Thursday, May 21, 2009

Access to Bathrooms and Gender Identity

One issue that frequently comes up when discussing gender identity and transgender and transsexual people has to do with access to bathrooms, an issue most of us never think twice about. We take advantage of the fact that in a public setting we can walk into the gendered bathroom of our choice and not face retaliation or even a second look. But if you're a person who identifies otherwise an essential part of daily life becomes a stressful ordeal each and every time you have to use the bathroom.

The Advocate covered a story about a transgender woman was was barred from using a Denny's restroom consistent with her gender identity until she had finished transitioning, and the question now is whether or not she has the right to sue the company. Denny's denied the charge of discrimination, saying that "allowing a biological male to use the female restroom despite gender identity will pose a direct threat to the health and well-being of staff and customers". The story goes on to use the "slippery slope" argument, arguing that someone with "devious intent" could take advantage of any concessions.

There's a growing body of literature on this issue and a growing awareness of the issues in and outside the LGBT community, with sites like safe2pee compiling city-by-city lists of gender neutral or single bathrooms, and several college campuses have started instituting gender neutral facilities to help transgender students.

Before the end of the school year I was interviewed by two students in a media class who had been interviewing students about the proposed introduction of gender neutral bathrooms on our campus. After I did my spot, where I argued that since every middle class home in America already has a gender neutral bathroom without issue this should not be that big of a deal, I was told by the two students that in taking interviews they had found the female students more receptive to the idea, while the male students expressed nervousness at the idea of women being in the same bathroom. This surprised me, but it got me thinking.

Why is this such a contemptuous issue shows that it's an intersection between gender, sexuality and social norms, as well as bringing in issues of privacy and access. In some ways bathrooms represent the last significant and formal gender divide in our society, so it's understandable that it causes people to react strongly to it no matter where they stand on it. But when it comes to denying people access to the bathroom of the gender they identify with it crosses into human rights and privacy, since it opens up large avenues of legal issues. Whether the person who needs to use the facility has more right than a person who may be uncomfortable with the idea of a person who is still biologically another sex using the same facilities is a philosophical debate that I can't fully cover here, but it's a fight that we usually aren't aware of.

I was in a multiple -stall gender neutral bathroom at an LGBT conference last year, and while I was a bit startled when a man walked in it didn't seem especially weird. Just about everyone was some variant of LGBT at that conference, but the point still stands. It doesn't seem like this should be as big an issue as it is, but one thing I've found is that whenever an issue like this is brought up people's reactions are unpredictable and sometimes very revealing of how deeply we hold certain sociological norms.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

As far as Storms go, we're already at the Eye

An article in today's edition of The Economist took a look at the spread of gay marriage and the potential sociological effects of it. The tone generally seems to be “so what?” and it suggests that this is increasingly the public’s response to the issue. I also saw an article about a Maine Bishop calling gay marriage a “dangerous sociological experiment”, a phrase that made me raise an eyebrow. Despite the so-called “Storm” that has been brewing, this issue is not new in a sociological sense.

First off, gay families have existed for quite some time already, this is nothing new. All current legislation does is formally recognize them, so in a strictly literal sense not much changes when marriage is legalized. Most of the benefits of being married do not take directly visible form, so a gay couple who is married will more or less continue to live the same way, so there will be very few visible effects on the community they live in.

Similarly, even though there are prohibitions in place to prevent gay couples from adopting in several states gay people have and will continue to give birth to and adopt children. Though it’s hard to measure the exact statistics of gay adoption, the fact is that gay people do have children one way or another and there’s little that can be done to prevent it. The whole “protecting children” argument also hits an iceberg, since it's been shown that the children of same sex couples have better mental health when their parents' union is recognized, as reported by the Vermont Psychological association.

The tired out argument that gay marriages threaten traditional marriage and the nuclear family hits its biggest pothole when you realize that those two concepts - traditional marriage and the nuclear family - are at this point in history already an endangered species. What always bugs me when this argument is made is that it undermines the experiences of people who have been raised in single parent households for generations. While it is true that children in single-parent families live disproportionately in poverty, society has adapted to cope with these situations, and now even the President of the United States is the product of such a family, so it can't be said that a single parent put a child at an automatic disadvantage.

Likewise, the argument that children need both a mother and a father hits a similar logical snare when you take single parents and other family situations into account. The first linked article makes an interesting point about how even in gay families there tends to be a "mom" role and a "dad" role, but this may be applying gender roles that don't entirely fit the situation. And if we look at the pure concept of "mom" and "dad" as social roles we can also see that these have been changing for quite some time, since there is no longer a strict divide between the two now that most households have two working parents rather than a single breadwinner.

In short, if they've been trying to prevent a storm they're far too late, if anything they're at the eye already.