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The symbolism and stupidity of America’s transgender bathroom debate

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The transgender bathroom debate is incredibly stupid. And that’s why we care.

Let me explain.

In case you’ve been on a news blackout for the last few weeks: Transgender activists and their allies are starting a movement to legally allow transgender people to access the bathrooms (and other sex-segregated facilities, such as locker rooms) of the genders they identify with. The most high-profile example is a transgender rights law passed in Charlotte, North Carolina, in February.

Conservatives are up in arms over this, passing their own laws, notably a North Carolina law directly responding to the Charlotte rules, that restrict transgender bathroom use.

This is all so stupid it makes my brain hurt.

First of all: These laws are only symbolic. They serve no functional purpose. Presumably, post-transition transgender people look like the gender they identify with. Who, exactly, is going to stop someone who looks like a woman from walking into a ladies’ room? Or someone who looks like a man from walking into a men’s room? The American nanny state may be out of control, but we still don’t have bathroom police. As such, post-transition transgender Americans likely already have access to the bathrooms of their choice, even without these new laws.

As for the conservative claim that these transgender rights laws give sexual predators license to attack people: This is nonsense. There are surely transgender sexual predators, just like there are cisgender sexual predators, just like there are straight, bi, and gay sexual predators. The problems posed by bathrooms and sexual assault (the access, the relative privacy) are the same with or without the transgender element, and with or without these laws.

So why are we making such a big deal out of a purely symbolic issue? Precisely because it’s purely symbolic.

Think back to the debate around same-sex marriage. Early on, the focus was on partner visitation rights. But that was never really the point. It was always clear that gay marriage activists would never have been satisfied with a deal that gave same-sex couples the exact same package of rights and duties as married couples have but without the word “marriage.” The symbol was always the point. It had to be “marriage” — a major societal proclamation of the equality of worth of same-sex relationships with opposite-sex relationships.

 It’s the same with transgender bathrooms. The point is not, or not crucially, to help solve practical problems for transgender people; it is, rather, to coax out of society an affirmation of transgender people and their identity.

Regardless of where you stand in our culture wars, this is important. Gender is a very important part of our lives, and how we experience it, in ourselves and in others, and how we relate to it, has dramatic consequences on our lives. And part of how we experience it is mixed in with the kinds of stories that society tells about gender, including, but not only, what is “right” and “wrong.”

Many conservatives believe that while gender dysmorphia might be a real thing and that people who experience it certainly are endowed with human dignity and rights, a total societal affirmation of transgender identity would ratify an essentially fictitious view of gender as totally socially constructed and malleable. This is an important debate to have! And, to circle back to the bathroom issue, the total lack of practical import for whatever policy is chosen actually has a clarifying effect. It shows us that it’s all about the symbolic — and therefore crucially important — societal affirmation, or lack thereof, of transgenderism.

It’s precisely because the stakes are so low that the stakes are so high.

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