I’ve known several transgender people over the years. Some have been casual and professional acquaintances — others I’ve known very closely indeed.
I’ve thought about them all in a new way as America has recently explored yet another new multicultural frontier.
None of these individuals’ stories is mine to tell, so I must be vague. Besides, knowing a transgender person doesn’t mean one really understands their situation, or has any wisdom to share about its causes or its meaning.
But I can share a conviction — which has grown from these relationships — with social and cultural conservatives who are distressed, or at least discombobulated, by the latest shock-and-awe bombardment in America’s unending culture war.
It’s the simplest possible conviction that sometimes gender misalignments really do happen, and sometimes they really can be corrected, allowing a person to find peace he or she never knew before, and to lead a life as decent and “normal” — if not quite as simple — as anyone else’s.
That said, while we implore those with traditionalist sensibilities to find compassion for those who are transgender, a touch of patience and understanding might also be in order for those to whom the transgender-rights movement, and especially the restroom revolution of 2016, may feel like piling on.
We are in a stretch of rapids in the stream of social change. Just the other day, after all, in about half a generation, same-sex marriage went from inspiring punch lines (and punches) to being the nationwide law of the land — a basic human liberty all right-minded persons are now convinced they always believed in.
Polygamy has made it to reality TV and the federal appeals courts — so who dares wager it is far behind?
And now we learn that not only can the community no longer define marriage as an estate into which only one man and one woman can enter — but it can no longer even specify the lavatory into which men and women may enter. (And suddenly only heartless bigots would dream of such “discrimination.”)
One slips into a smart-alecky tone not because this matter is frivolous, but because it’s challenging to convey how basic an expectation is being abruptly overthrown here. Men and women using separate public restrooms is simply not the sort of exotic custom most of us ever imagined having to defend — or even to much think about.
This probably explains why opponents of policies that allow transgender people to use restrooms fitting their “identity” gender have resorted to (and presumably convinced themselves of) far-fetched worries that somehow free choice in this arena raises a new risk of predators committing sex crimes in public bathrooms.
Really? Security at restroom doors has long been hit-or-miss in my experience. Criminals have long had easy access, if they wanted it.
Old-fashioned restroom rules weren’t about safety, but about privacy and modesty — a customary arrangement to make people a little more comfortable while tending to an awkward necessity among strangers.
As simple and important as that.
Doubtless it’s true, as advocates of new policies note, that we’ve all shared restrooms unawares with transgender folks for years — and because unawares, without discomfort. It seems to be school and youth-athletics situations, where young people are “transitioning” before one another’s eyes and seeking acceptance of new identities, that have brought these issues to a painful point.
Instant “enlightenment” and unanimity of feeling is too much to expect. Pragmatic arrangements rooted in genuinely mutual respect and tolerance should not be.
Maybe I’ve merely tied myself in a knot on the issue. But there’s a lot of that going on in America today. We sometimes seem embarked on a fascinating but harrowing experiment to discover just how “diverse,” how atomized and liberated a society can become and still remain a functional “society” — one with enough of a common vision of the good life to endure true hardship when it comes and resist enemies more single-minded than we.
Freedom, of course — pluralism — is America’s distinctive unifying idea. But isn’t every human society, every culture, at some level, a community of people who share elementary ideas about how life should be lived — often beginning with practices concerning the body, sex, marriage, parenthood and other basics? Can it all be up for grabs, up for debate, and just a matter of individual preference, all the time?
Just a few weeks ago, the shorthanded and temporarily gridlocked U.S. Supreme Court threw up its hands, unable for the moment even to decide whether the government, under Obamacare, can compel religious employers to provide insurance to cover contraceptives for their employees.
The court’s paralysis, even if temporary, is symbolic of a whole culture tied in knots. Beyond the vast, earthy realm of sex, gender and family, thorny issues from gun control, to the role of religion, to free speech (on campus and beyond), to regulation of workplace benefits, to which holidays we celebrate and how, and on and on reveal a deepening disability in balancing the community’s need to define some norms, standards and values with the ever more insistent claims of modern individualism.
We will need all the patience, forbearance and good humor we can muster as we boldly go where perhaps no culture has gone before.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.