Friday, May 13, 2016

It's Going to Be Alright: The Fight Over Bathrooms in America

I remember the day I finally understood gay people. I worked with a guy named Adam in the last year or so of college, and he was openly gay. I obviously knew what it was to be homosexual, and I can say with all honesty that I held no prejudice for them. But as a straight man, I just couldn’t wrap my mind around how a person could be gay, and that was simply because…I’m not. It’s not that dissimilar from the idea that as a white male, I could really never understand what it’s like to experience racism as a black man, or experience sexism as a woman. Adam changed my life because he finally put it into terms that my straight mentality could understand. I remember asking him (and perhaps it was a bit forward, but he was cool with it), “so when did you realize you were gay?” I totally expected him to give me this story about suddenly realizing he had a crush on Lance Bass when he was a sophomore in high school. Up until this point, the extent of what I understood about my sexuality was rooted in my adolescent years—the time period where I took more of an active interest in girls. But he didn’t answer like that. He didn’t even answer with an answer. He answered with a question:  “When did you realize you were straight?” I was taken slightly aback by the question, and then I started thinking about it. No, really thinking about it. I realized that it was long before my hormone-driven adolescence. It was that day in the lunch line when I was in kindergarten—the day that this little dark-haired girl named Lee Anne ran up and kissed me on the cheek. I remember how excited I was, and I realized that was probably the earliest moment I could remember knowing I was straight. And then Adam said, “yeah, it was right around that age for me too.” From that moment on, I understood what it really is to be gay, straight, bi, or whatever. It is what it is, and at that point, this wasn’t so foreign, and therefore, it wasn’t at all frightening.

Fear plays the most active role in this hotly burning social issue over transgender people and what bathroom they use. Fear of the unknown. Fear of things beyond a person’s common capacity of understanding. Fear of something that challenges the status quo. Everyone wants to feel represented in society. For some people, a black man in the White House challenges their status quo. Or turning on the TV and seeing two men kiss on How to Get Away With Murder. Or calling their bank and finding that there is an option to hear the instructions in Spanish. Or seeing a Mosque being built in their community. Or seeing that there are politicians who aren’t huge fans of guns. What often scares people most is people that are different, and have the exact same Constitutional rights as the people in the majority. Sociologists would call this the classic social conflict that permeates every culture in the world—the powerful and those with less power. The powerful like to remain powerful, and that means restricting others.

We’ve seen this before. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s inspired a lot of other groups to directly challenge social norms. After Dr. King, hippies openly opposed the Vietnam War and promoted free love. After that, feminists began staging their own protests of inequality between men and women. Another movement in the 70s was a mass, collective “coming out” of thousands of gay and lesbian Americans, despite a society that grossly misunderstood and mischaracterized them. Harvey Milk was one of the best known organizers of this movement who fought against, among other things, a push to disallow gay people from being teachers, for fear that they might molest your kids. Because few people before this time had ever really decided to live in society as openly gay, this sudden rush of closet vacating was new and scary to the heteronormative status quo. People didn’t understand, much like I didn’t in my youth. This fear generated and then perpetuated by lawmakers and officials drove an angry movement to deny gay people of their civil rights. Today, the notion that a gay person is somehow more likely to molest a kid is preposterous. We know better. Regardless of whether or not you feel it’s morally okay or whatever, almost all of us can now agree that gay people are not, by nature, sexual predators.

We may be over the fear and outrage, for the most part, over openly gay people. People are acclimated to it. Gay people aren’t going anywhere. They aren’t hurting anyone. And they’re probably having more fun than you. But the same thing that happened to gays and lesbians in the 70s is happening to transgender people today. Just like being gay, it is a thing, and it is here. And…it has always been around. You can find evidence of it throughout history and across cultures. But it is the newest scary thing to Americans. Yesterday, it was Muslims. People freak out and then try to characterize perfectly normal people as dangerous simply because they are unknown and misunderstood. And how could you understand what transgender is? You’re not transgender. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that these folks are dangerous.

Try to think of it this way. As Adam asked me all those years ago, “when did you realize…?” A hundred years ago, Freud did some work on this. He observed that people commonly come to understand themselves as “boy” or “girl” somewhere between the ages of 3 and 6. It’s a period of time he called “identification”. Largely, these notions of boy and girl are laden with social norms, social expectations, and gender stereotypes. We even attach sexuality with the concept of gender, which is incorrect (look no further than Laverne Cox’s character on Orange is the New Black to see that a transgender woman can still be attracted to women). Either way, little kids learn early on what boy and girl is, and they identify themselves based on a combination of personal traits/feelings and social pressures. When you know what you are, you just know what you are. Ask any LGBTQ person, and they’ll likely tell you the same thing. And if a person “suddenly decides” in adulthood that they are a transgender person, it’s more likely that they always were, but only now have the courage to live as they truly are.

What’s happening today with this bathroom issue is exactly what happened to gay people in the 70s. It’s new and it’s scary, so people saddle transgender people with all these negative mischaracterizations. Let’s face it, when people are suddenly concerned with safety of people in the restroom, they’re not just worried about people who would take advantage of more accommodating policies. They’re often outright equating transgender people with sex offenders. They’re viewed as simply men dressed as women, and therefore entering the women’s bathroom is sexual offense. But the thing is, this kind of thing has been happening forever. Men have been caught mounting hidden cameras in dressing rooms, tanning beds, and bathrooms. They’ve assaulted women and even kids in public restrooms. We learn to look out for this. We inform and prepare our kids. We keep a watchful eye. If anything looks wrong, we take action. And chances are, the transgender person entering the bathroom is going to go unnoticed. They will look the part and they’ll just go to the bathroom, and then leave. That’s it. They just want to pee. If you see someone of ANY gender identity doing anything inappropriate like taking pictures, assaulting someone, or ogling your goods, you take action. It has always been this way. These acts are inappropriate regardless of whether a person is male, female, or transgender. And there has never been mass outrage. None until now. Now that it involves people who are different, therefore scary, therefore demonized.

So the way I see it, this will pass. There will be a fight. Gay and lesbian folks know this struggle all too well. Society will evolve on this. With enough time, they will come to see that, agree with it or not, trans people aren’t dangerous. They’re just people. They eat, drink, love, and poop like everyone else. And they are Americans. That means they have the same rights as anyone else, whether you like it or not. Please, can we return this non-issue to being a non-issue and get back to figuring out poverty and starvation?

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