How feminists can challenge liberal bathroom politics
By Robert Jensen
Published in Dallas Morning News · December, 2016
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has announced that a “bathroom bill” addressing gender-identity claims in access to bathrooms, showers and locker rooms will be one of his top priorities for this legislative session.
However, House Speaker Joe Straus has made it clear that such a bill is not a priority for him. And, perhaps most importantly, the influential Texas Association of Business, which is most concerned with politics that affect profits, doesn’t want any legislation that stirs up the kind of boycotts that North Carolina faced after passing a similar bill.
The betting money is on Straus and the TAB. But Patrick is a relentless publicity-seeking politician, and we can assume the issue will be in the news. That means we have an opportunity to ask a basic question and make a key point about the transgender movement’s claims that usually get lost in the political shuffle.
The core question: If someone is born unambiguously male as defined by chromosomes, genitalia, and secondary sex characteristics, but claims to be female (or vice versa), what does that actually mean? If sex categories are a product of the biological realities of human reproduction — that is, not about how a person feels but about physiology — what could it mean to be clearly in one category but assert a civil right to be in the other?
This is a serious question about biology and reproductive-based sex categories, and the transgender movement has yet to offer a coherent answer. People’s internal subjective experiences may feel coherent to them, but the assertion of such an experience does not constitute an explanation, and public policy should be based on claims that everyone can understand.
The important point: If a person born into a sex category is uncomfortable with the social norms of that category and feels more comfortable in the social norms of the other sex category, that’s easy to understand. Those are questions of culture and gender, defined as the social meaning we make of biological sex differences with the concepts of masculinity and femininity. Feminists, for example, have long rejected the rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms of patriarchal society, encouraging men and women to reject the masculinity/femininity trap.
But such a feminist challenge to the social norms of institutionalized male dominance doesn’t require asserting that a male human can become a female human. This kind of critical feminist response challenges us culturally and politically without making confusing biological claims.
Most public discussions assume that liberals will support and conservatives will reject the transgender movement’s claims. A more radical feminism — one that doesn’t shy away from challenging male dominance — offers a different approach.
Feminism recognizes that institutionalized male dominance is rooted in men’s control of women’s reproductive power (a source of other political struggles in Texas and beyond) and sexuality. In patriarchy, an enduring feature of the lives of girls and women is sexual violence — men’s unwanted intrusions into their lives. Women’s experiences vary, but none escapes this ever-present threat.
I’ve heard many stories from women about men following them into public restrooms or threatening them, a strategy some men use to harass and sexually assault women. Even more common is girls’ struggle with being sexually objectified throughout the culture, which creates a range of difficult emotions about their bodies, especially about being seen by boys and men.
I don’t endorse Patrick’s reactionary right-wing politics, but I do take seriously the experiences of girls and women who have to find ways to live as safely and sanely as possible in patriarchy. Where possible, the best solution is single-person spaces for maximal privacy for everyone. But in public facilities used by large numbers of people at a time, multi-stall bathrooms and collective showering and changing rooms should be segregated by biological sex, and we should guarantee the safety of those spaces.
Let me be clear: I am not arguing that male-to-transgender people are waiting to harass and attack women. Instead, this position recognizes that (1) some men will exploit any opportunity to move into female space, and (2) girls and women have a right to be free from the male gaze in such private spaces.
A feminist critique of the ideology of the transgender movement is not an attack on people who identify as transgender but simply asks questions that shouldn’t be glossed over and asserts the rights of women in a patriarchal society. The internal subjective experience of transgender people should not trump the objective threats that girls and women experience routinely.Patrick’s bathroom bill isn’t likely to pass. But instead of falling into a tired liberal vs. conservative script for the debate, let’s use the moment to deepen the discussion with a critical feminist perspective.