Trump’s Transgender Military Ban and Lessons from a Lifetime of Gender-Policing.

Gender classification is omnipresent in the culture. When it becomes official policy, there are grave consequences.

Last week, I was in a bathroom in a café in Miami Beach. The café had two separate bathrooms, each with a toilet, a sink, and a locking door. One was marked "Women" and the other "Men." I went into the women's room, as I usually do. I overheard a conversation on the other side of the door.

"There is a guy in there," a male voice was saying.

"I can't believe it!" a female voice responded.

"Yeah, he just marched right in. I was standing here waiting and I saw him go in."

"It's not like it's not clearly marked," the woman said. "It says 'Women' right here!"

The conversation continued as I washed and dried my hands. I braced myself for The Exit.

It was my fifty-second birthday. I have been dealing with bathroom exits and entrances for nearly half a century. My gender presentation has been at variance with my biological sex for most of my life. When I was a little kid, I wore boys' clothes and insisted on being called a boy's name. When I became an adult, I was butch, or boyish, or both, and, now that I'm in my fifties and younger people have made up a name for it, I call myself nonbinary. "Nonbinary" is not something most people—at least most people who don't live in certain areas of New York City and a few other global metropolises—are comfortable perceiving. Through the decades, my experience of exits and entrances has changed little.Last week, I was in a bathroom in a café in Miami Beach. The café had two separate bathrooms, each with a toilet, a sink, and a locking door. One was marked "Women" and the other "Men." I went into the women's room, as I usually do. I overheard a conversation on the other side of the door.

"There is a guy in there," a male voice was saying.

"I can't believe it!" a female voice responded.

"Yeah, he just marched right in. I was standing here waiting and I saw him go in."

"It's not like it's not clearly marked," the woman said. "It says 'Women' right here!"

The conversation continued as I washed and dried my hands. I braced myself for The Exit.

It was my fifty-second birthday. I have been dealing with bathroom exits and entrances for nearly half a century. My gender presentation has been at variance with my biological sex for most of my life. When I was a little kid, I wore boys' clothes and insisted on being called a boy's name. When I became an adult, I was butch, or boyish, or both, and, now that I'm in my fifties and younger people have made up a name for it, I call myself nonbinary. "Nonbinary" is not something most people—at least most people who don't live in certain areas of New York City and a few other global metropolises—are comfortable perceiving. Through the decades, my experience of exits and entrances has changed little.There are other kinds of exits and entrances, too.

There was the time, in the mid-nineties, when I was reporting on conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and couldn't get a Macedonian visa because the consular officer took exception to the gender marked in my passport ("female").

There was the time, later in that decade, when I missed my flight home because security agents at Heathrow couldn't decide which of them should pat me down: the male officer or the female one. I did try to tell them that I was female. I also tried to tell them that I didn't care who patted me down. (Why should I?) But, even on a scale this trivial, self-determination in the area of gender is rarely an option.

These days, perhaps thirty per cent of the time, I am stopped for a pat-down by T.S.A. agents because the scanner has produced an anomalous result. These airport scanners have "male" and "female" modes, and the attending T.S.A. agents select which one to use when you enter the cylinder. If the scanner doesn't perceive what it expects to perceive, it sounds an alarm. I can't imagine what kind of security threat my absent penis could present, but it apparently warrants inspection.

With the exception of a missed trip or two, and the occasional threat of violence—oh, and the time a Russian policeman detained me because he thought I was a teen-age boy using a woman's driver's license—these experiences have been no more than a nuisance. Last week, I got a ticket for improper sorting of recyclables. The ticket had a line marked "gender," and the issuing officer wrote "unknown"—apparently the officer couldn't gender my recyclables any more than most people can gender me. This was more amusing than annoying, but it also served as a reminder of the omnipresence of gender classification.

When I was growing up, in the Soviet Union, every document—identity papers, personnel files, student records, police reports, application forms of every kind—contained the category of ethnicity. Mine said "Jewish," a characteristic as physical and immutable in the eyes of Soviet law and Russian culture as gender is in most of the contemporary United States. In the late nineties, years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when I was working as a writer at a liberal news magazine in Moscow, I objected to the human-resources department's use of old Soviet forms that asked for an ethnicity. The H.R. staff couldn't understand my objections. Why would I not want to list my ethnicity? "We won't tell anyone," one of them promised, trying to be helpful. My efforts to explain to Americans why I don't believe that documents should list a person's gender have generally been just as futile.

My lifetime of encounters with people who want to categorize my gender is evidence of the relentlessness of gender-policing, and of how many people—from T.S.A. officers to six-year-old girls—believe they must engage in it. As is generally true of all kinds of gratuitous policing, a wealthy white person like me is likely to experience it as little more than bothersome background noise.

Over the weekend, the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin admonished newly elected Democratic members of Congress to "stop acting like young people" and to let go of small, inconsequential issues like "transgender bathrooms." Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's perfectly tuned response was to help raise money for a charity that benefits trans kids. She also tweeted, "We wouldn't need to talk about bathrooms at all if we acted like adults, washed our hands and minded our own business instead of trying to clock others."

Then, on Tuesday, the Supreme Court granted stays of preliminary injunctions against President Trump's order banning transgender people from serving in the military. The Supreme Court decision was, in many ways, a quintessential Trump moment: a policy made by tweet, apparently on impulse, is now one step closer to concrete implementation. The military is this country's largest single employer of transgender people, but under this policy transgender people joining the military would be allowed to serve only if they are willing to do so "in their biological sex." This is an example of gender policing as gratuitous as what I have been encountering in bathrooms the world over for decades, but with grave impact—as a result of the ban, thousands of transgender people would lose access to employment and health care.

Tyrants, or aspiring tyrants like Trump, assert power by exerting control over people's lives merely because they can. Trump particularly favors measures that are explicitly cruel and carry significant financial penalties. In Trump's America and elsewhere, anyone who appears to depart from the gender binary is instantly cast as a suspect, but the ability to shrug off this suspicion is heavily contingent on one's skin color, bank account, and geographic fortune. Even those who are not affected by the Supreme Court decision have been reminded once again that our rights can be taken away at any time, on a whim—that the widespread impulse toward gender-policing has the force of the highest branches of government behind it.

###

January 28, 2019

Post Script. The National Book Award winner Masha Gessen wrote this: "Gender classification is omnipresent in the culture. When it becomes official policy, there are grave consequences." Read & Learn. Share too. BTW, I am once again blocked from sharing on FB.Help me out. Share this! #StopTransgenderBan

Show Comments ()

SUBSCRIBE TO VOICES4AMERICA #IMWITHHER

Follow Us On