Back in my college days in California–oh, the yore!–my plan was to get an advanced degree in Psychology, and become a licensed counselor of some sort. This however was only after a lively detour through Agricultural Business and Political Science, because I wanted to be a lobbyist, too. Tough decisions, I tell you! Now of course I’m a mom and a freelancer, though I like to think I do a fair bit of psychoanalysis and counseling on a daily basis, here, around the house. I also occasionally yell things like WHY ARE YOU DOING THAT?! and DON’T MAKE DUMB DECISIONS!, which I’m assuming people in the helping profession do NOT do–but I never did earn my degree, because I got married and then got pregnant, instead. More detours. So I’m telling myself that I must have missed that particular class, the one on “things not to say to small human beings”.
Anyway, a couple of nights ago I was reminiscing to my husband (forever privy to All Of The Things Rattling Around in My Brain) about a particular class I took as part of my psychology major. “Human Sexuality” was credit/no credit, helped fulfill my graduation requirements, and frankly? It sounded fairly interesting. I guess I’m weird like that, this whole being fascinated by human behavior thing that compels me to buy books by the likes of Erik Erikson, Margaret Sanger, and Betty Freidan. That I sit and read. For fun. But I digress.
In case you’re wondering (and I know you are, particularly if you did not attend a secular state university like I did), we studied the usual stuff–STDs, the historical significance of the Kinsey Institute, and the science behind the sexual response cycle. The latter was probably not necessary for college-aged students to be studying in-depth (and the accompanying video was beyond disturbing for way too many reasons to list here), but hey, it was an easy class that helped me maintain my GPA. So I may have been blushing, but I wasn’t complaining.
There was one class period, though, that I can still remember quite clearly and which was (in my opinion) really very valuable. A panel of men and women representing a range of what I shall call (remember, I’m just a clumsy amateur) “alternative sexualities” came to answer questions, and talk about their lives. There was a lesbian college student, two transgendered women, and a transgendered man. They explained when they first felt “different”, what the transition had been like, how devastating it was to experience divorce and some level of estrangement from family and friends. One of the women-who-was-born-a-man shared about how hard it was initially for her son to see his father become a woman, and how that relationship was uncomfortable and awkward for a long time.
The other man-to-woman talked about being a successful engineer at a local power plant, and about how embarrassing it was going through this transition in the workplace, among co-workers she’d known for many years. Particularly when she needed to use the restroom.
My thought at the time was that the entire matter of gender dysphoria was incredibly sad–I have no idea how it feels to be born one way and yet feel another, I had never experienced a wholesale identity shift that resulted in fractured relationships, and at nineteen years old I had never even thought to question my sexuality or gender. It had simply, truly never occurred to me. I was a woman, I was attracted to men, I had a boyfriend. I also had a handful of gay friends, and I would ask them questions and listen to what they had to say, and I could sympathize with what they were going through. (Disapproval from family members, the complexities of coming out, being othered.) But it wasn’t personal for me, and in any case they were all just people, anyhow. Not so very different from me in most ways.
So while I have always believed in God’s design for marriage, men and women, I have never seen that as being mutually exclusive with recognizing a person’s dignity–which to me includes not only how they were created but also their struggles, wounds, and experiences. Statistically speaking, men and women identifying as transgender are more likely to be depressed, are at greater risk for being victims of violence, and they have a higher incidence of suicidal thoughts. Not an easy road, obviously. Modern clinicians try to say that these negative effects are mostly the result of the discrimination transgender individuals experience throughout society, but personally I don’t think that tells the whole story. Gender variance is complex. Feeling isolated and shamed certainly doesn’t help, but it doesn’t explain all of the inner turmoil or anguish experienced by these dear people. There’s more going on there.
And that brings me to this whole recent uproar over Target’s restroom policy.
A lot of conservative-leaning Christians are upset, because the retail chain (that we all know and desperately, desperately love) came out and stated that shoppers and employees are free to use the bathroom of the gender they identify as.
Cue the wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Truth be told, I believe there is good reason for some of the concern. As a woman, I don’t really want some weird dude possessing the legal right to hang out in my bathroom. Because what happens if a very bad person uses this policy as an opportunity to hurt someone? I’m not talking about people identifying as transgender by the way, just opportunistic wackos who are evil and creepy. Therefore, these sorts of policies may set a bad precedent, and I wonder why they’re necessary in the first place–because wouldn’t most folks identifying as transgender more or less appear as the gender they identify as? So they could head into the bathroom of their choice without anybody caring? Seems like maybe this is more a situation of Target hoping to protect themselves from legal problems, which I really can’t fault them for, either. I also think there is a danger in the societal normalization of what is really a very serious mental struggle for people. There is the potential for the spreading of further confusion, and the confirming of that confusion. You can read my related articles about Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner here and here.
All of that to say that if you’re concerned about this policy opening the door to bad-things-only-mildly-related-to-transgenderism, I hear you.
But on the other hand, well, I can’t shake that afternoon all those years ago, sitting in Human Sexuality, when the middle aged MTW expressed deep anxiety over using the restrooms at work. This person was not a criminal and wasn’t looking to do anything weird. They weren’t trying to make anyone uncomfortable and they certainly weren’t pushing any sort of agenda. But they experience a disconnect in an area that most of us take for granted, and that is where I think perhaps the Christian community is missing something in all of the angry hand-wringing and pearl-clutching and mocking of the transgender community.
