Thursday, December 03, 2015

The Meaning of an Illinois Transgender Girl's Choice About Whether to Change Behind a Curtain

By Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column for this week, I discuss the case of a transgender girl's right to shower and change with the other girls on her sports team rather than being compelled by her school district (in Illinois) to change behind a curtain. I conclude that the school district is wrong to insist on treating the transgender girl differently from the other girls, but I propose that greater privacy for everyone on the team might be the best solution, given that many girls would rather not disrobe in front of their teammates.

I want to suggest here that the motivation of the school district was likely to protect everyone's privacy with what appeared to be a nuanced accommodation. This girl could play sports with other girls and could even change in the room with the other girls, albeit behind a curtain. The district may have assumed that this arrangement would be desirable not only from the perspective of the transgender girl's teammates but from her perspective as well. Indeed, the girl has indicated that she would probably, if given the choice, use the curtain to change after all.

To some, then, this whole conflict may seem like much ado about nothing. If the girl wants to have the same privacy that the other girls want to have from her, then how can there be said to be a harm? If she feels the same reluctance to be nude in front of them that they feel, then isn't it a waste of time to quibble over whether she can, if she chooses, do something different that she probably does not want to do anyway (i.e., change in the locker room without a curtain)?

The short answer is no, it is not a waste of time. Part of what a transgender girl experiences in confronting discriminatory treatment is the wish for autonomy. For her, life has long been about hearing that she is a boy when she experiences herself not as a boy but as a girl. One can only imagine the obstacles that she confronted on her way from being "accepted" as a boy, contrary to her perhaps-secret wishes, to being roughly tolerated as a girl. This journey has almost certainly been a very difficult and painful one, filled with people either explicitly or implicitly telling her who she is, what she must do, and who she must be.

Now, however, she has taken the brave step of announcing to the world that despite their assumptions, she is a girl. Knowing that many people would reject her announcement and either continue treating her as a boy or begin treating her as a misfit, she forged ahead and joined a girls' sports team. One hopes that she has thrived on this team and that her teammates have treated her with kindness and understanding, although it is likely that there have been some very difficult, awkward, and painful moments along the way. What she must therefore be craving now, perhaps more than anything else, is the autonomy to decide how she will express herself in her new identity and the willingness to accept her and her choices, whatever they might be. Under these circumstances, to be told that she must change behind a curtain would be devastating and infuriating, even if she would not mind that arrangement if it were offered to her as an option.

Some might say "this is sensitivity and political correctness run amok," but I strongly disagree with that sentiment. Take a simple example. Imagine that you boarded a train with one seat left, and you headed toward that seat and sat down.  You suddenly noticed someone who had been heading toward that seat, crying, and whispering to her boyfriend that she is so tired, she must sit down. At that moment, though you are tired too, you might be considering getting up and giving this sad woman your seat. Imagine, though, that before getting the chance to do so, the boyfriend came over to you and ordered you out of your seat. You would then likely feel, first, that now your choice was gone, and rather than receiving some credit for being generous, you would just be following orders if you gave up your seat. Next, you might feel like staying put, since you are, after all, entitled to the seat on a first-come, first-served basis, and who is this creep forcing you to get up? Regardless of how you ultimately decided to act, the boyfriend's order would have changed the entire experience of giving up your seat.

The same is probably true for the transgender girl. With an available curtain in the changing room, she might well have felt inclined to change behind it (just as perhaps other girls at different times of the day might also choose to change behind it). But then came the school district, telling her that she had no choice. Suddenly, an expression of autonomy and dignity becomes surrender to force  on behalf of the other girls' privacy (rather than, it seems, on behalf of her own).  I can understand why she would be angry and hurt by the school district's decision. And I hope, for her sake and that of the other girls, that she is ultimately given the option of choosing what will make her feel most comfortable in her new identity, and that the other girls accept that choice and treat her with the kindness that she so needs and deserves.


Joe said...

I appreciate the discussion. To note how tricky it seems to many sympathetic to the trans cause in general, even the two hosts of the show "Gay USA" noted it was a tricky case and opened up audience reaction (mixed).

It might be interesting to read a column from Prof. Colb from ten years ago:

Greg said...
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Joe said...

What other countries have general mixed sex locker rooms?

Data would be interesting there. Don't quite seem singly "American." The concern for nudity writ large doesn't either exactly but I can see where other nations are more comfortable with that sort of thing. Not sure how much more Canada or England or whatever is, but I can see it. But, to the extent of mixed high school locker rooms?

Again, if Canada or some European countries do that, I'd be interested.

J Adler said...

