I thought I’d sit down today and get indignant about the crass politicization of a complete non-issue.
No, I’m not talking about Benghazi, or private email servers, or whether or not Donald Trump actually knows how to run a business. I’m talking about something that actually has everyday people acting as though they’ve lost their minds: The issue of which public restroom a person chooses to use.
I know why people are freaked out on a personal level. And I also know why their fears around this issue are being manipulated by the political and religious classes. The first “why” has nothing to do with the vaunted right to privacy or fears of molestation that the foamers are serving up to the media as the reasons.
Instead, it has everything to do with gender itself. Gender being the actual third rail of our society. When people step outside the accepted gender norms of their time and their society, the people around them really lose it. History is littered with examples: Women’s liberation, gay equality… and now transgender people.
If you don’t believe me, Google “Transgender Day of Remembrance” and see what you get. It ain’t a party, a parade, or even a crystal staircase. It’s how transgender people and their allies solemnly remember, every year, just how deadly it can be to step on today’s third rail of gender nonconformity and declare for yourself that your gender and your biological sex might just be misaligned.
So God forbid you should walk into a public restroom designated for use by those who share your gender identity. People will lose their minds. And other people will exploit that. And it will all be a backlash against something only tangentially related to your individual life. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’ll start with what I know. The Atlanta metro area has approximately 11,000 homeless people — a ridiculously high percentage of whom are veterans and kids. Those kids are on our streets.
Now, I have marginally more experience to write about the problem of homelessness than about America’s new war on restroom choice. (Not to mention that if the issue of homelessness captivated the public imagination as much as the restroom issue appears to have, who knows? We might actually have a shot at meeting the challenge of homelessness in a relatively short period of time.)
I say “marginally” because, while (compared to most Americans) I have an ocean of experience relating to transgender people as friends, community members and parishioners, I have to admit that I am limited in just how much I can claim to personally relate to their plight in this world.
I was born a biological male and reared as a male, and in the six decades I’ve lived as a male, I’ve never experienced a moment of struggle over the connection between my biological sex and my gender identity.
Of course, my sexual orientation was another matter entirely, at least according to society in general and the church in particular. However, even that was never really a question for me personally. Deep in my soul I have always known that God had not made a mistake with the gene(s) that caused me to be attracted to people of the same gender as me.
Yet I do find it somewhat awkward to address the restroom-choice issue because I don’t feel that I can truly relate in my mind, in the deepest parts of my person, to the incredible struggle and inner turmoil my friends from the transgender community must deal with on multiple fronts. If I’m totally honest with myself, I have to confess that I come up short on true empathy (look it up, it’s not the same as sympathy) with what it must be like to feel “born in the wrong body” biologically.
I have no real clue what it must be like to look in the mirror see my body and think to myself, “This is not who I am. My body is not put together in such a way as to match my mind and/or soul.” I have no idea what it’s like to not be comfortable in my own skin.
As a student of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — the man I credit with singlehandedly inspiring me to go into ministry — I can relate this gap to an even bigger, more enduring and more perplexing one: The awkward sensation for white liberals of knowing that we will never truly understand, in bones-deep authentic way, what it really is to be black in America.
God knows I’ve spent a lifetime trying to explain what it is to be gay to my straight friends — and while there has been a certain level of understanding reached, eyes still roll and faces blush when I kiss my partner in front of them or refer to him as my husband. So there’s that.
Given all these things, what can I claim to know about the transgender community and the bathroom issue?
First of all, I know several things from a Christian perspective. Those things that I know are rooted in a very clear understanding of Matthew 22:40, where Jesus said, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”
So here’s what I’ll hang off those two commands:
- I know that transgender folks do not wake up one day making a choice to change their gender identity so they can go to a different public restroom.
- I know that to change one’s biological gender requires ongoing and long-term consultations with psychiatrists, psychologists, medical doctors, support groups and personal therapists.
- I know that each of these folks is in fact a child of God.
- I know that by the time a transwoman (i.e., a male-to-female transgender person) walks into a women’s restroom, she is a women, her biology notwithstanding.
- I know that by the time a transman (a female-to-male transgender person) walks into a men’s restroom, he is a man.
- I know transgender folks have been around and using public restrooms in relative peace for a lot longer than this “issue” has been politicized.
- I know that this “issue” is part of a backlash against my not-even-one-year-old right to get married — i.e., the political right and religious fundamentalists need another target to wax hysterical about.
- I know, based on Jesus’ teachings, that for a pastor to stand in a pulpit and call for transgender people to be killed is not even close to being a Christian response.
- I know that there is a really easy fix to all this: Make all bathrooms unisex. After all, going to the bathroom is a private matter for everyone.
- I know that to try and turn this discussion into an argument around safety from pedophiles and sexual perverts shows a lack of knowledge, fairness and mercy.
- I know the overriding challenge facing the transgender community in the form of this particular issue is that the vast majority of folks screaming about this have not taken the time to learn, watch and or listen.
But don’t take my word for it. Talk to a transgender person. And by that I mean listen. Really listen. And it doesn’t have to be about anything deep. Just what’s going on that day. Because it’s really, really hard to hate someone whose story you actually know.
And if you don’t think you know any transgender people, meet Jazz Jennings: