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Continuing Confusion

unnamed (1)People have some strange ideas about sex and gender. Let’s take the current contention over who gets to use what bathroom. For those of you who are unfamiliar with what I’m referring to, here’s a quick recap.

In March of 2015, North Carolina passed House Bill 2 (HB2), which requires anyone using a public bathroom to use only the bathroom that matched the sex listed on their birth certificates. This part of the law clearly targets transgendered individuals, preventing them from using the bathrooms in which they would feel most comfortable. The bill also goes further, removing any laws that protect against discrimination — not just discrimination against LGBT folk, but any discrimination, and preventing cities and local governments from passing any new anti-discrimination laws in the future.

It’s a wide-reaching move against civil rights, and it all began when the city of Charlotte passed a law that put in place some protections for the LGBT community, including allowing a transgendered person to use the bathroom of their choice, without having to go through a lot of legal hoops to change their birth certificate.

Proponents of HB2 are very preoccupied with the idea that laws like the one Charlotte passed would allow men to enter women’s bathrooms for malicious purposes. Supporters hold signs with slogans such as “Keep Women and Kids Safe.” The underlying worry seems to be that a range of dangerous men – from Peeping Toms to pedophiles and potential assailants — will claim to be transgendered women in order to sneak into bathrooms for malicious purposes.

This panic seems to overshadow a much more important, private gender panic that might exist inside each of us. The concept of gender as separate from biology can be a difficult one. I admit to some confusion myself. It was surprising to me — though it should not have been — that my identity as a gay man did not somehow automatically make me a trans-ally. I had to really grapple with my own discomfort with a male body that did not match my cis-gendered one. That discomfort could be labeled as a form of gender panic, the welter of confusion and even anxiety that is provoked by considering that a man might have breasts, or a woman might have a penis.

In American culture, men can be viewed as unable to control their sexual impulses. It’s related to a “boys will be boys” attitude, which is often used to excuse bullying or fighting. For some, it’s even taken farther, such as the father of a former Stanford student who described his son raping a woman as “20 minutes of action.” People who are afraid of men’s sexuality, such as the supporters of HB2, and people who valorize it, such as the father quoted above, are all promoting a certain kind of masculinity, rooted in violence and predation. There is a message being conveyed that men are inherently violent, and I don’t believe that is true.

Can you be manly without being aggressive? Yes, of course. Can you be aggressive without being violent? Yes, of course. But in order to do so, we have to teach boys and men how to manage their impulses, instead of saying they are defined by them. This is an issue of a certain kind of masculinity, and by expanding our personal notions of gender it allows for us to be more than the examples we see around us and on the news. There are comparable problems in portrayals of women and feminine identity — such as the idealization and objectification of a certain kind of femininity — but I won’t comment on it at this time.

As for the issue of bathrooms for transgender men and women, it might be helpful for all of us to remember that they were once boys and girls, and that increasing numbers of “boys” openly consider themselves to be girls, and vice versa. Picture a biological girl who is a transgender boy, who has to be at school for eight hours, during which time he needs to go to the bathroom. In the boys’ bathroom– urinals, and one stall without a door — there’s no way to avoid exposing his anatomically female body to lots of boys he doesn’t even know.  How safe will he be?  In the girls’ bathroom, several of his friends know he considers himself a boy. How safe will they feel if he’s there?

It turns out that gender-neutral bathrooms might help keep all of us safe when we have to use public bathrooms.  As for keeping any of us safe from our own panic or society’s, that’s another story.