I'm sympathetic to much in this post, but here is a serious question. If the girl in question still has male genitalia, is not there a serious risk (under current law) that allowing her to change and be naked in the girls locker room could constitute a hostile environment for purposes of our civil rights laws? If not, why not? It seems to me that if nude pin-ups and exposure of genitalia can constitute a hostile environment, forcing a girl to be exposed to male genitalia on a regular basis as a condition of participating in school athletics, gym class, or whatever, would qualify as well. Am I missing something?


James Longfellow said...

Thanks Joe for the link to that old article. The old professor Colb nailed the issue. There is an inherent tension between the way that transgendered people see the world and the way that feminists see the world. This is one reason why I have never fully understood political conservatives hostility to transgendered people. After all, both trans and conservatives hold the same "essentialist" views on gender so logically each reaffirms the other. And although Professor Colb doesn't note it, many gay relationships--as a practical matter--seek to reaffirm the same traditional sexual power dynamics. So on one hand, if one views SSM as a form of public recognition of "gayness" then SSM is anti-conservative. Yet if one views SSM in terms of relationship dynamics then SSM actually is anti-feminist. The whole political dynamics of the gender wars always leaves me feeling woozy.

This present case illustrates those woozy dynamics. In my own experience men tend to be more welcoming of transgender women than women themselves, often because men can't tell a "real woman" and a transgender woman apart at first glance. I still remember many years ago when a transgender woman first appeared on campus and the whole "where does she pee" issue arose. I guessed, in my silly old male mind, that women would trot out the "welcome to the sisterhood" banner. Oh no! It was our female, minority, ACLU and NOW card carrying dean of students who insisted she use the "family" restrooms on campus. It was much to my surprise that I came to realize that many women viewed transgender women as butting into a conversation for which they had little life experience to share and which they were, perhaps unwittingly, choosing the wrong side.

My own view, FWIW, however, is that women fussing about this issue is a lost cause. Not because of any liberal notions but because plastic surgery and chemical transformations are proceeding at such a rapid pace that soon not even women will be able to detect a transgender women, even in the bathroom. The days of muscular ladies in bad make-ups and cheap wigs are rapidly becoming a faded memory. "My reaction was to share the skepticism about the ability of surgery to make a grown man into a woman." Professor Colb turned out to be very wrong on that score, at least as far as psychical characteristics are concerned.

James Longfellow said...

ah, typo that should be "as far as physical characteristics...."

Greg said...
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Joe said...

A unisex bathroom (putting aside Ally McBeal, who is now running a media empire) can be a half-way point here, especially if the urinals are separated from the rest of the area. That is if we still have them. This might make sense since men can quickly use that area while others would use stalls. I put aside that women urinals exist. Some argue we should just have uni bathrooms in public places like restaurants.

The locker room is a more exposed matter, including the traditional use of open showers. The use of "penis" or "vulva" locker rooms don't seem to answer the problems here since trans activists will tell you that external parts, especially for teens pre-op, don't make you a certain sex. The movement here is to move past from such strict lines. The girl here is not on the "vulva" sports team either.

The fact external genitalia isn't the dividing line here can be seen by imagining a person who is seriously injured in a fire or accident and such genitalia is somehow destroyed. The person wouldn't suddenly not know his or her sex. This does make one think about just what is important including acceptable sexual partners and appearances. It came to mind, e.g. in the 18th Century French nobility and others I guess wore clothing and even makeup in ways that would seem quite effeminate today.

Thinking future, it just might be before we know it, there will be a way to provide digital walls around yourself for privacy. I also think if a trans person is accepted as a certain sex the small time he or she is exposed while changing will over time be seen as trivial. Teens are at a sensitive age but we already show a lot more at beaches etc. than was once deemed proper. As to showers, privacy stalls for all would probably be appropriate.

Greg said...

Joe, a few responses.

The entire point of "penis" and "vulva" locker rooms is specifically that they do NOT make a reference to sex or gender. These are NOT split by boys and girls, they are for people who happen to have one or the other of the most common forms of external genitalia. A better argument would be that this is no different than distinguishing by skin color, which is obviously an argument I could accept, but I suspect others would disagree with me.

As far as seriously injured in a fire goes, that's specifically why I gave people who had neither or both the choice of locker room. Then again, wounded genitalia are still genitalia.

Gender-specific sports teams are potentially due to a different set of factors than locker rooms. There's no reason to believe that sports teams should have the same division as locker rooms.

As far as the "changing only takes a short time" argument goes, why doesn't it apply more generally. I'm not sure you can make this argument and still defend gender-specific locker rooms. How is a fleeting view of a boy's penis in the girls' locker room offensive and hostile while a fleeting view of a girl's penis is harmless? Is a fleeting view of a boy's vulva in the girl's locker room equally as offensive as a fleeting view of a boy's penis? These aren't simple questions to answer, and are fundamental to the appropriate treatment of transgender individuals in locker rooms. Privacy screens for all make the problem less acute, but I don't know if they really make it go away.

