Trans in the toilet: the ethics of women’s spaces

There is a political controversy in the United States about use of toilets by transgenders, primarily trans women. It has reached the stage that some states are considering legislation, regulating who uses which toilet. The controversy is illustrative of what present-day feminism is about, and how it differs from older forms of feminism. That is far from trivial: feminism is returning to a biological definition of women, which it previously rejected as ‘essentialist’, and that will have significant consequences for its political aims. Since European feminism always follows the theoretical orientation of American feminism, that has consequences here too: reason enough to consider the ethics.

The controversy itself is specifically American – laws are different there, culture is different, and there is a more active ‘trans movement’. This recent post on GenderTrender, a radical feminist blog, is a response to a specific case, but the issue is recurrent. Although the blog is in English, there is a language difference too. Americans are apparently embarrassed by the word ‘toilet’, and use euphemisms such as ‘restroom’, or ‘bathroom’ or ‘women’s room’ and ‘men’s room’. The blog post speaks of a ‘locker room’ at a gym (fitness centre): that might be another such euphemism, or it might indeed be a locker room. These euphemisms are not relevant for the controversy, but it is relevant that they refer to specific spaces inside a building. The feminist position, as set out in the blog post and comments, is simple. Firstly, trans women are men. Feminists ridicule their claims to be women:

EVERY trans thinks they are the beyond-reproach, passing, real women. But they never are. They obviously think there is something profoundly wrong with being a male femulator, so they have to obscure it with, “trans women are female!” when that’s patently false.

The cringeworthy part was where he said he was a woman and had a vagina because, you know, vaginas are made in operating rooms these days /sarcasm.

There’s one dude on twitter who loves to crow about his “womanly” penis and figures one can have a penis/testicles/beard and still be a woman.

Of course he’s a woman! He has a vagina! And I have an imaginary pet unicorn, named Fluffernutter, who’s a professor of antiquities at Oxford.

I started questioning the whole trans business when I noticed even the least obnoxious MtF transitioners focused on hair, makeup, and wardrobe, and had no more sense of what it was like to be a woman than the average four-year-old girl.

If deep down inside they were truly women, then they wouldn’t have to work so damn hard to pass as one. If they were truly female, womanhood would come to them naturally. Instead, they just get cosmetic surgery…instead of their fairy godmother waving a magic wand, their well paid surgeon waves a knife. And just like that, all their dreams come true and they live happily ever after.

None of you ‘pass’ at all because none of you are women. The anatomical differences between the sexes are such that with just a careful look over a fully clothed person their sex is still determinable. There’s no surgery to change you skeletal structure and certain anatomical landmarks that make you easily identifiable as a man–even if you do have moobs and a peengina

The rejection of ‘transwomen’ by feminists is absolute: most feminists clearly despise them. However, feminists also give reasoned arguments to support their position, which are credible, and well-founded in biology. Transitioning males can get surgery and hormone treatment, but as one comment notes, they cannot get “… a uterus, fallopian tubes, vulva, contralto/mezzo/soprano voice, female-typical skeletal structure and height, etc.” They don’t menstruate or lactate or experience clitoral orgasms. They don’t get, and they don’t want, “UTIs, cystitis, endometriosis, periods, cellulite, pregnancy scares etc….”

Second-wave feminism defined biological sex in a simple way: men have a penis, women have a vagina. Almost every other difference was “gender” — a social construct. As a direct result of conflict with transgender activists, feminists made the list of biological defining marks longer, and the gender list shorter. Inevitably, that will lead feminists to abandon ‘gender’ entirely — and ‘gender-critical feminism’ is doing exactly that. Gender was a central concept for second-wave feminist theory, but it is not essential to that theory. After the abandonment of gender, feminism would retain a theory of patriarchal oppression, of one biologically defined group by another. A patriarchy theory can, for instance, be founded on the claim that males and females constitute separate species.

The feminists second point is that women have a right to separate spaces, free of men — and therefore to some extent free of oppression. Although women’s toilets are not themselves a feminist institution, they are regarded as a relatively safe space. Feminists see the intrusion of men in that small space as a threat — even if the rest of the building is shared with men. Since feminists see transgender women (‘transwomen’) as men, feminists fear their presence too.

In fact, feminists are often more frightened by ‘transwomen’, since they do intend to enter women’s spaces. Feminists describe transwomen as ‘perverts’, and fear rape, assault, and harassment by them. Some react with threats of violence: one commenter on the GenderTrender blog threatened to shoot any transgender she met in a women’s toilet, and that is not an isolated opinion.

