Sunday, May 15, 2016

They're In the Room With You

When I was in high school, one of my classmates had a million cautionary tales that the rest of us termed "Scary Krishna" stories. (And sometimes, it seemed there were literally one million of them.) But then again, this was the 1980s, and moral panics were fairly thick on the ground at the time. David's apprehension concerning the Hare Krishnas wasn't unique - it was the sheer number of stories that he knew (and his constant need to tell them) that commanded attention. And they were pretty much all variations on the same basic narrative, namely that some poor sod went into a public bathroom (typically in an airport) only to be abducted by members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, otherwise known as the Hare Krishnas, to be taken away and brainwashed, never to be seen again. For him, the moral was simple - you could never be too careful about who was in the bathroom with you.

The dust-up over whether transgender people should be allowed, if using gendered facilities, to use a bathroom set aside for the gender that matches their gender identity or be required to use the one that corresponds to their assigned gender as noted on their birth certificate reminds me of these high school "Scary Krishna" stories. Both in the moral panic aspect of it, and in the idea that there's something about public bathrooms that makes them a magnet for nefarious characters that the rest of use should be on the lookout for.

And let's not forget the "won't somebody please think of the children" aspect of the debate, which can often come into play as a means of shifting the terms of the debate. Consider Washington State Initiative Measure No. 1515, filed March 24, 2016 otherwise known as: "AN ACT Relating to the use of gender-designated facilities; amending RCW 49.60.030; adding a new section to chapter 28A.600 RCW; creating new sections; and prescribing penalties." Under "Intent" it reads:

The people find that privacy and public safety in places like restrooms, toilets, showers, locker rooms, saunas, and changing areas is a legitimate public concern. The people find that schools, in particular, are places where a child's privacy is to be protected and that students should never be forced into environments where they may be viewed in various states of undress by members of the opposite sex, or where they may view members of the opposite sex in various states of undress. The people find that requiring students to share restrooms, locker rooms, and changing areas with members of the opposite sex will create potential embarrassment, shame, and psychological injury to students. The people also find that a statewide mandate prohibiting schools and public accommodations from maintaining restroom policies that separate the biological male from the biological female interferes with a student's right to privacy and a parent's right to determine when their children are exposed to sensitive issues and subjects. The people also find that creating liability for public accommodations because of their restroom policies creates an uncertain and unhelpful environment for business that discourages entrepreneurship and economic development.

This measure eliminates the statewide restroom mandate and eliminates liability for maintaining a restroom policy they believe is in the best interest of those they serve.
For my part, as a member of "the people," I am dubious about a lot of these claims, in the same way that I was dubious about the idea that the Hare Krishnas were using public bathrooms as part of a nationwide kidnapping racket.

I understand the idea that violating the norms we've put in place around gender segregation in certain public areas "will create potential embarrassment, shame, and psychological injury" for young people. But that potential is created through the way many of us interact with those norms, not because children and youths are biologically unable to deal with people outside of their own gender.

The real question that the moral panic around transgender people and public bathrooms is simple to articulate, but difficult to answer: What is gender, and what makes a person's gender? It's much easier to frame the debate around keeping students safe or keeping sketchy people out of the "wrong" bathroom. David's "Scary Krishna" stories were really about the idea that the Hare Krishnas were dangerous, and I suspect that they were considered dangerous because they were different. After all, my high school was Roman Catholic - while I don't know that Hinduism and its offshoots fall into the category of "as different as they come," it certainly fell outside of our experiences at the time. A focus on the "biological" male and the "biological" female (Where, I wonder, do the biologically intersex belong in this formulation?) seems to also want to frame the debate as the familiar versus the unfamiliar, with the unfamiliar in this case, being people who identify as one gender, but have the secondary sexual characteristics of the other, due to age, inability to afford gender reassignment or what have you. And again, the unfamiliar are cast as dangerous - while the initiative measure doesn't raise the specter of  sexual predators wearing transgendered clothing in the way that some backers of measure like this have, it's pretty clear that it believes that there is potential harm in sorting by identity, rather than biology.

And it should be pointed out that for those who believe that the sorting should be by identity, they are also willing to fall back on arguments of harm in the form of appeals to the safety and comfort of the transgendered. The claims of competing harms are going to lead to a deadlock, and deadlocks tend to lead to acrimony. Whichever way the initiative measure(s) go (there are several of them), someone is going to be put out.
Maybe one of these will stick...
It would be nice if we as a society could simply have it out over what gender really is without falling back on "it's obvious" arguments designed to shut down the other side as immoral, bigoted or otherwise knowingly on the side of Wrong. But people often see the rejection of their norms as a rejection of themselves and their values - and, by extension, what's right. In this regard it's not much different than a devout Christian claiming that atheism isn't about an understanding of reality, but a desire to flout universal rules that they know to be valid. So while it would be nice, it's not particularly likely. Which leaves us to navigate our understandings of difference and/or harm, guided by dubious stories of the dangers of public spaces intended to be private.

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