The White House now offers a gender-neutral restroom, for use by men, women and anyone whose gender is less than certain. If this news tempts you to giggle — please refrain.
Certainly, the bathroom wars are a bizarrely outsize aspect of a serious subject, which is ensuring full rights for transgender Americans. Bring up the issue, and it fast deteriorates into a debate, equal parts frivolous and overheated, over what might ensue if a male transitioning to female uses the ladies’ room. (Answer: The transgender individual goes into a stall and closes the door. No big deal.)
The White House restroom policy is that anyone can use the facility that fits his or her needs. It added the gender-neutral option, in the Old Executive Office Building, to accommodate anyone who might not feel comfortable — or who might worry that others feel uncomfortable — in a single-sex restroom.
This move is a minor part of a belated revolution in the way the federal government, and society as a whole, treats the issue of transgender rights. Just a few years ago, it was such an edgy outpost of the broader issue of gay rights that it was at risk of being sacrificed to the larger cause.
In 2007, for example, then-Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) removed gender identity from legislation to prevent employment discrimination against gay men and lesbians because the measure could not pass with protections for transgender workers.
Now, the issue has become, if not exactly mainstream, far less controversial. Popular culture deserves some credit here; witness television programs such as “Orange Is the New Black” and “Transparent” featuring transgender characters. So, too, does the Obama administration.
Just in the past few weeks:
● The Justice Department went to court to argue that Georgia prison officials violated the constitutional rights of a transgender inmate to be free from cruel and unusual punishment when they refused to provide her with hormone treatments.
Its filing builds on the department’s announcement in December that it would treat discrimination against transgender individuals as discrimination on the basis of sex under the federal job discrimination law, a reversal of its previous position.
● President Obama’s executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees took effect.
● The White House, in a blog post by senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, announced its support of moves to ban so-called “conversion therapy” for gay and transgender youth, citing its “potentially devastating effects.”
● The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ordered the Army to pay damages in a sex discrimination case brought by a civil employee who was — here go the bathroom wars again — barred from using the ladies’ room and whose supervisor persisted in referring to her by her previous name.
If this sounds like a contradiction of the White House gender-neutral restroom, above, it’s the difference between being barred from using the bathroom assigned to your gender and being given a choice.
These aren’t the administration’s only moves on transgender rights. Earlier, Medicare announced it would start paying for sex-reassignment surgery, and the Department of Veterans Affairs approved all “medically necessary care” for transgender veterans, although it does not provide sex-reassignment surgery. And the Army is providing hormone treatments for Chelsea Manning, who was convicted of espionage in the WikiLeaks case.
“This president has been the best president in history on trans issues and nobody is in second place,” said Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “Until this administration, no one even took us into account. It’s not like they were off trying to hurt us or anything — it’s that they didn’t consider us at all.”
If you think that being transgender is creepy, or perverted, or fixable by conversion therapy, these developments probably do not impress you. If, however, you believe that some people are simply born into the wrong bodies — if you trust medical experts who believe that gender dysphoria is a real phenomenon — you probably think these are welcome developments.
One final, federal frontier is the military, where Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, when asked about the ban on transgender service members, said that his test was simple: “Are they going to be excellent service members?”
The Pentagon is reviewing the issue, but the outcome seems foreordained. After Carter’s remarks, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama “agrees with the sentiment that all Americans who are qualified to serve should be able to serve.”
This is an attitude at once obvious, revolutionary and overdue.