Who’d have thought that one of Obama’s last great battles would be over toilets? Last week he issued a strict warning to schools saying that transgender pupils must be allowed to use whichever loo they choose. Girls or boys who feel they’re trapped in the wrong body have, in some states, been required to widdle according to their biological sex. No more, said the President. No child left behind in the wrong restroom.
This was an arrow aimed straight at the heart of the conservative South. Back in March, North Carolina passed a law requiring people in schools and government buildings to use the loo matching the sex recorded on their birth certificate. ‘Bigotry!’ cried central government, ‘A violation of the Civil Rights Act!’, and threatened to withhold more than $4 billion in education funding.
North Carolina accused Washington of overreach and filed a lawsuit; Washington filed one right back, and so began America’s great transsexual toilet war, a tug of war over the Mason-Dixon line. Texas, Mississippi and Tennessee lined up behind North Carolina; most northern states lent their weight to the President. Miley Cyrus, Ringo Starr, Bryan Adams and Bruce Springsteen all cancelled gigs in North Carolina to support the right of trans kids to pee freely in the company of their choosing. ‘Some things are more important than rock,’ said Springsteen, which kept me happy me for days.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong? It’s tempting to say: who cares? Except that we’re all going to have to care soon, because inevitably America’s toilet war will cross the Atlantic — and because if you understand the whole argy-bargy, you understand a whole lot about the modern West.
For Barack, Bryan and Bruce the issue is a slam-dunk no-brainer: transgender children must be protected from prejudice. If you watch as much daytime TV as me and my midget son, you’ll know what he means. The life stories of transgender teens jostle for airtime with The World’s Fattest Man between noon and 6 p.m. most days, and Jazz Jennings, America’s trans teen celebrity, is rarely off the box. Jazz is a happy little slip of a thing who, though born a boy, told her parents she was female as soon as she could talk. Jazz, now 15, flits about in dresses and full make-up and appears on Oprah. Jazz would quite clearly be toast in any gents’ loo from Dallas TX to Savannah GA.
So shouldn’t the South just bend to Obama’s will? It makes no sense to force kids like Jazz to pee with redneck boys. But if you read the small print of the North Carolina bill you’ll see that Jazz doesn’t actually have to. State law makes provision for separate, private-cubicle loos that transgender kids can use. This is not a debate about safety so much as equal rights for a put-upon minority — so here’s a question for a high school ethics class: what happens when minority rights collide?
Anyone can call themselves transgender, and this is where it gets tricky — no op needed, not even different clothes. Gender in the 21st century is up to each one of us to decide for ourselves, and this is why the Republican South is anxious. If trans people are allowed in the loo of their choice, the fear is that schoolboys and perverts will identify as female just to gain access and grope girls. This isn’t as daft as it sounds. A Canadian man calling himself ‘Jessica’ was allowed into a women’s shelter in Toronto, whereupon he assaulted several ladies. A man in Virginia dressed in drag just so as to slide his camcorder under the girls’ cubicle walls.
It’s interesting that it’s the very same liberal voices who have in recent years been so agitated about girls’ rights — who’d call a wolf-whistle assault, let alone a grope — who now say any worried women should pipe down. This is because 21st-century rights are not equal but hierarchical, the most disadvantaged first. Women trump men, but the transgendered trump them if it comes to a clash. Obama said as much in his guidance for schools: ‘The desire to accommodate others’ discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students.’
As for me, I’m all for transsexuals in the ladies’ loo, just as long as it remains the ladies’. My worry about the whole fiasco is that it will lead not just to transsexual toilet rights, but to unisex toilets everywhere for everyone.
It’s the only answer, in a way. No business wants to be a bigot and ban trans people — they’re terrified of Twitter campaigns and of Miley Cyrus saying they’re uncool. But then no one wants to be like Target, either. Target (a vast chain of US department stores) declared all its restrooms and changing rooms transgender-friendly, and now it’s boycotted in the South.
For many teens and twenty-somethings, there’s something suspect about separate loos anyway. They like to identify as gender-fluid, and for them having a men’s and a ladies’ is archaic, even offensive. On the subject of unisex loos, the Wikipedia entry, written by some right-on youngster, says:
Gender-segregated restrooms in the United States and Europe are a vestige of the Victorian era where women’s modesty and safety were considered at risk and under constant need of surveillance and discipline…
Oh foolish young. How they’ll long for a gender-segregated restroom once they’ve banished them. If we end up all peeing together as a result of trying to help trans folk, it seems to me every gender will suffer. No urinals, of course, so the men will have to queue, and listen to the ceaseless ladies’ chat. Girls will be less comfortable and less safe. Nowhere to escape a tedious date or the bore from marketing; nowhere to recover, to rearrange your tights in peace. And the trans-gender youth, the ones Obama is trying so hard to help, will be bundled back in with the people they’re trying so hard to escape.