Reader: Two years ago, I wrote you about a transgender co-worker, Barbara, and her decision to use the ladies’ bathroom even though she is not undergoing surgical reassignment. Now I wonder if you could help us understand the next step.
Our government workplace provides an on-site gym. Barbara wants to use the gym like everybody else — and she has indicated that she will be using the women’s locker room.
I realize her transition has been difficult, but others are antagonistic toward what she’s doing. I understand that her gender identity is unrelated to whether she’s had medical or surgical intervention. But how does her identity trump our right not to see penises in the locker room? We are still not comfortable with her standing facing the toilet in the next stall.
If she were acting inappropriately, we could talk to HR. But she’s not; she simply intends to claim her place culturally as a woman. And yet, she’s not a woman physically.
Does our employer have any way to avoid this outcome? If not, many of us will cease working out, and that seems unfair.
Signed: Trying Here
Karla: With ever more transgender celebrities, colleagues and classmates seeking to claim their place, it’s a great time to revisit this issue.
In federal agencies, the same rules apply to locker rooms as to bathrooms: Barbara is entitled to use the facility that aligns with her identity. Your employer can provide private spaces to dress and shower, but it can’t confine Barbara to them. Barbara cannot legally be penalized for others’ discomfort with her existence.
But “them’s the rules” is like a hand towel: It doesn’t quite cover everything.
While I empathize with your aversion to seeing penises in unexpected contexts, I’d ask you to please compare your concerns about what you might see with the concerns — backed by grim statistics — about what a transgender woman might encounter in a males-only space. Your right to comfort should not trump another’s right to (relative) safety.
Barbara is just seeking what women have been fighting for forever: the right to be known for what’s between her ears, not her legs. So I doubt she’s eager to flaunt her anatomical noncomformity. But to head off any potential confrontations, is anyone close enough to discuss these concerns with Barbara? Could everyone agree to a “one-towel minimum” rule — for everyone’s benefit?
I’m not saying you have to like Barbara. I know you’re trying. And I know mentally connecting gender to genitals is a tenacious habit, even for those who think of man- or womanhood as being greater than the sum of one’s private parts. But if the not-exactly-rainbow-draped Pentagon can commit to welcoming transgender personnel into its ranks, surely the rest of us can find a way.
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