STUDY: Gender Is Defined Inconsistently In Transgender Equality Debates


Transgender Bathroom SignOne of the challenges when discussing transgender equality is defining the terms sex (male vs. female), gender (man vs. woman), and gender identity (transgender vs. cisgender). Opponents often conflate all three by reducing them to biological sex, disregarding how individuals define their own gender identity. A new study examining the rhetoric around trans equality debates has found that, in fact, many people are “torn between valuing self-identity and believing that biology determines gender.”

Researcher Laurel Westbrook of Grand Valley State University points out that when discussing transgender issues, moments of “gender panic” arise when the two values — biology and self-identity — clash. As a result, opponents often set high expectations for transgender people to make bodily changes before they are willing to recognize their gender identity. Notably, however, different standards are applied for different settings; for example, self-identity may be sufficient for workplace nondiscrimination protections, but biology becomes a determining factor when considering access to sex-segregated spaces:

WESTBROOK: In the controversies we examined, it is access to bathrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams at the center of gender panics. Moreover, not all sex-segregated spaces are policed equally. Because of beliefs that women are inherently vulnerable, particularly to unwanted heterosexual advances, it is women’s spaces at the center of these debates. Thus, with these controversies, much of the discussion is about a fear of ‘male’ bodies in ‘women’s’ spaces.

These inconsistencies reveal the flawed logic used to defend discrimination against transgender people. If trans identities are treated as valid in some spaces but not others, this is evidence of an understood distinction between gender identity and sex, even while attempting to conflate the two. Further, if trans women are treated with more scrutiny in sex-segregated spaces then trans men, this suggests an underlying current of trans-misogyny. Thus, the opposition is not founded in cohesive values of about identity, but in inconsistent prejudice against the inclusion of transgender people — and transgender women in particular.

Such prejudice has been particularly apparent in the new referendum campaign challenging California’s law protecting transgender students (AB 1266). The National Organization for Marriage has asserted, for example, that even though “we should have compassion for students that… believe that biology has betrayed them,” discrimination against them when it comes to bathroom and locker rooms is valid because “nakedness trumps sincerity.” In other words, trans identities should be protected, except when people’s bodies are visible. Likewise, the Pacific Justice Institute’s campaign against a Colorado teen is quite blatantly one-sided: “a teenage boy’s presence into [sic] the bathroom for teenage girls is inherently harassing.” There seems to be no parallel concern about allowing transgender boys to use boys’ facilities, nor any suggestion that a trans boy could “inherently harass” other boys.