in the New York Times, described the experience, as "a cisgender lesbian who is occasionally mistaken for a man," of once having a security guard bang on the door of her toilet stall after someone accused her of being a male interloper. The most important detail here, the essence of restroom panic, is that the door was closed. She was in the stall, by herself, when someone decided something had to be done.
This is the most literal and obvious possible example of matters being none of your business. If a person is in a bathroom stall, alone, why would you ever send your own consciousness chasing in there after them? You can call for security if you hear them racking a gun in the stall, or call for help if they collapse to the floor, but beyond that—what would ever compel you?
The fundamental belief of the anti-trans movement is that other people's genitals are somehow your concern. Why? Why would you go around thinking or caring at all about what other people have between their legs, if you're not personally having sex with them?
It's very easy not to pay attention to what other people are using to pee with. It's called a public restroom because it is there for the general public to use, not because people are there to see other people. As for locker rooms and changing rooms, again—speaking here as a male-identifying person, assigned male at birth, who has used men's facilities—if someone in your locker room has a penis, and you don't want to look at it, you don't look. If you do happen to glimpse one, and it's not yours...well, it's over there, attached to someone else. It will be back inside their clothing soon enough, while you focus on your own locker and your own gear.
There are some people in the world who like to make other, unwilling people see or touch their penises. There are people who like to punch other people without provocation, too. Yet people are allowed into restrooms, even though they have hands and those hands could be used as fists at any time.
Who builds a whole social movement around this kind of thin and speculative grievance-mongering? Outside the restrooms, the New York Post took the time today to report that a high school runner may or may not have made a thumbs-down gesture in protest after finishing fourth in her regional finals for the 1600 meters, in a race in which a transgender girl finished second. Anti-trans activists had gotten thrown out for the track meet for demonstrating against the trans girl, the Post reported, and they complained about it on Twitter; the word "cheated," which the Post put in quotes in the headline as if it had come from the fourth-place finisher, was taken from a tweet by an adult.
The top three finishers, according to the Post, got to advance to the state track finals, while the fourth-place runner didn't, which means she missed out on the chance to lose again, to even faster runners. For this, people are choosing to be furious on her behalf. Trying to connect the story to something larger, the Post cited an earlier online controversy it had covered:
In April, transgender runner Glenique Frank beat nearly 14,000 women in the female category of the London Marathon and came under intense scrutiny.
“Nearly 14,000 actual females suffered a worse finish position bc of [Frank],” two-time Olympian Mara Yamauchi tweeted after Frank’s win.
By "beat nearly 14,000 women," what the Post meant was that Frank had finished in 6,180th place in the women's field, an hour and 52 minutes behind the winner, Sifan Hassan. By "worse finish position," Yamauchi meant that a runner who finished 19,000 spots behind Hassan could have, in Frank's absence, finished only 18,999 spots behind Hassan. It would have been a spectacular display of pettiness, if the ultimate stakes weren't people's lives.
New York City, May 21, 2023
★★★★ Clouds held more than half the sky. The forecast had promised the low to mid 70s, but midday was only in the mid 60s, with a gusty breeze. A turquoise Chevrolet Bel Air rolled by, turning the corner, with its top down. If the temperature ever touched 70, it didn't stay there long. It was in the 60s on the basketball court in the afternoon, with wind rolling around a temporarily neglected soccer ball. A thick beam of sun made the western backboard near-blinding for a little while, but then the clouds closed it off, and things became outright gray. A helicopter growled over, slowly and with no apparent destination.
EASY LISTENING DEP’T.
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"Why? Why would you go around thinking or caring at all about what other people have between their legs, if you're not personally having sex with them?": I expect you know the answers as well as I do, but here are two:
1. These people are unusually anxious and confused about sex. Many of them have been taught from an early age (as I was by the fundies who raised me) that sex is dangerous and shameful, so it must be tightly controlled. Any "deviance" at all undermines that control; it's the thin end of a wedge leading to who knows what debaucheries. (For fundies, relax an iota, and the next thing you know, you're Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife having threesomes with the pool boy!) So the mere existence of transsexual people rattles their mental cages.*
2. These people are strongly committed to the prevailing status system, in which men are dominant and women are subordinate. They believe or want to believe this scheme is natural or divinely ordained and hence beyond legitimate challenge. Any blurring of the distinctions between men and women is a threat, most obviously to men who have little going for them except being men but also to women who are highly invested in their roles (as my mother was). Especially threatening to such men are people they construe as feminized men, whom they regard as, in effect, class traitors.
The syndrome is a nasty tangle of psychopathologies, which are not only undiagnosed and untreated but eagerly cultivated by demagogues for power and profit.
*Admittedly, this psychopathology isn't limited to fundies and their ilk. As many thoughtful observers have noted, many people feel deeply threatened by the fact that humans, particularly themselves, are mortal, breeding animals. Sex organs and sexual behaviors, which humans conspicuously share with other animals, are pointedly embarrassing reminders of this troubling fact. Accordingly, they're heavily obfuscated and regulated, including claims that maleness and femaleness are sacred categories that transcend corporeality. Even imaginary spiritual beings, gods and goddesses, typically are depicted as conventionally male or female, not anything other or in between. The messy biological realities of sex cast doubt on all that silliness, which may be why many people prefer not to think about them.