The great trans* bathroom debate, again.

So it seems that the great transgender bathroom debate has once again come to the fore. I suspect that this topic of discussion will exist as long as there are gender specific toilets and people to use them. The point of this article is not to debate the relative merits of the argument for or against, but rather to reflect on how we as a community should be responding to this challenge.

At the outset let me say that whilst this may be a banal and even overdone issue it is emblematic of the challenges faced by the transgender community. On the one hand we have every right to exist, use public facilities and access services in the same way as any other member of society, and we need to assert our rights in this regard. On the other hand surely increasing anger, animosity and suspicion around our already misunderstood community is hardly going to increase our chances of being accepted and understood. These two positions seem to be at odds with each other.

Certainly, if the trans community hides in the shadows and waits for society at large to spontaneously grant us some privileges, we will be waiting a very long time. The only way to ensure rights are granted to you is to demand them. For this reason activism, boundary pushing and concerted action are all necessary. We need to be visible and we need to be assertive as individuals and as a community.

However, we also need to be sensitive. If we push too hard, too fast we are more likely to create resentment and fear than acceptance and understanding. Society is confused by and lacks knowledge about transgender people. This ignorance creates fear and we need to understand that. We need to overcome this fear. I believe that the best way to overcome fear is by educating, showing empathy and understanding the other person’s point of view.

I am therefore not convinced that asserting ones right to use a girls’ locker room in a high school is the best course of action for the trans community. I can understand why it may have been important for the individual to do this but in terms of advancing the interests of the community I think it is of limited value. As shown by the response by the students at the high school they were seemingly not ready for this next step. How do we advance our interests and move society along in a productive trajectory without becoming doormats? Where do our rights end and the rest of society’s begin? How do we change years of ingrained behaviour regarding gender norms?

This is tricky to say the least. I think each individual trans person needs to very carefully assess their own situation, balance their individual needs and desires with what is right for the broader trans community and then consider their own social norms and chart a course of best possible action. This is very hard for the individual to get right, probably impossible for the entire trans community to get right collectively.

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