Who Birthed the Anti-Trans Bathroom Panic?

Conservatives and religious groups are borrowing myths about transgender people from feminists.
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(Photo: keepingtime_ca/Flickr)

(Photo: keepingtime_ca/Flickr)

Editor's Note: Chase Strangio, the American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney who lobbied against the Tennessee bill mentioned in this story, reports that it was killed earlier today.

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On a new campaign website in North Carolina, under a silhouette of a woman and some kids crowding her clip-art triangle skirt, there's this text: "Days Until Charlotte Bathrooms Are Unsafe for Your Family" and there's a clock ticking down. Fifteen days, some hours, and change. Your first thought might be like mine: I'm not sure why all these families are using bathrooms together, and if they are, doesn't that mean there's parental supervision? You won't find a word for the thing that the people behind this website think is so unsafe, not even on any of the Pinterest-ready images they've posted. There, an array of smiling people are also, according to the text adorning them, absolutely horrified at the idea of "women and girls" being forced to use bathrooms with or having to undress around "men."

The word the people behind this website are loathe to use is "transgender." What they are so scared of is not the fate of their children, but a legal recognition of the rights of transgender people.

So let's start there, on a point much of the media has ignored, a simple one that could also work on a Pinterest meme: This is not a bathroom panic; it's an anti-trans panic.

In 16 states to date, legislatures have been made into arenas for this fight. As I wrote a few weeks back, anti-trans campaigners have marketed their legislative targets as having something to do with bathrooms—or changing rooms, locker rooms, and other places that stir up all kinds of emotions about privacy, sex, and the body. But that's precisely the point, finding a hook of convenient fears to hang a much broader agenda meant to roll back rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people (as well as lesbians, gays, and bisexuals) in America.

The conservative trump card, the myth that women and girls face a particular threat from transgender women, is still alive, painfully, in feminist circles.

Their campaign doesn't seem to be letting up. It has two legislative strategies: defeating anti-discrimination bills using trans panic, as well as passing anti-trans bills stripping rights. The Republican National Committee passed a resolution this January encouraging states to go on attack, stating, "These Obama gender identity [their italics] policies are a federal governmental overreach, a misinterpretation of Title IX policies, and an infringement upon the majority of students' Constitutional rights."

But where is all this stuff coming from? This specific angle, the idea that gender identity is something made up (a topic for another day, and a longer reading list), something used to manipulate or dupe—that the self-determination of transgender people presents a threat to the rights of (not that they put it this way) cisgender people, or even that transgender people themselves are a threat—this isn't new. It recalls every culture war argument about "special rights" for LGBT people. The conservative right has long linked gender non-conformity to political deviance. It's why Pat Buchanan would not only consider LGBT rights unacceptable, but also would describe the Democratic National Convention in 1992 as an event where "20,000 radicals and liberals came dressed up as moderates and centrists–in the greatest single exhibition of cross-dressing in American political history."

This stuff—the invocation of a threat to the personhood of anyone who isn't trans, this victim mentality so divorced from the reality of anti-trans discrimination and violence—is not the province of the conservative right alone. The conservative trump card, the myth that women and girls face a particular threat from transgender women, is still alive, painfully, in feminist circles.

When celebrated feminist writers like Germaine Greer still get airtime to insist that trans women aren't women, we need to call this out for what it is: transmisogyny. After she faced criticism from other feminists and the trans community, she took another swing through the media to claim she had been censored. Whatever Greer thinks might be radical in her claims, they are as status quo as it gets in a culture that still harbors so much anti-trans hate. Trans people must still fight for even a sliver of access to the media and speaking engagements that, until recently, Greer could regard as a given.

It would be easy to say this kind of transmisogyny is a second wave relic, something we can safely associate with feminism of a certain age. But that also would misrepresent what was going on in the feminist scene in the United States during the second wave's heyday, the 1970s. Feminist transmisogyny was not a given. In those days, Sandy Stone was a music engineer with the separatist collective Olivia Records. "We were already in clear communication about the fact that I was trans," she recalled in an interview, "and they were very open to working with me. They mostly wanted to know if our politics agreed and whether or not I could work with a lesbian separatist collective." It was a group of "essentialists" led by feminist author Janice Raymond, who began a campaign targeting the collective and Stone, that was disruptive and threatening within the women's community, not Stone (who did finally leave the collective over the abuse).

Raymond deserves singular credit for her work in this area, purveying transmisogyny under the banner of feminism in publications like her 1979 book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. "Using male pronouns for trans women throughout," Juliet Jacques wrote in her 2014 assessment of Raymond and feminist transphobia in the New Statesman, "Raymond concluded that 'the problem of transsexualism would be best served by morally mandating it out of existence,' advocating 'consciousness-raising therapy' as an aversion to the existing system where possible."

