Bathroom Wars

Edit, 4/12/16: OK – I’m even angrier now. Michigan’s Dept of Education is considering mostly reasonable guidelines suggesting how schools deal with transgender kids. A conservative state legislator is introducing legislation to preempt this.  It “would require Michigan students to only use bathrooms and locker rooms matching their birth gender.” [All quotes in the edit are from the legislator’s web page.]  The legislator’s expertise in issues related to gender? Well, he “worked for 27 years in his family’s log trucking business” and has won numerous awards from the lumber and timber industry (… what would Freud say?).  Seriously, gender is determined by the brain, not the genitals, and nobody is checking the gender of the brain at birth. And the brain has almost certainly settled on its gender at birth. So let people be guided by their brains, and do not judge them based on their genitals.  No, I should say, “Do not judge them.”


I’m getting angry about the so-called “bathroom laws” that are currently in the news and being considered or enacted by various state legislatures. I recognize that some parents might be concerned for the physical and psychological well-being of their children, who must be protected from all realities of life that differ from the cocooned existence that mommy and daddy have provided. OK, I recognize this, but don’t accept it as valid—little Johnny and Susie need to learn that not everyone is like them; or in many cases, little Johnny and Susie need to learn that their own struggle with the gender to which you have assigned them is real and is shared by others.

Photo Credit, Serene Lau, Innovation Storyteller, Garfield Innovation Center

Photo Credit, Serene Lau, Innovation Storyteller, Garfield Innovation Center

But what really pisses me off (that metaphor seems appropriate in this context) is that the state legislators are clueless about the biology of sex and gender. The result is laws that are ambiguous or meaningless, and that will open the door to many easy challenges in the hands of reasonably intelligent attorneys. Let’s take a look at a few (my source for much of the information about the laws is a USA Today piece published in our local paper on 2/28/2016):

  • South Dakota’s law says that students must use the bathroom or locker room corresponding to their “chromosomes and anatomy” at birth.
  • Virginia’s proposed law requires that bathrooms and locker rooms be used by people “whose anatomical sex matches” the gender designation of the facility.
  • Oklahoma’s law would require use of a facility that matches a student’s gender at birth.

Here are some of the problems with these approaches:

  • Chromosomes are not the deteminants of gender or biological sex. You probably learned in high school biology class that females have XX sex chromosomes and males have XY. Typically true, but not always. The gene that pushes the developing mammal’s gonads to be testes rather than ovaries is usually on the Y chromosome, but this gene can jump to the X. The result is an organism in every way male except that he has XX chromosomes. Conversely, the XY individual can lack the cellular receptors for androgens, resulting in an organism that is in every way female except that she has testes and XY chromosomes.
  • What is meant by “anatomical sex” or “anatomy at birth?” Almost certainly what the law-makers mean is the appearance of the genitals: penis, it’s a boy; no penis, it’s a girl. However, the genitals don’t determine one’s gender. Maybe the legislators mean the sex of the brain: more cells in the Sexually Dimorphic Nucleus of the preoptic area in males; more estrogen receptors in the ventromedial hypothalamus in females. These anatomical features are much more likely to be responsible for gender than are the external genitalia. Or perhaps the law-makers were referring to whether the Mullerian or Wolffian system had developed (not terribly important to gender as far as we know).
  • And to refer to “gender at birth” is problematic. One’s gender identity might well be established at birth (psychologists are still working this out) but is most typically described psychologically (and appropriately) as “one’s sense of oneself as male, female, or transgender” (American Psychological Association, 2006)—this clearly cannot be determined at birth, before the person is verbal and can thus report a sense of self.
Via University of Bristol LGBT+ Society, , source URL: , see:

Via University of Bristol LGBT+ Society

I would love to see an attorney challenge a law that specifies bathroom use based on chromosomes by asking a school how they know that the chromosomes of the students using a facility match the “gender” of the facility. Were chromosome tests done on all of the kids? Or in the case that anatomy must match the “gender designation of the facility,” ask a school if they have determined that the brain anatomy of the students using a particular restroom is more typically male or female, and how they know. Or are school officials simply checking the genitals of the kids before they let them pee?

I can’t offer a solution that will appease those who confuse genitals with gender.  And I can understand some level of discomfort—I felt it myself when a female (I should probably say “an apparently female”) attendant cleaned the urinal next to the one I was using in Poland. But the reality is that gender is not black-and-white (or male-and-female), and we must stop forcing people into behavior that does not align with their sense of self.

Let’s either allow people to select the bathroom that matches their gender identity or do away with segregated facilities and allow anyone to use any bathroom. This will not be a problem if we all treat each other with respect, or in the words so valued by many who are opposed to a less genitally-based view of the world, “Do unto others….”


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