Thanks to a bill signed into law last week in New York, biological men who identify as women now have full access to women’s bathrooms, locker rooms and, yes, battered-women’s shelters. If you naively expected organizations such as the National Organization for Women to lobby on behalf of women against this law, you haven’t been paying attention. When it comes to all things transgender that come at the expense of girls and women, America’s famously outspoken feminist organizations find themselves at a curious loss for words.
Feminist oracle Planned Parenthood proclaims on its website that “male” and “female” are each merely a label “that you’re assigned by a doctor at birth.” Tell that to the girls of the Palm Springs High School water polo team who walked in on a male last week, showering in the women’s locker room at the city pool they use for team practice. The team coaches confronted the man, only to be rebuffed. He was entitled to be there, he said, since he identified as a woman—his full complement of male genitalia notwithstanding. The police declined to pursue the case, according to CBS local news, on the grounds that “no laws were broken.”
Regulations promulgated under California’s Fair Housing and Employment Act grant individuals the right to use bathrooms and locker rooms according to gender self-identification. The Palm Springs city manager assured parents that the city would install dividers between the showers as well as an additional, “unisex” shower, near the locker rooms for transgender use, though such individuals have no obligation to use them.
The disproportionate physical strength of men is one reason we have, since the nineteenth century, barred men from entering women’s restrooms. Allowing biological men into enclosed spaces with young girls whose pants are puddled at their ankles or lassoing their knees doesn’t necessarily mean that the guys will attack. But if they wanted to, they would find girls and women significantly compromised. From the earliest days of high school, when most boys hit puberty, they face no comparable threat in an enclosed space with women or girls. And if such violence were somehow never to occur, it would still not be unreasonable for young girls in such situations to feel threatened, regardless of how many shower curtains, each the thickness of a human hair, are installed.
Stall dividers must be the answer, then, advocates insist. If we can put enough of those in, then girls will never be traumatized, assaulted, or treated to a peep show of male anatomy—at least, not in great numbers. In Joel Doe v. Boyertown Area School District, the Third Circuit seemed to think along these terms when it concluded that “the presence of transgender students in the locker and restrooms is no more offensive to constitutional or . . . privacy interests than the presence of other students who are not transgender.” What does it matter what the person is doing in the closed stall next to you? Or what they look like when their pants are down? If hell is other people—as Sartre had it—perhaps it matters not if the devouring eyes are male or female.
Let’s stipulate that the vast majority of trans-identified persons are upright citizens. Perhaps there will never be a sly math teacher who goes home one summer, grows out his hair, and announces that he is now “Jane” and will be using the girls’ locker room. But even if the Palm Springs “woman” never became violent, would those girls find no reason to feel threatened, confined within the tiled walls of a locker room with a person possessing full male genitalia—as 89 percent of trans women do, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 survey? Dare I mention the assault to their dignity?
Bathrooms and athletics are two areas where the interests of women and girls are directly at odds with those of boys and men. Few biological boys are likely to lose top spots in sports competition or the college scholarships that follow because of transgender boys who outperform them. Boys and girls have long been separated in sports specifically to permit girls to excel without being unfairly bested by boys whose muscle mass and bone density confer an unearned advantage. In endurance sports, like open water swimming and marathon running, the gap narrows because the female physique carries gifts of its own. But by and large, to permit trans girls to compete against biological girls is to allow boy biology unfairly to pick off top honors.
Last December, feminist icon and tennis great Martina Navratilova got fed up with women being beaten out in sports by trans girls whose skeletal and muscular strength rendered them unfair challengers. She tweeted: “Clearly that can’t be right. You can’t just proclaim yourself a female and be able to compete against women. There must be some standards, and having a penis and competing as a woman would not fit that standard.” Within a week, the once-fearsome competitor had deleted the tweet, recanted, and apologized, promising to “educate [her]self better on the issue” and in the “meantime . . . [to] be quiet about it.” Anyone who followed Navratilova on the court for her nearly three decades of greatness would be hard-pressed to square the grunting determination for which she was famed with the kittenish remorse of someone fearing for her intersectional bona fides.
When did we, as women, decide that it was okay to stop advocating for girls? When did we decide that—because another vulnerable group had made itself known—it was acceptable to strip girls of the Title IX protections that won them their own facilities, their own teams and scholarships, and the taste of victory that we want them to remember, as a benchmark for their expectations, when they head into the world?
Those who suffer gender dysphoria wrestle formidable demons. If such individuals need special accommodation with their own bathrooms, they should get it. Disabled students have bathrooms of their own to make their lives easier. Teams, too, could be formed to accommodate these students.
Before we decide that every person who self-identifies as trans female may enter girls’ locker rooms or compete against girls in wrestling or sprinting, we should at least pause to consider that only girls are likely to feel their privacy threatened, their physical safety compromised, and their sports competitions fixed. If this is the burden we decide that girls must bear for the sake of greater equity, let it not be said that feminists permitted this without a public debate and—if necessary—a political fight.
So far, though, feminists who otherwise claim to protect girls find themselves unwilling to define what a “girl” is—and what it is not. Smith College, a feminist bastion, now admits all “women” who so identify. In this competition for resources, rights, and dignities, biological girls are losing out. The fox has entered the henhouse, as the old saying goes, while women’s organizations stick to the fiction that both species are hens—it’s just that one hen is devouring the others.