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The Transgender Bathroom Debate Isn’t About ‘Safety’

The Transgender Bathroom Debate Isn’t About ‘Safety’: BSIP / Getty

BSIP / Getty

Yesterday, President Donald Trump’s administration and the Department of Education rescinded guidelines issued by former Democratic President Barack Obama that required schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom in line with their gender identity, as opposed to one corresponding to their birth sex. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Mr. Trump believed this issue was best dealt with at the state level instead of the federal level.

Fifteen states currently have protections for transgender students. Individual school districts in additional states have similarly adopted policies recognizing students’ gender identities. But last year, North Carolina enacted a law that restricted individuals to using the bathroom that matches the sex on their birth certificates, and beginning this year, 10 other states have considered similar legislation.

Next month, the Supreme Court will hear the case of Gavin Grimm, a 17-year-old transgender student in Virginia, who sued his high school in 2015 after it stopped allowing him to use the boys’ bathroom.

Although the best practices regarding treatment for gender dysphoric children is a highly contentious topic, research has shown that for transgender adolescents and adults, transitioning and living as the sex they feel in alignment with can be beneficial. One recent meta-analysis of 28 studies showed that hormonal therapy helped to improve psychosocial outcomes and alleviate the distress associated with gender dysphoria.

At the heart of this “bathroom debate,” however, is an irrational fear that if trans people are allowed access to bathrooms designated for the opposite sex, some men will abuse this, dressing up as women in order to gain access to women’s spaces. But in my sexological experience, working clinically and in a research capacity with people with such proclivities, this is unlikely to be the case. Put simply, men who are interested in doing these kinds of things will be doing them no matter what the laws being enforced are.

It’s understandable why some have brought up the issue of safety for women and girls, and without question, we deserve to live our lives free of harassment. But focusing on bathrooms and locker rooms doesn’t solve the problem. Men who take to violating women’s spaces in this way likely suffer from other mental health issues, such as antisocial personality disorder or psychosis, that are not addressed by changing this specific law and subsequently restricting access.

It’s also not accurate to say that male-to-female trans people show elevated rates of criminality or violence. One Swedish study from 2011 has often been used as evidence for this argument, but its findings have been maligned. Upon closer reading of the study, it states that male-to-female individuals actually had a lower risk of criminal convictions than male control participants, and that gender reassignment surgery did not increase the risk for committing criminal offenses. (This research paper has also been misquoted as saying that gender reassignment surgery increases suicide in transgender people, and this is also not the case. The authors argue, in the paper, that the outcomes might have been even worse for these individuals had they not undergone gender reassignment.)

What’s interesting is that during his campaign for the presidency in 2016, President Trump said he believed transgender bathroom protections should be left alone and that transgender people should be allowed to use whichever bathroom they wanted because “there has been so little trouble.”

This is the case of an issue being made—on both sides of the political spectrum—when there was no issue before. The fact of the matter is, transgender people have been using the public bathrooms of their choice for a long time, long before this matter became heavily politicized.


Debra W. Soh is a sex writer and sexual neuroscientist at York University in Toronto. She has written for Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, The Los Angeles Times, The Globe and Mail and many others. Follow her on Twitter: @debra_soh.

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