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Civil Rights or Safety First: Understanding "Transgender" and the Bathroom Debate

by Craig Berlin, published

Faye Flam, who has written for Science Magazine and continues to write about science, mathematics, and medicine, recently explained in detail  a number of reasons why nature isn't as simple as some people believe, as exemplified by the contentious debate over transgender access to bathrooms.

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory has been attempting damage control after backlash from a bill requiring transgender people to use public bathrooms matching the gender on their birth certificate in schools and government facilities while also banning local governments from extending civil rights protections to gay and transgender people. The law garnered protests from celebrities and businesses such as Bruce Springsteen and Paypal, while Bryan Adams cancelled his concert in Mississippi over recent "religious freedom" legislation there. The pattern could continue as at least seven other states are considering restricting bathroom access for transgender people.

The arguments have already gotten further into the weeds elsewhere. Recently, the Washington Post reported a transgender male student in Virginia began using the boys’ bathroom his sophomore year, prompting angry parents to pressure the school board into passing a policy that requires students to use school bathrooms corresponding to their biological gender and transgender students to use a separate unisex bathroom. The student sued the school board in federal court, arguing the new rule is a violation of Title IX.

Meanwhile, a well publicized boycott of Target has been spearheaded by the American Family Association for the retailer's stance on allowing transgender people to choose which bathroom they use.

In all these states this could become a central election issue as it now is in North Carolina, where people who may agree with the new bathroom laws and otherwise wish to support McCrory's reelection bid are instead considering voting for his Democratic opponent due to the threat of boycotts and job losses.

The meaning of "transgender" is frequently not well understood and often shrouded in notions not based in psychology, medicine, or science. Commentary conflates issues of sexuality, sexual orientation ,and perversion. Ignorance and misconceptions can lead to fear of the unknown and misinterpretations.

However, there are legitimate concerns to be addressed, less about genuinely transgender individuals than someone who might use inclusive bathroom or locker room laws for voyeuristic or predatory purposes.

Understanding transgenderism should be the starting point. The primary origins lie in gender dysphoria, also known as gender identity disorder. WebMD describes the condition as a "mismatch between body and internal sense of gender" and "the stress, anxiety, and depression that go along with it."

One thing science has established is male and female brains are not the same. Anne Moir and David Jessel wrote in Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Male and Female:

"...virtually every professional scientist and researcher into the subject has concluded that the brains of men and women are different. . . . [T]he nature and cause of brain differences are now known beyond speculation, beyond prejudice, and beyond reasonable doubt."

Professor Alice Eagly from Northwestern University, a major contributor to the field of the social psychology of gender difference, adds:

"Out of the thirty thousand genes in the human genome, the less than one percent variation between the sexes is small. But that percentage difference influences every single cell in our bodies—from the nerves that register pleasure and pain to neurons that transmit perception, thoughts, feelings and emotions."

Recent science indicates gender identity is more biology than choice. Psychologist Frederick Coolidge of the University of Colorado found genetic variation, hormones, and differences in brain structure and function provide biological evidence that GID is 62% heritable, indicating a strong genetic component and influence by prenatal development.

In layman's terms, this means a person may have male genitals but not a male brain, caused by factors such as genes and heredity, hormone supply and nutrition, giving a fetus testes while failing to "masculinize" the brain. Flam also notes conditions such as 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, which can lead to a state between having and not having a penis.

"As all human embryos are equipped with the starter kits for both male and female sexual anatomy," she writes, "whether it eventually becomes a penis is determined by a multistep process" with "lots of possible outcomes...."

How to best address the situation when it occurs, especially in young children, is made more complex by society's struggle with finding a balance between inclusion and judgment.

Noted "rogue feminist," lesbian and social critic Camille Paglia believes people are pushed into making choices about surgical interventions and hormones. She points out that while there are legitimate transgenders with genetic issues, they are a tiny minority of the population and the medical science is still developing.

“But now it’s become a fashion statement, or a mask ," she says, and we need to pay attention to those and not assume it's all about gender.

Nevertheless, the musings of many social conservatives, as personified by the infamous Facebook posting of former ESPN commentator Curt Schilling, indicate not everyone understands what transgenderism is.

Of course, legitimate concerns don't necessarily involve bigotry or hate. Some come from misunderstandings about who is legitimately transgender as opposed to a sexual predator who might take advantage of non-discrimination rules for insidious reasons. And of course, some of it is natural based on what we're accustomed to.

Flan argues that bathrooms have always been a gender-fluid zone and we simply didn't know it but Linda Chavez points out in the New York Post:

"No doubt many Americans’ aversion to sharing toilet cultural. The first time I went to Paris...I was astounded...that men and women shared the same bathroom, albeit with stalls that provided maximum privacy. It was awkward for stand next to a male stranger while washing my hands after answering nature’s call. And most American restrooms aren’t set up like unisex European facilities."

Feeling awkward isn't as serious as potentially enabling sexual predators, but the reality is any man can pretend to be a woman and no law will prevent it. As it happens, in states and schools where transgender protections have been instituted, no ensuing problems have been reported.

Perhaps more notable are the unintended consequences of the government attempting to regulate our behavior that proponents of limited government often correctly point out but seem oblivious to in this case: unless they advocate transgender men breaking the law, very male-looking people like Michael Hughes will be in the women's restroom...and that can't be ideal.

Flam's piece, not difficult reading yet touching on some of the lesser-known scientific insights into gender variations, concludes, "Biology does have some unbreakable rules, and one is that diversity is necessary for evolution, and hence, for life. Intersex and transgender are different categories, encompassing many situations that don't map onto a decision of 'men's restroom versus women's restroom.' "

Chavez adds:

"Transgender individuals should be treated with dignity, as all human beings should. But when their right to self-identification comes up against others’ right to privacy, we need to find a resolution that accommodates both interests in the public square."  

Consequently, transgender advocates need to realize that fair-minded people have genuine questions from not understanding all the issues. Transgender people may have to go through some steps to legitimize who they are, such as obtaining proper government-issued ID. That is something required of women who change names as a result of marriage or divorce, so surely it can't be too much of a burden.

A productive conversation starts with suspending preconceived notions and putting aside inaccurate broad generalizations. Understanding problems and finding solutions can be found in science, medicine, and psychology rather than defaulting to fear based on stereotypes.

We also need look no further than our own history and culture to remind us that things don't change overnight. Education is key but demonizing people of good character asking fair questions, not so much.

Editor's Note: A version of this article originally published on and adapted specifically for Independent Voter. Additional details have been added for clarity.

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