Cutting through the Transgender Debate

Why do I find the transgender bathroom debate so irritating? While Obama daily launches drones, killing dozens of innocent foreigners (or militants, it doesn’t matter – both drone deaths are crimes against humanity), we are fed self-righteous nostrums, showing what a great liberal he is (soon to be joined, no doubt, by the Supreme Court).

Dress is mostly unisex now — women wear pants, so what’s the problem? If you must wear make-up and act like a woman, just dress down if you are out in public. In the interests of public courtesy, bite the bullet and use ‘the men’s’ if your body is male, and ‘the women’s’ if your body is female. Or if you can’t abide that compromise with social norms, arrange your day to use individual washrooms (most gas stations, restaurants, hospitals, probably most schools).

In the 19th century there were no separate washrooms, because people mostly lived in the countryside, and the ‘facility’ (even in urban public places) was an outhouse in the back. Not very ladylike, but people made do with what was and didn’t whine. They had more important things to think about, like survival. Separate washrooms were created to serve a growing female labour force in large factories/corporations.


The explosion of various “sexualities” since the advent of gaylib in the 1970s, which are now trying to achieve legal recognition, cannot be expected to be met with open arms by the 95+% of the population that do not and cannot relate to them. What do LGBTQQIP and LGBTQIA* mean anyway? And should it matter to 98% of the population?

The trouble is mostly with terminology, and mostly concerns men-to-women (transgender women). Originally a sex-change operation (new genitalia and sex-hormone medication — for life) meant you were clearly the other sex — a transsexual. Most self-identified transsexual people state that those who do not seek sex reassignment surgery, transgender, are fundamentally different from those who do, and that the two have different concerns.

This is disputed by those who don’t want to forfeit their genitals (sex change), but only want a “gender change”. After all, maybe s/he will have second thoughts some day. Without the genitals, the man is no longer a man (formerly called “enunuch”), and reversing the operation is very messy, if not impossible. Hence the rise of “transgenderism” in a neoliberal age of identity politics.

McRrory vs Rosa Parks

It is hardly surprising that this latest twist in the identity politics saga, creating a kind-of new species, a man-who-thinks-he’s-woman-but-with-balls, is being resisted. The governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory, entered history when he decided ‘enough is enough’, and signed the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, requiring physical males to use male washrooms. Sounds like a no-brainer, but it raised liberal hackles throughout the US, and put modest North Carolina on the political map.

The law, passed in March, led to a flurry of boycott activity. Cirque du Soleil, Bruce Springsteen, Beyonce and Ringo Starr all announced they would refuse to tour there. Elton John fired a broadside in The Hill. “It’s dangerous, and it goes beyond bathrooms. As the father of two children, I would hope their world is free of discriminatory, hateful legislation like North Carolina’s.” (Elton John is gay, married and has two children born to a surrogate mother.)

Sports associations like the NBA and NCAA protested, and companies such as PayPal and Deutsche Bank have nixed investment plans. Even the porn site XHamster proudly announced it has banned the state’s residents from accessing its content.

The current boycott is compared to Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the 1950s against segregation in Alabama, the epic struggle of South African blacks led by Nelson Mandela, and the mid-1960s boycott of California grapes, led by Cezar Chavez, in support of unionizing workers.

This puts the personal whims of a tiny group of middle class gays on a pedestal with great heroes fighting for the rights of all blacks and all Americans. What a great way to trivialize fundamental, hard-earned rights in an age when they are being eroded daily as a result of neoliberalism.

It has definitely had some economic impact, and Governor McCrory, a Republican in a traditionally Democrat state, is surely concerned about how voters will judge him as he runs for election in November. Will voters give in to media and boycott pressures and vote against him? A recent opinion poll found voters split down the middle.

It appears that the boycott momentum has petered out in the past month. McCrory can only hope whatever the damage is, is already done. At the same time, shortly after Obama issued a directive that “public schools allow students to decide themselves which bathrooms and locker rooms they want to use”, eleven states filed a lawsuit launched by Texas protesting this infringement of state rights. The defiant souls are Alabama, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Utah, Georgia, the governor of Maine and the Arizona Department of Education). North Carolina in notable in his/her absence. S/he is already being ‘raked over the coals’, to use a euphemism.

What do students think?

