Cognitive Dissonance Surrounding Gender and Sex Clouds the Bathroom Debate

Graphic by Rachel Honigsberg

By Sophia Franco

Managing Editor of Features

Note: There’s a lot more to the debate on how gender is categorized and expressed than what is presented here. I strove to make the language of this piece as clear as possible for those unfamiliar with these types of issues while respecting the fact that concepts such as “passing” and being “biologically male/female” are more complex than they may seem. When cisgender people comprise the majority of the population, they set the standards for interpretations of gender and sex, whether these standards are arbitrary or not.

Cisgender- denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex
Transgender- denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex
Transgender Man- A term for a transgender individual who currently identifies as a man
Transgender Woman- A term for a transgender individual who currently identifies as a woman
Gender- refers to the attitudes, feelings and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex. Behavior that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as gender‐normative; behaviors that are viewed as incompatible with these expectations constitute gender non‐ conformity
Sex- refers to a person’s biological status and is typically categorized as male, female or intersex. There are a number of indicators of biological sex, including sex chromosomes, gonads, internal reproductive organs and external genitalia

In the wake of Trump’s actions against transgender protections, I’ve started wondering about the role of “passing” in this whole bathroom debate. As a cisgender woman, I always grew up with the assumption that you could determine someone’s gender and sex based on their outward appearance. I even believed that I could correctly spot someone who identified as transgender just by looking at them and would be shocked if someone revealed their identity didn’t match my assumptions.

This is because people like being able to evaluate their environment and the people around them quickly and efficiently without having to think too much. Of course, as most people know, heuristics, while simple, can lead to biases, stereotyping, and discrimination.

In the case of bathroom bills that bar gender segregated bathrooms (bathrooms separated by how you identify instead of what your genitals look like), reporting rule-breakers seems to rest heavily on this idea of “passing”, or having characteristics that are associated with a cisgender female or male, like developed breasts and/or a prominent adam’s apples and facial hair. If I, a cisgender woman, walked into a bathroom for “males only”, I could be removed given that people would easily identify me as someone with vagina. Because you can always tell what someone’s genitals look like by looking at them fully clothed, right?

This kind of thinking immediately poses a problem. The actor, Buck Angel, a trans man, looks conventionally “masculine,” having facial hair, no breast development, and bulging muscles. At birth, he was declared by doctors to be female, yet if he were to step into a women’s restroom today, he would probably be met with the alarm and confusion. The same kind of alarm and confusion that supporters of bathroom restrictions say would arise if trans people got to use the bathroom of their choice. After all, isn’t that what people are afraid of, cisgender men entering the bathroom that doesn’t match their identity to carry out nefarious plots against women and children? But what happens when a transgender individual is perceived as cisgender? Women will still see who they assume is a person with a penis entering the “wrong” bathroom. Confusing, isn’t it?

Laverne Cox is another transgender person who many might categorize as cisgender if they didn’t know her identity. If she were to go into a men’s bathroom, not only would she receive surprised looks, she would probably feel incredibly vulnerable, as any other women might feel if forced into a similar situation.

Proponents of sex-segregated bathrooms may respond with the idea that people should use the bathroom that matches their birth certificate, claiming it’s the easiest line to draw. However, this still doesn’t make sense in the context of sexual confirmation surgery. Cox may have “male” on her birth certificate, but that doesn’t mean she has a penis. Since there is no hard and fast way to determine if someone is or isn’t transgender, the regulation of bathroom laws seems to be wholly based on superficial factors that are evaluated with a cursory glance up and down.

I think this should make people uncomfortable. As feminist and trans activist Riley J Dennis puts it in her video, “trans women are not biologically male.” It seems inherently discriminatory to say that how you look, feminine or masculine, determines your treatment, whether you are cis or trans. Just because someone “looks like a man” doesn’t mean they have a penis and just because someone “looks like a woman” doesn’t mean they have a vagina.

Additionally, the idea that gender can be boiled down to a few outward traits can be incredibly harmful. Are you less of a woman if you suffer from PCOS and have symptoms such as prominent facial hair? Or if you have a flat chest from a mastectomy? Are you less of a man if you don’t have a deep voice or a large adam’s apple? Or, as Donald Trump likes to point out, if your “hands” aren’t big?

Contextualizing the bathroom debate as an attack primarily aimed at non-passing transgender people illuminates issues with the law itself. While being a “passing” trans person is popularized and praised on social media, many trans folk may not fit into our cisgender standards, due to lack of resources, money, or simple willingness to undergo treatments and surgeries that carry serious risks. Even the effects of prescribed hormones such as estrogen and testosterone differ for trans individuals, leaving many trans women feeling as though they are less of a woman simply because they retain some characteristics that are associated with men.

As a cisgender person, I think it is important that other non-trans people are aware of many bathroom bills’ insidious messages about gender and what makes you a man or a woman. Once we recognize the limitations of being able to identify another person’s sex or gender, we can understand that many of the new bathroom laws being passed around the country are more confusing than simply trusting people to make the right decision for them.

After all, if your purpose in the restroom is to take a dump and mind your own business, your genitals shouldn’t pose a problem.

Additional Food for Thought:
Riley J Dennis’ video on sex 
Dr. Lindsey Doe’s video on the history of bathrooms