There are very few situations in public life in which the differences between males and females matter. In fact, I can only think of four:
- Only women can bear children.
- Men are faster and stronger than women, so we segregate the two sexes at the very highest levels of athletic competition. This segregation is not necessary for intellectual pursuits.
- Our society has developed a group modesty about the naked human body, especially when it is engaged in elimination functions. One way we enforce our body mores is to have separate bathrooms, locker rooms and shower rooms for each sex.
- Certain organizations and individuals establish scholarships or other financial aid for people of one sex, usually but not always female. These scholarships often compensate for the decades of discrimination women faced that led to an underrepresentation in certain professions, such as the natural sciences and engineering.
The first distinction between men and women I noted above does not affect a discussion of the rights of the transgendered, but the other three are at the nexus of the problem of assigning and defining sexual identity in a way that includes the transgendered and does not discriminate against them.
The avant-garde of political correctness is now parsing sexual identification into a number of categories: cis (someone who identifies with the sex “assigned” to them at birth by virtue of their visible genitalia) and trans, male and female, and, if we include sexuality, straight, gay, bi and the other varieties of love. Thus, someone can be a cis straight male, a bi trans female or any number of other combinations.
(FYI, I find it highly problematic to use “assigned” to describe the process of identifying the sex of a child at birth. What the real world does when a child is born is not the aggressive action of assignment, but the more passive act of acknowledging the sex of a child at birth as defined by its genitalia. What else do we have to go on at that point?)
This segmentation probably comes in handy on dating websites and has a sociological value, as well. On the other hand, sexual identification and orientation should matter not a whit when it comes to decisions related to hiring, firing, promotion, university admission, club admissions, government, healthcare and employment benefits, housing, business, shopping and congregating in public places.
But we can’t have a separate bathroom or separate professional basketball leagues for each of these types of sexuality. The question remains then, how do we define female and male in those few, limited situations when it matters? Let’s keep in mind that best-guess estimates put transgendered people at two-tenths of one percent of the population (700,000 out of 322.3 million). According to one source, about one-third of all transgendered people have undergone surgery to obtain the genitals of the sex with which they identify, which means that defining who is a man or woman for the purposes of athletics, scholarship or bathroom use affects only about one out of every 691 people. That number will decline as acceptance of the transgendered grows in society and more select surgery.
In a sparsely covered announcement, the International Olympics Committee (I.O.C.) has said that moving forward it would allow transgender athletes who have not had surgery to compete in the Olympics. People identified at birth as female who now consider themselves male get a free pass, whereas those identified as male at birth who consider themselves female will have to pass a test showing that their testosterone level is below a certain point.
I think it’s a bad decision for several reasons: First of all, past scandals involving performance drugs, including East Germany’s women’s track team in the 1970s, suggests that the probability of abuse is high. Beyond that, for transgendered people who have not had surgery, we have to take them at their word that they are truly transgendered and not trying to game the system. There is also the issue of fairness—it’s unfair to set a higher bar for one transgendered sex than for the other.
Lawsuits or the loud outcry when the public sees someone who looks male competing in women’s track will quickly make the I.O.C. regret its decisions.
The I.O.C. should have required that transgendered athletes complete the process of transformation through having surgery. In fact, for those small numbers of instances when we must distinguish between male and female, the assignment of sex should always follow the genitalia.
Meanwhile, we should eliminate as many of the areas as possible in which we need to make sexual distinctions. There are quick and not-so-quick fixes for the challenge of bathrooms and preferential scholarships that involve eliminating the need for the distinction. We could easily switch to unisex bathrooms in which every stall is a separate room. I like the idea, but be forewarned that three things will happen: 1) Men will complain of long lines; 2) More sexual and drug behavior will occur in public bathrooms; 3) Most people will feel a greater sense of privacy and dignity not having to urinate three inches next to a stranger or see a stranger’s leg and shoe while unreeling toilet paper. Special scholarships and programs for women will disappear about a decade after workplace and other discrimination against women ends. On the other hand, I see no way around the sexual wall that exists at the highest level of professional sports.
I know what I’m saying is going to anger and offend many transgendered people, possibly including two of my first cousins. I am so proud of both of them. They made a decision to come out of the closet that was particularly gutsy in light of the rigidly macho family we come from. I am delighted that they are happier people now, and it pisses me off when I hear someone make a derogatory comment about them or other transgendered people. I support their choice, and the choice made by all 700,000 transgendered Americans, those who undergo surgery and those who don’t.
But in the public world, corruption and other forms of darkness always fill ambiguity, and there is no way we can remove the ambiguity that exists to the outside world in someone who proclaims he or she is transgendered and has not had surgery. I do not believe we unfairly discriminate against transgendered individuals to insist that they must have the genitalia associated with the sex of the team for which they want to play or the bathroom they want to use. It’s the only fair way to resolve the inherent ambiguity in the situation, e.g., someone with a penis who proclaims he’s a woman wants to play for the women’s team. Remember that the situation is ambiguous only because they chose to make it so by not having surgery—which, by the way, should be covered under all healthcare insurance—to confirm what they know in their hearts to be true.