I'm going to go on a major tangent here:
I think the reason we have separate locker rooms is that we expect males (especially teenage boys and adult men) to behave badly. Instead of punishing the males for behaving badly, we segregate them so that they can't disturb the females (who are expected to behave properly.) This is blatant sexism, plain an simple. If we simply expected boys to behave properly, shared locker rooms would be a non-issue (religious accommodations excepted.)
End tangent.

Joe said...
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Joe said...

The concern is that "most common forms of external genitalia" is an artificial dividing line, even if it seems convienently neutral in some fashion. The injury example is to note as much. Why give THAT as the choice to be made for exceptions?

"Gender-specific sports teams are potentially due to a different set of factors than locker rooms. There's no reason to believe that sports teams should have the same division as locker rooms."

I appreciate you thinking things thru, since it shows a level of respect for reasonableness some of various viewpoints don't show, even though various times I strongly disagree with you say. But "no reason to believe" is a level of absolutism that seems off putting to say the least. Particularly since it is wrong. There is "reason to believe," which is not the same as "as a whole, they should not, taking everything into consideration."

The teen here is self-identified as a "girl" and the school labels "her" as such and this includes membership on a girl's sports team. There is a "reason" to continue things there and have her change in the same place as the rest of her teammates, in the "girls" locker room. Not necessarily, but there is a reason.

I started and continue to agree the issue at hand is at this time trickier than many other issues, down to even the idea of a unisex bathroom. Likewise, don't think this is a one-way ratchet as to exposure to such and such a sex's body parts. So, yes, it does apply "generally" in that respect.

Finally, don't think I agree with the tangent, at least as a full explanation. We have sex specific locker rooms because nudity continues to be particularly sensitive and personal in our society and we think it appropriate to divide the sexes there. Women also at times have specific needs and social behaviors, which deals with the bathroom issue to some degree (urinals provide men a quick in/out while also they spend less time fixing appearances etc.). Men behaving badly is not the only reason though that is likely a factor -- the specter of male child molesters was used in an ad to defeat a recent civil rights measure in Houston.

But, personal privacy would continue to be an issue, especially for often more sensitive teens going through puberty who would be particularly uneasy in having members of the opposite sex there. Society in general promotes this by norms regarding public nudity or even allowing members of one's own family to see each other nude. Cf. family bathing practices in some cultures.

Joe said...

ETA: the last aspect does involve certain sex/gender based assumptions as to "woman" and "man" needs, which in various ways are stereotypical though not totally. But, again, concern for male violence isn't the only factor.

Greg said...
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James Longfellow said...


with respect, I don't think you read Professor Colb's old article. Transgender people do not want penis/vulva bathrooms. They want to be female. This is the key sentence in that article, "transsexuals tend to feel that there is, indeed, a fundamental divide between masculinity and femininity, and they wish to relocate to the other side of that divide. Rather than blurring or challenging the lines between men and women, transsexuals affirm those lines and seek out surgery designed to cross them." So anything that tends to blur the line between genders is anathema to transgenders. The don't want to be blurred--they want to be women in a distinct and concrete way. In fact, the more one tries to blur the lines the more one gets "this transsexual thinks of womanhood as an exaggerated caricature of feminine characteristics" response. This exaggeration is precisely and directly a compensation for the rejection they feel at the hands of women.

In every way, shape, and form transgenders want to uphold hetronormative patriarchal values. The only thing they disagree with is that they do not think birth sexuality should determine which side of the divide one eventually resides. They don't want mixing of the genders in one big bathroom. Transgenders hate the idea of unisex bathrooms (big or small) because they view them as not an accommodation to their needs but as an end run around them. This is also why Joe's proposal of privacy screens is a nonstarter--they want to be accepted by women as women and that cannot be fully possible if they are not accepted in the intimate milieu of the women's restroom and women's locker room.

Professor Colb is correct to grasp that the key to the dispute between transgenders and feminists is their differing answers to "what makes a woman?" Transgenders believe they can become female by adjusting their biological reality to meet the reality of what they perceive to be their own female psychology. But for feminists being female is more than biology and psychology, it is as Professor Colb says "sexual reassignment surgery, on this view, could never turn a man into a woman, because it is not biology, but gendered life experience, that makes us who we are." The unspoken extension of this feminist stance is that transgenders can never be fully female because they can never experience the full life experience of females. And the logical consequence of that fact is that if transgenders can never be fully female then feminists are not required to accommodate them as fully female. Unisex bathrooms, privacy screens, and penis/vulva bathrooms are prime examples of our society's desire to treat transsexuals as only partial women.

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