By Laura Hooberman
On September 19th, The Washington Post reported that United States Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson had, in an internal meeting, expressed concern about “big hairy men” infiltrating women’s homeless shelters. Carson later, bizarrely, doubled down on his comment, insisting the remark was not – and to be clear, it absolutely is – transphobic. What’s striking about this instance, besides the fact that it adds yet another episode to Carson’s lengthy list of damaging and grossly bad takes, is that while the location (i.e., women’s homeless shelters) invoked here may seem new, the narrative (i.e., that transwomen are men masquerading as ciswomen in order to gain access to women’s spaces and hurt women) is not. Over the past several years, we’ve seen this debate play out in relation to another space in particular – school and public bathrooms.
Connecting these two spaces – women’s shelters and bathrooms – is the notion that there are spaces which are, by definition, gendered, and which require membership to a particular, binary gender in order to be entitled access. Attempts to restrict access to these spaces on the basis of what gender a person ‘appears’ to be (and we might ask – who decides whose appearance is ‘sufficiently’ male or ‘sufficiently’ female?) is an example of gender policing. Proponents of gender policing typically believe that outsiders can, when looking at another person, readily identify the sex that person was assigned at birth, and advocate for utilizing this perception as the basis of discrimination.
But reality is more complicated than gender policers seem to realize. What Carson’s damaging and bigoted take misses – besides, of course, the fact that it is damaging and bigoted – is that limiting access to spaces based on the sex one is assigned at birth puts many trans and gender nonconforming folks in a bind. Their options become either: 1) use the bathroom of the sex they were assigned at birth, even if their gender appearance is not consistent with their sex assigned at birth, or 2) use the bathroom that is most consistent with their gender identity, and risk breaking the law. And while the second option runs the risk of legal punishment, the first, I would argue, might put them at significant social and physical risk. But that’s just my take. And so, while considering this issue, I came to wonder: what does the research say?
As it turns out, in 2017 a team of researchers at West Virginia University published work on this very topic. They utilized an experimental design to examine peoples’ perceptions of trans people using public bathrooms that were either: 1) congruent, or 2) incongruent with their gender appearances. In other words, they wanted to know whether, say, a feminine appearing trans-identified person was likely to face more or less scrutiny for using the women’s room instead of the men’s room.
The researchers recruited 400 participants through Amazon’s MTurk, and conducted the study online. Participants were shown one of four images of faces, which ranged from “very masculine” (i.e., bearded, with a square jaw) to “very feminine” (i.e., made up, with long eyelashes and sculpted eyebrows). In the control condition, participants were shown one of these faces without any accompanying text, and in the experimental condition, the faces depicted were identified as those of trans individuals. In both conditions, participants were asked to rate either how uncomfortable they would feel were they to see that person using the men’s room, or how uncomfortable they would feel to see that same person using the women’s room.
The results? Participants overall reported feeling uncomfortable about a male-appearing person using the women’s room – or a female-appearing person using the men’s room – even when the person depicted in the image was identified as trans. Reciprocally, participants largely did not feel uncomfortable when the person depicted was described as using a bathroom which was congruent with their gender expression – again, even if the person was identified as trans. These results suggest that restricting bathroom access on the basis of the sex someone was assigned at birth is unlikely to make people feel less uncomfortable than if we simply allowed people to use whichever bathroom most closely aligns with their gender expression.
In light of this, I’ve come to think that the rhetoric employed by Ben Carson is representative of one particular ‘reality.’ In the Ben Carson reality, there are two binary genders, and trans people, clear aberrants, stick out like sore thumbs. And then there’s, you know, actual reality, in which individuals locate and express themselves at various points on the spectrum from masculinity to femininity, locations which are often fluid and shifting. The value of this study, it seems to me, is the work it does in dismantling the Ben Carson ‘reality.’ But more work, as always, needs to be done in bolstering broader recognition of the actual reality, and vast complexity, of gender. The more we advocate for freedom of gender expression, and the more urgency we apply to efforts to call out politicians for reductive takes on gender and identity, the closer we move toward liberation.
 Platt, L.F. & Milam, S.R.B. (2017). Public Discomfort with Gender Appearance-Inconsistent Bathroom Use: the Oppressive Bind of Bathroom Laws for Transgender Individuals. Gender Issues, 35(3), 181-201