Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are aware that the North Carolina legislature and Pat McCrory recently rushed through HB2, a hateful bill disguised as a “public safety” initiative that eliminates municipal nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people, and blocks transgender folks from using public restrooms that are consistent with their gender identity.
This blog is hosted by a Maine newspaper, but the subject of LGBT discrimination is certainly not confined to North Carolina, and Maine has hosted its own high-profile bathroom wars in recent years. I grew up in North Carolina, and was there when the same-sex marriage ban was enshrined in the state constitution (later ruled unconstitutional).
As I now raise my family in the relatively progressive and inclusive oasis that is Portland, Maine, I realize at once how glad I am to no longer live in hateful political environment we are witnessing in North Carolina, but also how fragile things are in Maine with a LePage administration.
As a father of three elementary and middle school-age boys, my wife and I believe that nothing is more important than teaching them empathy. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says, “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Roger Ebert once said, “I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.” I believe these quotes ring as true as anything.
What has been most frustrating and disappointing about the HB2 debate in North Carolina is just how little empathy is on display. This lack of empathy may be partially due to ignorance. If you were to ask the average person to describe what it means to be transgender, you might think that they were describing Tootsie or Mrs. Doubtfire, (or, at best, Ru Paul or Caitlyn Jenner).
The fact is, most of us have used the bathroom next to trans people and we just didn’t know it. Because they were using the bathroom that best corresponds with their gender identity. Funny how that works.
There is a remedy for this, as expressed by Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” If one can’t afford travel, Twain might be willing to prescribe a book, a documentary, or a conversation with someone who is transgender.
Those of us who wish to make the world a better place for our children (and for future generations) need to do our part in promoting empathy and in encouraging our children to stand up for those who are being discriminated against. As Elie Wiesel said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
The following are some of the comments from the proponents of HB2 that I have seen or heard first-hand over the past month. Each statement, I believe, originates from a place of ignorance and fear, with very little empathy on display. Each can easily be refuted with actual facts, evidence, and data.
“We have to protect our wives and daughters against perverts who might dress in drag and entering the women’s restroom.”
First, sexual assault is already illegal. Banning transgender people from the correct restroom or dressing room does not make sexual assault any more illegal-er.
In states where laws have been on the books to allow transgender people to use the restroom that aligns with their gender identity, there have been no problems. (Unless you wish to count incidents that have been manufactured by anti-trans groups as an attempt to create problems where none existed.)
We could do better than to discriminate against a very real segment of human beings simply because we are uneducated about them, or because we fear that someone who does not belong to this segment might masquerade as someone belonging to this segment. Because that risk is not supported by the data. What is supported by the data is that 46% of transgender attempt suicide at some point in their lives. Add to that the fact that violence against transgender folks is at an all-time high (a rise of 13% last year), and you may reconsider which segment might be in need of protection.
“Transgender anti-discrimination laws are simply attempts to normalize sinful behavior and advance the liberal agenda”
First, transgender / gender dysphoria is not a behavior. Sexual assault, however, is a behavior (a sinful one, in most religions) and is already illegal.
One is not required to wear clothing of the opposite sex to be transgender. One is not required to be sexually active to be transgender. Being transgender does not even require interacting with another human being.
Anti-trans folks seem to believe that being transgender is directly related to the sex act. It isn’t.
A 5-year-old child with gender dysphoria is not thinking about the sex act. She is thinking about her very being, and the fact that her biological sex does not match her gender identity. This is not something she chose.
And gender dysphoria does not only hit liberal families. Transgender doesn’t have a party affiliation, although I imagine transgender folks may feel more welcome under a tent that treats them with dignity and respect, one that doesn’t enact legislation that makes their lives more difficult.
“Under HB2, trans people can use the restroom they want, if they have have gender reassignment surgery and have their birth certificates updated.”
Many transgender people do not want, or need, gender reassignment surgery. It is not required to be legitimately transgender. There are lots of reasons why a trans person may choose not to undergo gender reassignment surgery: There are huge financial barriers. Access to competent care is limited. Surgery may be unnecessary, and it comes with risks — including surgical risks, possible complications, and insufficient outcomes. So, no, it’s not like getting a new driver’s license or anything.
“Transgender people are just confused and need to work out their issues.”
Some people are born left-handed. Some are ambidextrous. Some are born with two different colored eyes. Some are born with webbed toes. Some people are supertasters. Some have dimples, or freckles. Some are geniuses. And sometimes biological sex and gender identity to not align. All of these are ways of being.
The American College of Physicians, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have each come to the conclusion that transgender is a very real way of being. Each recommends that gender identity be included as part of nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies. Each strongly condemns any attempts at “conversion” or “reorientation.”
When people state that transgender people “have issues” (and let’s be honest, we all have issues), it’s important to know that the emotional and psychological issues that many do face are related to gender dysphoria, to discrimination, harassment, and isolation. In other words, any mental issues they may have do not cause being transgender. These issues are a result of the distress that they experience as someone who does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
A real father helping to save lives
As I have watched the fallout from HB2 in North Carolina from here in Maine, I have thought a lot about Wayne Maines, a husband and father of two children here in Maine. For those who may not be familiar, his transgender daughter Nicole won the right to use the female bathroom in her school, after a long, protracted battle with the Orono school district. Nicole’s story, and the story of her family’s transformation, is profoundly moving and inspiring (the book Becoming Nicole, by Pulitzer Prize winning author Amy Ellis Nutt, is a wonderful account of the Maines’ story).
Her father Wayne, a self-described semi-conservative, says that it took him ten years to fully understand what was going on with his daughter. He told the Portland Press Herald, “If we have to wait 10 more years for others to come around, a lot of kids are going to end up in harm’s way.”
I have thought about the fact that it took Wayne Maines, a father of a transgender child, 10 years to fully come around. Maines is an intelligent, college educated man. This underscores just how complex the subject of gender identity is, and how important it is for others to hear the stories of others who have already traveled down this road.
Wayne has since been an important voice in helping others understand, accept, and support transgender youth. He writes regularly about his family’s experience, and his appearances nationally have helped open up dialogue about transgender children, fatherhood, family, school culture, and discrimination.
I haven’t had to go through what Wayne Maines has gone through as a father. But I can only hope that if I did, I would be as supportive as he is with his own children. I do know that his story has helped to make me a better father, and to be better equipped to handle any hardships that my children might encounter in their young lives.
Like Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” When we can’t experience something firsthand, we could do worse than to seek out the stories of those who have made the trip. It might literally save lives.