The New York Times conducted a survey of student opinions about the Obama edict. They reflected a surprising ‘freedom’ of thought, given that the media and their president were pushing the pro-transgender agenda so forcefully. The few predictable supporters were outshone by these free thinkers:

* It’s a decision that should be left for the school’s administration and board to decide. Also, it shouldn’t be a reason to pull out federal funding if schools choose not to follow this law. It’s also up to Congress to write the laws, not the executive department. (Josh Booher, 18, Columbia, Pennsylvania)

* 1) I don’t think it is the federal government’s job to dictate what each school district does with its students. That is extreme government overreach, and it sets a bad precedent for the future. 2) I think that it is endangering females by opening the doors for any man who wants to enter locker rooms and restrooms where females are. I am not saying that transgender people will be the ones committing crimes; however, these laws and orders will allow any guy who wants to to enter these previously all-female spaces without being restricted by law. If schools want to provide a gender neutral restroom or space where transgender people can go, that is one thing, but eliminating any place where girls can go and have privacy from men is a very bad policy. This is terrible. (Grace Driggers, 17, South Carolina)

* It is first of all not the federal government’s job to determine this for every school, and to be 100 percent honest, this makes me as a female very uncomfortable. This liberal push for equality in virtually EVERYTHING is beyond ridiculous. You are given a gender, and whether you agree with it or not, you go to the bathroom you are assigned — not the one you determine. Mr. Obama, this is terrible, and for everyone out there that says this is a step for a safer environment, you are very, very mistaken. (Abbey Morgan, Parrish, Alabama)

* While I agree with the Obama administration in general and am an advocate for transgender rights, I’m pessimistic about the outcome. Schools that oppose challenging the gender binary will continue to do so, as they probably already resent the fast pace of social change and left-leaning federal government. In fact, schools with conservative administrations may be even more anti-trans in defiance. More open-minded, progressive schools probably have listened to student input in allowing transgender students to use the appropriate bathrooms and don’t need the federal government’s advice. All in all, this decision seemed like it was made for show; however, I agree with it and its significance is in its empowerment of and official solidarity with transgender students. It gives them a voice. (Jenny Xu, 16, New York)

* As a high schooler, I honestly couldn’t care less which bathroom somebody uses if they’re using whichever one matches their gender identification. I believe that the whole freakout on this issue is a ploy to distract people from the real issues that face us, like childhood poverty, undue corporate influence in politics and income inequality. (Andrew Figueiredo, 18, Wichita, Kansas)

Watching heterosexual politicians with their own cynical agendas, supported by a scattering of rock stars, basketball players and businessmen, pontificate on a highly complex and still-disputed issue–what does “transgender” mean?–makes a mockery of politics. Yes, gays were (and still are) subject to scapegoating. But Obama’s move merely adds to the resentment of many otherwise indifferent, tolerant citizens, increasing homophobia if anything.

Thai vs US ladyboys

Thailand is the most sympathetic to this ‘third sex’, where kathoeys (ladyboys) are a regular part of entertainment such as movies, music entertainment, and television shows. But even if they have the full sex change, they are still men in their passports.

At least American transgenders have one up on them. As of 2010, in the US, not only transsexuals, but transgenders can change their sex in their passports with a letter showing “you have had clinical treatment determined by your doctor to be appropriate in your case to facilitate gender transition.” Translation: anything goes. With or without genitals, American men who don’t like being men can be officially women–at least in State Department eyes. Only states are daring to buck the tide and call a spade a spade–until the Supreme Court decides otherwise.

Enough of this tempest in a teapot. Occam’s Razor states: don’t make things unnecessarily complicated.

As long as you are still a male, use ‘the men’s’. If you really, really want to be a woman, using Occam’s Razor, have the offending member cut off and a vagina fashioned from it, undergo cosmetic surgery, take estrogen for the rest of your life, and then use ‘the ladies’ with no complaints from anyone. But make up your mind!

* LGBTQQIP means Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, and Pansexual; LGBTQIA means Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex and Allies. There are many other acronyms vying for popularity.

Eric Walberg is a journalist who worked in Uzbekistan and is now writing for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. He is the author of From Postmodernism to Postsecularism and Postmodern Imperialism. His most recent book is Islamic Resistance to Imperialism. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric's website.