There are a lot of states with open carry, carry anywhere and Stand Your Ground laws on the books. I know in my state you only have to “feel” threatened and you have the right to kill. I don’t know about you, but seeing the likes of “Carlotta” in my bathroom would make me feel threatened as all fuck, and if I still carried I probably wouldn’t hesitate to shoot. I know a lot of women who carry and feel the same way. And don’t even get me started on the men. I really don’t know what TeamTrans endgame is, but as I’ve said before, it’s interesting watching it play out, and I hope no one has to die for this fucknuttery, but I fear that’s what’s coming. And despite all their outcry about TWOC the first time some black guy walks up on a white woman in the toilet he’s going to be deader than hell. It’s incredibly irresponsible of them, but then again when have they ever acted responsibly?

Roslyn Holcomb

These two points convey the feminist position on this issue. Transwomen are men, and they should be kept out of the women’s toilets, because they are a threat. That’s it. In this case, at least, no further knowledge of feminist theory is required.

Right to spaces

The ethics are equally simple. I don’t need to consider whether transwomen are real women, since I can start with plain ordinary un-transitioned heterosexual men. Do women have a right to a toilet which is not used by men? The clear answer is no. Separate toilets are not a question of rights, but a question of custom, culture, and economics. In western countries, toilets on aircraft and trains are routinely used by all passengers, and small premises, for instance a small restaurant, might have only one toilet available. Where separate male and female toilets are required by law, that simply reflects culture.

So a feminist who uses a commercial facility, such as a fitness centre or restaurant, has no ethical claim on the manager of that facility to provide a man-free toilet. Equally, there is no moral basis for a law compelling gyms, health clubs, hotels, restaurants or schools, to provide man-free toilets.

That does not however invalidate the fears of feminists, or their political claims to separate space for women. Such claims would be politically valid, when made by any group or category.

The problem is that the feminist claims have been made at the wrong scale. The radical feminist who wants the local gym or restaurant to keep transgenders out of the women’s toilet, is insisting that its managers act as if they are radical feminists. There is no reasonable ground for that claim. The manager runs a specific facility, in some building or a specific part of some building, and the feminist is demanding a separate space within that facility. The feminist does not own the facility, nor manage it, nor is she a representatives of its users, nor a legislator. The claims can also be rejected on simple consequentialist grounds: many such claims are possible, and even a stadium is too small to accommodate them all.

If feminists want space for women, then they can create space for women. Certainly in western countries, cost is not the main barrier. Women are half the population, so even if only a minority want to use women-only facilities, there will generally be sufficient commercial demand. State-funded facilities such as schools can also be women-only, if there is sufficient demand. So the simple solution, for women who don’t want to share a locker room with men, is to open their own fitness centre, just for women.

Legal obstacles

The real barrier to rapid expansion of separate facilities is anti-discrimination law, which is standard in all western countries, often in compliance with international treaties. It is clear by now that anti-discrimination law is outdated, and in retrospect founded on false assumptions. It was intended to result in a society of equal citizens, with standardised behaviour toward other citizens. It did not allow for difference, relegating it to the private sphere.

The emotional controversy over trans women illustrates the persistence of difference. Even as some minorities disappear through integration and assimilation, new minorities will appear, with new claims to presence in the public sphere, and new resistance to that presence. Human beings will never get along with each other, because they have the capacity to be different from each other, and the capacity to hate each other.

Instead of trying to make us all respect each other, the state should simply facilitate voluntary segregation — not just for women, but for all other groups. Of course, segregation will sometimes be distasteful: there will be whites-only bars, and Jew-free neo-Nazi clubs, and taxis that refuse disabled people. However, so long as no-one is harmed, that is not a moral issue. A Jew is not harmed by being refused admission to a neo-Nazi club, no more than a neo-Nazi is harmed if a Jewish club won’t let them in. By facilitating segregation, the state is not ‘facilitating bigotry’ — it is simply recognising that the population is divided, and will remain divided.

Under a regime of voluntary segregation, no feminist will need to complain about men in the women’s toilets. The law would not need to set definitions either, and certainly not on the controversial issue of who is a woman. Women would make the definitions themselves. If they don’t agree, then that simply results in two definitions, and two groups of adherents, and two types of facility.

Feminist women would be entirely free to define ‘woman’ in biological terms, and to run bars, festivals, theatres, art galleries, gyms, health centres, schools, shops, and day care centres, for women so defined. If they wished, they could require medical examination to determine admission to these facilities. They could adopt a name for this group, such as ‘biological women’, or ‘biological females’ or ‘uterine females’, or they could use euphemisms such as “shared girlhood”. So long as the criteria are transparent, however, no specific name is needed to implement any form of segregation.

I proposed here earlier, that feminism is so incompatible with non-feminism, that a separate state for women is a political necessity. That would solve the transgender issue entirely — the new state would set its own citizenship criteria. However, feminist objections to transgender women do not in themselves require such drastic segregation. So far as I know, even the most radical western feminists do not want to exclude transgenders from public space. It is primarily a question of keeping them out of certain spaces, and that type of claim can be implemented, at a lower level than the state itself.