Beauty Policing: The Consequences of Transgender Bathroom Politics

by  Melinda Selmys

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illustration by Muymuy / iStockphoto.com

While those who argue that trans women need to be able to safely use public restrooms are absolutely right, the radical feminists are not entirely crazy in thinking that sexual predators might take advantage of laws that allow anyone who self-identifies as trans to use women’s facilities. There have been reported cases in Canada and Japan where people claiming to be trans women have sexually harassed women in spaces set aside for women’s use, and there have also been instances where people incarcerated for sex crimes have claimed to be trans and demanded the right to be transferred to a woman’s facility. It’s very rare, but it’s not entirely fabricated.

To me, it seems obvious that these people are not, in fact, trans women but dangerously narcissistic male sexual predators. The difficulty is that given the present state of the discourse surrounding trans identities there’s not a consistent or reliable way of discerning whether someone is trans. Basically, anyone who says they are, is.

This does not, in my opinion, mean that trans women should be barred from women’s facilities—the total number of trans women who are assaulted or bullied in male restrooms and changing rooms so vastly exceeds the number of women who have been endangered by sexual predators claiming to be trans that there’s really no comparison. There do, however, need to be reasonable accommodations to ensure that both cis and trans women can use women’s facilities safely. To me it’s just obvious that this should include laws that prevent any person convicted of sexual assault or harassment from accessing women’s spaces. Even if such a person really is trans, it is absolutely reasonable (and fairly common) for society to put on-going restrictions on the behavior of people convicted of crimes. I don’t care if you identify as the ultimate reincarnation of Eve herself, if you have a penis, and you do not respect women’s sexual autonomy, you should not have access to spaces that are set aside to protect women’s privacy and safety. Full stop.

That said, some readers might be thinking “Well, since trans women could choose to live as males, and thus avoid all of these problems, bathroom laws need to protect real women who have no choice.” Okay, well let’s, for a moment, put aside the question of whether a trans woman is legitimately a woman. Let’s put aside the question whether it’s reasonable for the rights of cis people to absolutely trump trans people’s need to pee in safety. Let’s look at this bathroom question from a wholly logistical perspective: What could it actually accomplish?

What these laws would ultimately be about is the legal enforcement of popular standards for women’s appearance. This is not bathroom policing—it’s beauty policing.

Well, two things. First, it could create situations where gender non-conforming women—or women who just don’t look very “feminine”—are singled out and publicly embarrassed for using women’s facilities. This has, in fact, already happened: There was a case just last year where a breast-cancer survivor was told leave the women’s washroom at a Walmart because the employees thought she looked like a man. Women who appear “masculine” are just as likely to set off someone’s transdar as a real trans woman. Most of these women already face stigma for failing to live up to social ideals of beauty and femininity. The last thing that any sincere feminist or Christian should want is for women to be harassed by police in their own spaces for failing to be pretty enough.

The second thing it can do is punish trans women for failing to convincingly ‘pass’ as female. Contrary to popular belief, most trans women do not look like drag queens. Unless you’re really paying attention (and why, exactly, are you really paying attention to the appearance of strangers in bathrooms?), most trans women look like women. Trying to ban trans women from women’s restrooms can only possibly be successful in the case of trans women who are not “passing” well.

Basically, this means that what these laws would ultimately be about is the legal enforcement of popular standards for women’s appearance. This is not bathroom policing—it’s beauty policing. The likelihood that any trans man would ever be reported under these laws for using male facilities is borderline non-existent, which means that the proposed laws would specifically concern the scrutinizing of women’s bodies to make sure that they conform to a certain minimum standard of “femininity.”

Even if you leave the needs and rights of trans women out of the equation entirely, these laws would still be a terrible idea. If you also assume, even in the slightest, that trans women deserve to be able to urinate in peace then it should be obvious that proposed bathroom laws will harm much more than they will protect.

Melinda Selmys is a writer of speculative fiction and Catholic non-fiction. She lives on an idyllic hobby farm in Tweed, Ontario, with 16 chickens, 2 dogs, and a half dozen children. She is the author of several books, including Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism and Sexual Authenticity: More Reflections. This article originally appeared on the author’s Patheos.com “Catholic Authenticity” blog and appears here by kind permission.

Also of interest: Cock-blocking for Jesus: A Modest Proposal for Christian Men Who are Concerned About Trans Bathroom Rights” also by Melinda Selmys

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