I first saw the article on my Facebook wall Monday morning. “The New York Times just provided a massive platform for transphobia,” the ThinkProgress headline read, with a saturated picture of opinion writer Judith Shulevitz attached. I am no fan of Shulevitz. Two academic years ago, I wrote a Daily article critiquing her takedown of college safe spaces, and now, it seemed like her next target was the trans community. I shared the article to my Facebook wall, captioned it “Disappointing,” and moved on with my day. I figured that I could easily write a short response later, tear into the easy target of Shulevitz’s obvious transphobia and have my Daily article for the week. Piece of cake.
Having read her article, “Is It Time to Desegregate the Sexes?,” I find myself more contemplative than angry. Shulevitz begins by describing a familiar hypothetical scene: a transgender girl is changing next to a cisgender girl in a locker room. The trans girl does not want to be forced to hide her identity; the cis girl does not want to be forced to change next to someone she is uncomfortable with. One must retreat to a changing stall, but who?
As Shulevitz describes, “sex” is now being defined by Title IX as an internal sense of gender, not an anatomical reality — to the chagrin of groups ranging from radical feminists to Christian evangelists. Lawsuits upon lawsuits, many of which pit transgender rights (a trans student should be able to use the facilities corresponding to the binary gender they identify as) against religious freedoms (a student must be allowed to exercise their religious beliefs of modesty around the “opposite sex”) flood courts around the nation.
Objections to this framing of the bathroom conflict are easy to find in progressive spaces, and the loudest one is that “trans women are women and trans men are men.” Thus, trans women are the “same sex” as cisgender women and trans men are the same sex as cisgender men, and all have the right to use the appropriate facilities. All objections to this claim are labeled as transphobic on principle, and thus the conversation ends there. Indeed, that Shulevitz even entertains the idea of religious freedom as a realistic concern prompted the critical ThinkProgress article to claim that “reading between the lines is not really required to see the transphobia here.”
What I find myself fixated on concerning this piece, however, is one of Shulevitz’s proposed solutions to what she calls “the conflict between transgender rights and privacy interests.”
“Stop teaching the sexes to hide their bodies from each other… perhaps it’s time to retire the notion of two sexes.”
From an early age, every child in American society is taught simultaneously of their own binary gender and of the unspoken rule of gender segregation in society. Men here, women there; pink for girls and blue for boys; long hair, dresses, breasts and curves vs. short hair, tuxedos, chests and muscle. These rules are as autocratic as they are impossible. Yet, the gender binary is institutionalized around us in the form of bathrooms and locker rooms and reified in the form of patriarchy, toxic masculinity and transphobia. With her article, Shulevitz makes an argument I never expected her to make: By federally mandating that trans girls use only girls’ facilities and trans boys use boys’, are we in fact simply strengthening the idea that a gender binary is necessary in the first place?
When I consider this argument, I think about the genderqueer, genderfluid and/or nonbinary people who have no access to gendered facilities in the first place and use these resources at their own risk. I think about those people who present themselves in nonconforming ways and are made unwelcome in gendered facilities, like the many cis women kicked out of women’s bathrooms for looking too masculine. I think about those students who, gender notwithstanding, just feel uncomfortable undressing in front of people.
Perhaps in our search for better policies, we can be more creative. I can imagine segregated facilities, not by gender, but by privacy — one room could be only lockers, and another room could be only private stalls. Thus, regardless of race, gender, appearance or identity, all people can use the spaces they are most comfortable in. Such an argument, of course, has endless financial, social, cultural and legal implications that deserve their own article — but at least it’s the start of an answer to today’s bathroom debates.
I must acknowledge that Shulevitz’s article is chock-full of gaffe after gaffe that should rightfully frustrate trans advocates. She describes trans girls as “born with a boy’s [body]” and as “girls-born-boys.” She minimizes the violence, prejudice and transphobia that often accompanies evangelist opposition to trans people in communal spaces and gives credence to the idea that cis women and trans women are of “the opposite sex.” I remain strongly critical of Shulevitz’s language usage (as well as her past articles), yet she makes a powerful point about gender and how societal institutions reinforce it. While activists can and should critique her execution, we cannot ignore Shulevitz’s insight.
Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.