Bioethics Blogs

What’s Behind Gender Panic in the Restroom?

North Carolina recently adopted a statute that requires people to use public restrooms consistent with the sex assigned to them at birth, and other jurisdictions are debating similar proposals. Legislators in Kansas have proposed a bill that would require financial compensation to people who encounter people using restrooms that do not reflect the sex assigned to them at birth. To avoid those outlays, the operators of those restrooms and locker rooms will have to monitor the premises closely.

In fact, a lot of gender policing already goes on in public restrooms. Both men and women face hostility when they don’t seem qualified to use a particular lavatory because of their appearance. “Excuse me,” the gender police will say, “but this is a ladies’ room” or “the men’s room,” as the case may be. Sometimes, the remarks are cruder, more direct, or laced with threats, but states considering restroom and locker room restrictions are not usually worried about protecting people with atypical gender expression. They worry more about danger at the hands of those people, or at least they say they do.

These legal efforts involve no small amount of posturing. Even the states moving to restrict access to rest rooms and locker rooms acknowledge the need for fluidity in sex classifications. They admit as much when they allow people to change the classification of sex assigned to them at birth. There’s a social contradiction in both permitting this kind of change and also obstructing its effects. In effect these states are saying, “Yes, you may change your sex as known to the state.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.