The Causes and the Consequences of Controversies around Transgender Rights

Westbrook & Schilt_blogimage_Februrary2014Recently, there was a flurry of news articles asking questions like: “Should boys who think they are girls be allowed to use the locker rooms and bathrooms of their choice?” In these articles, opponents to a new California law expressed concerns such as: “This is a very radical idea. You’re going to have first-grade boys going to the restroom next to first-grade girls without any supervision” and “Male athletes who are mediocre in competition against their own gender could game the system by competing against female athletes.

The policy at the center of this debate, California law AB 1266, goes into effect January 1st, 2014 and allows transgender youth to participate in sex-segregated activities, such as sports teams, and access facilities, such as bathrooms, that align with their gender identity. While many applaud the law as a cutting edge step in transgender equality, vocal opponents have expressed outrage at what they term the forcing of “San Francisco values on all California schools.

What is the source of the controversy? In our article, “Doing Gender/ Determining Gender: Transgender People, Gender Panics, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/Sexuality System,” we examine similar negative reactions to transgender rights legislation through a content analysis of media articles from 2006-2010. Transgender equality has never been more visible as a key issue than it is today and with the development of every new trans-supportive law or policy, there typically follows an outbreak of criticism.  In our analysis, we find that these moments, which we term “gender panics,” are the result of a clash between two competing cultural ideas about gender identity: belief that gender is determined by biology vs. belief that a person’s gendered self-identity should be validated. These gender panics frequently result in a reshaping of the language of such policies so that they require extensive bodily changes before transgender individuals have to access particular rights.

These gender panics reveal the criteria for “who counts” as a woman and a man in our society. However, the criteria for “determining gender” – the practice of placing others in gender categories – are not the same across all social spaces. While self-identity is sufficient in many circumstances, such as the workplace, people are more likely to employ biological essentialism in sex-segregated spaces. Thus, in the controversies we examined, just like with AB 1266, it is access to bathrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams at the center of gender panics. Moreover, not all sex-segregated spaces are policed equally. Because of beliefs that women are inherently vulnerable, particularly to unwanted heterosexual advances, it is women’s spaces at the center of these debates. Thus, with AB 1266, much of the discussion is about “youthful sex offenders” and “parents or students who feel uncomfortable with their daughters showering next to boys.” Thus, beliefs about female weakness and sexual vulnerability are reproduced and, because of the fears around the need to protect women from rape, transgender rights policies are often discarded or altered in ways that force transgender people to conform to normative ideas of gendered bodies in order to access public facilities and activities that fit their identities.

By Laurel Westbrook and Kristen Schilt on their article, “Doing Gender, Determining Gender: Transgender People, Gender Panics, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/Sexuality System,” available through Gender & Society’s OnlineFirst.



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