And this is terribly tangential, but I think we Christians occasionally do a less-than-honorable job of extending mercy, grace, and hope to people. Particularly people: living alternative lifestyles, the mentally ill, and women in difficult relationships or circumstances. Just this morning I read an excellent article in Slate about the pitfalls (read: nightmares) of unregulated “Christian-based” counseling. I have also done a fair amount of reading and reflecting upon the conservative Christian homeschooling bubble. And I have written multiple times about the challenges implicit in raising differently-abled children in a community of typical, perfect-seeming families. And this is just my two cents, but we need to tread carefully when we’re talking about human beings. My experiences, my feelings, and my struggles may be different from yours. Doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as objective reality, and it doesn’t mean we should suppress truthful and difficult solutions for fear of giving offense, but we need to be very careful in how we approach people and their unique situations. We need to ask ourselves if we are hurting more than helping. We need to consider whether making fun of people and their challenges is advancing any sort of cause beyond just making ourselves feel good–photographing yourself in a pirate costume, for example, and asking if that makes you a pirate, is not going to change anyone’s mind or heart or policies. It IS going to be good for a few laughs with your friends, and alienating anyone experiencing gender dysphoria or confusion.
Now. In the interest of full disclosure, I try to avoid public restrooms in general–because germs, and who doesn’t prefer to poop at home?–but I’m afraid I’m a Christian who won’t be boycotting Target. The company (and everywhere else I shop) probably espouses all kinds of values related to things I don’t fully 100% agree with. Lest someone tries to write me off as some sort of heretic (though that is certainly your prerogative), I will also tell you that I think in general, if you were born a man? You’re a man, and should probably use the restroom with the picture of the man-with-triangular-limbs on the door. That just seems like common sense to me, and a way of showing respect to us ladies. Then again, if you appear to be/consider yourself a woman in spite of having been born a man, maybe that changes things. Basically, if you’re just going in to do your business and using my restroom alleviates your anxiety, it’s fine by me. Either way, I’ll be in my own stall, with the door locked, peeing.
But more than any of that–and what I’m trying to say here–is that I’m deeply bothered by the Christian demonizing of an entire sub-group of individuals, the painting of transgendered men and women as deviants and terrible people just out looking for someone to hurt.
If you find Target’s restroom policies reprehensible, fine. I get it. Use your social media account to explain to your followers why it’s a problem for you, decide what you’re going to do about it, and move on. No need to disparage men and women who are no doubt just trying to earn a living or buy a throw pillow. I have actually seen several friends of mine share their views in a respectful way, which I appreciate. That’s probably why we’re friends.
Incidentally, my twelve-year-old daughter and I stopped at Target a couple of months ago to pick up a gift for a birthday party. (Don’t worry, I’ve been there several times since then as well.) As I was paying the cashier for the card game and candy she’d decided upon, my daughter whispered, “Mom! Is that a boy or a girl over there at that other register?” When I looked up and saw who she was talking about, my instinct was to laugh and say that OBviously it’s a woman, because can’t you see she has breasts–oh the naivete of children–but then I heard the person speak. And it was a male voice. Which is what my daughter had noticed in the first place, and what had led to her confusion.
So as we left the parking lot, my daughter ironically taping a black mustache to her face–that was the theme of the party–I told her that although God makes men and women distinct from one another, and that He makes each of us just the way He wants us, occasionally people aren’t happy with how they were created. Sometimes it’s kind of mysterious how that happens, other times maybe it’s more clear. I told her that life can be so hard sometimes, and that teenagers in particular can feel depressed or anxious or a little bit confused about who they are. And that for some people, living as a different gender than the one God gave them may feel or seem like a good solution. I said I was pretty sure that the young Target employee had been born male, but somewhere along the way he decided to grow out his hair and obtain a (rather impressive) female-looking chest, and maybe he feels more at ease that way. Maybe someone told him he should do that, and that it would make everything better, but that I suspect it won’t solve the deeper issues. I told my daughter that this person probably continues to struggle. And that all of this can be hard to understand, but that it’s just part of the mixed-up topsy-turvy world we live in, and that God wants us to love everyone. Especially people prone to feeling unlovable, or who get made fun of, or who don’t fit in a neat little box. I said we all want to be accepted so very desperately, and that we are so blessed to have our faith and to know we are loved unconditionally by a good and merciful God.
I said that the person we saw was a person. Period.
Most of you know that I am Catholic. This means (among other things, like not using birth control and being the proud owner of assorted religious statues) that I believe in the historic teachings of Jesus Christ and His Church. So I don’t tell my kids that gender is fluid or that sex doesn’t matter. I don’t personally believe that all manifestations of sexuality or sexual behavior are morally equal, or that consent alone drives whether something is good for a person, family, or society. Mostly I teach my kids about Jesus and how much He loves them, but I also talk to them about God’s beautiful design for men and women. I tell them what marriage is and isn’t, and about what our bodies tell us about God’s plan.
But I also make sure to tell them that people are people, and our role as Christians is to love them.
And when it comes to gender, I think we have to fight the temptation to give in to fear. I didn’t bat an eye for example when my son, at three years old, loved carrying around a purple princess purse, I don’t tend to overemphasize gender differences/roles around our home (every one of my kids can rock both a rake and toilet brush), and I don’t think that gender dysphoria or gender variance ought to relegate a person to the margins of society. I just don’t.
Hopefully I’ve made it clear here that while I’m saddened by all of the angry rhetoric floating around, I don’t mean to minimize the potential fall-out from these sorts of policies (where the aforementioned creeps now have legal license to hang out in the women’s restroom), and I especially don’t mean to trivialize the related issue of school locker rooms. I would not, for example, allow my daughters to undress in the presence of boys (regardless how they identify), and vice-versa. I think there are real concerns here that should be addressed. But we can do that without all the fear and suspicion, and approach the situation with respect and consideration for both women and people identifying as transgender. We can be Christians who listen and who love.
At least, in my unprofessional-because-I-dropped-out-of-school-and-had-babies-instead opinion, I certainly think so.