But Raymond also has the distinction of having her ideas baked into trans-exclusionary policy. Jacques continues:

In 1980, the National Center for Healthcare Technology commissioned Janice Raymond to write a paper entitled Technology on the Social and Ethical Aspects of Transsexual Surgery to help them make evidence-based decisions on the efficacy of treatments. Here, Raymond described sex reassignment surgery as 'unnecessary' and as 'mutilation,' and insisted that people with no lived experience of transsexualism be allowed a say over its treatment. A year later, Medicare stopped coverage for sex reassignment surgery in the US, a decision only overturned this May.

Raymond was the chair of the women's studies department at the university I attended, the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. By coincidence, I dropped out the same year she retired. Though I never met her, I felt her influence: The campus women's center offered no services for trans students. Her influence was also alive down the road at all-women Smith College, who didn't permit trans women in their definition of women-only. (Smith only explicitly acknowledged trans women as eligible for admission in 2015.)

Raymond isn't solely responsible for the trans-exclusion in the feminist and women's community. Yet Raymond's example shows how what she regards, like Greer, as a matter of feminist debate has material consequences: exclusion being the most obvious.

All this is just a survey, a brief one. (Jacques' is more comprehensive and a must-read.) But it's these women, these feminists, who were immediately on my mind when I came across stories like Elinor Burkett's "What Makes a Woman?" in the New York Times last fall. Burkett uses Caitlyn Jenner as an opportunity to offer a litany of grievances against trans women in general. "Many women I know," she writes, "of all ages and races, speak privately about how insulting we find the language trans activists use to explain themselves." It is clear that what's paramount for these women, at least as represented by Burkett, isn't the lived experiences of trans women, but how they as cis women feel about trans women.

This old, awful hierarchy, which portrays cis women as an aggrieved party and trans women as an intruding one, is alive in the neutral-seeming string of stories published by Michelle Goldberg, including the widely read New Yorker report titled (if this sounds familiar by now) "What Is a Woman?"

Like Burkett and Greer, Goldberg sees transgender identity as a matter of debate, and a debate whose terms are set by cisgender women like her. "The article purports to offer a history of conflict between trans-exclusionary feminists and trans women," wrote Jos Truitt at the Columbia Journalism Review. "Yet it ignores the vast majority of that history, offering New Yorker readers a one-sided view of the conflict framed as balanced reporting, inaccurately representing the history of trans women in feminism and the active role trans-exclusionary feminists played in further marginalizing them."

There are more: Katha Pollitt's now-repeated refrain about the danger posed to abortion rights' activism by transgender inclusion, a claim resistant to fact-check even from reproductive rights advocates; Sarah Ditum's utterly unreal contention that if trans activists and allies share the story of Leelah Alcorn, a young trans woman who committed suicide, they were themselves doing harm to trans people. In the ranks of the feminist commentariat, there is no shortage of cisgender women to remind transgender people that they are the problem.

Let's be clear again: There is no debate, and to insist there is one is to push trans people into an impossible position. "As for the endless 'debates' about whether trans women are 'real' women," wrote Paris Lees, "you may as well ask if being gay is 'normal.' I don't have to spend the rest of my life discussing other people's stupid prejudices any more than gay people do."

Making trans lives into a debate is just one strategy within feminism, and one those on the right have adopted. But then there's this: "Disturbing Video Shows Risk to Girls and Women Posed by Co-Ed Restrooms and Locker Rooms," is the headline the website of the Illinois Family Institute used to ask readers to lobby in support of an anti-trans bill. The video itself is called "Women: Decide for Yourselves," and is filled with salacious images and violent stories meant to stigmatize trans women. At the end it directs the viewer to additional resources. @transadvocate spotted, among them, anti-trans websites operated by self-described radical feminists. Hate groups are using women, as both props and political inspiration.

Lobbied by the same groups pushing anti-trans panic about bathrooms and showers, North Carolina's legislature may overturn Charlotte's LGBT equal rights ordinance in a special session this week.

One of Tennessee's two anti-trans bills passed in committee last week. Chase Strangio, a staff attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union, is there now to try to halt the bill. "The continued support for legislative efforts that threaten the privacy of all students and promise to bring the state in violation of federal law is disturbing," he wrote in an email. "The ongoing targeting of the transgender community by lawmakers across the country contributes to the epidemics of violence and suicide that plague our community and waste taxpayer dollars undermining public goods, including education, just to send a hateful message to an already vulnerable group of people." 

The religious rights group, Alliance Defending Freedom, has also been in Tennessee to testify. When the organization supported a similar (and now defeated) bill just weeks ago in South Dakota, it tried to sound caring, even pro-woman: "Every girl has a right to privacy." You can only stand by that kind of line if you are also willing to dismiss trans girls.

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