This weekend, The New York Times published an opinion piece that, on its face, attempted to portray both sides of country’s debate over transgender inclusion. In doing so, it took for granted all of the false assumptions made by opponents of transgender equality, doing nothing to debunk them, and thereby reinforcing them.
Columnist Judith Shulevitz takes on the task of sorting out the great bathroom debate, seemingly with no previous experience writing about transgender issues. She opens by framing the debate as a “clash of values — gender inclusiveness versus bodily privacy,” already buying into the notion that when it comes to transgender people’s bodies, the two are in conflict.
She then poses a scenario about a trans teen and a cisgender teen changing together in the girl’s locker room. Ignoring GLAAD’s guidelines about how to respectfully identify transgender people, she refers to the trans teen as having been “born with” a boy’s body, while the cisgender girl is described as a “girl-born-a-girl.” The cis girl does not want to change next to the trans girl, the trans girl does not want to be banished “like some sort of freak,” and “the standoff will end only when one retreats to a stall to change in private.”
Setting aside the reality that locker rooms are not the naked parades that skeptics of trans equality claim them to be, Shulevitz never considers why the cis girl doesn’t want to change next to a trans girl — the belief that her classmate isn’t actually a girl. Instead, she reinforces this assumption. “People have a right to privacy,” she opines, adding that “courts have largely agreed that no one should have to undress unwillingly in front of a member of the opposite sex, or see that person naked.” Physical modesty, she suggests, “has a more legitimate basis” than other forms of stigma like racism.
She worries that the federal government’s guidance that trans students be respected for their gender identity could impose violations on that cisgender girl who feels “that the transgender girl is invading her privacy in a discomfiting way.” In other words, Shulevitz actually agrees with the notion that simply by existing in a space, a transgender person is a threat to the non-transgender people around her. Reading between the lines is not really required to see the transphobia here.
Some girls are stressed out that there’s a transgender girl in the locker room who happens to have a personality.thinkprogress.org
After recounting several lawsuits challenging transgender inclusion filed by the anti-LGBT Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which she politely describes as “a Christian legal advocacy organization with mostly evangelical clients,” she comes to the anonymous plaintiffs’ defense. “You can’t dismiss the plaintiffs’ concerns as mere intolerance,” she insists. “Religious pluralism requires accommodation of the demure as well as the less inhibited.”
Chase Strangio, staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT & AIDS Project, took strong exception to Shulevitz’s shilling for intolerance in a stream of tweets on Sunday. Calling the article “garbage,” Strangio outlined the false portrayal of locker rooms and the puff-piece portrayal of both ADF as well as trans-exclusive radical feminist groups known for their anti-trans rhetoric.
Shulevitz’s response ignored the harms that Strangio outlined and instead framed the debate as simply a “clash of values.”
And when further confronted by just how anti-LGBT ADF is known to be, she doubled down on defending them using “religious freedom” rhetoric that could well have come straight from one of the organization’s pro-discrimination court briefs.Shulevitz’s endorsement of the notion that trans people should be treated according to the bodies they have instead of the people they are is problematic enough as it is. But her solution is also just wrong.
“Schools working with transgender students must take into account complicated group dynamics,” she explains, apropos of nothing. “Perhaps we should trust our educators to exercise their own judgment.” Letting those who would discriminate do so is an anti-LGBT argument repurposed from the state-by-state marriage equality, and it’s one that, by design, ignores the actual harms of discrimination. The whole reason the federal government took a stance is because schools were repeatedly treating trans students like lepers who deserved to be ostracized. Allowing that to continue only maintains the status quo of stigma against transgender people.
Shulevitz, it seems, remains more concerned with making sure that cisgender girl never has to respect her trans classmate’s identity.