Alexandra Erin is an independent author and commentator. If you gain anything from her writing, you can help support it on Patreon (http://www.patreon.com/alexandraerin) or PayPal (http://www.paypal.me/alexandraerin).
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In an editorial about “identity liberalism” published in The New York Times, Mark Lilla joined the throng of pundits to lay out his case for eschewing identity politics in favor of focusing on universal issues that affect most Americans. He wasn’t the first to take this tack, even just post-election, and he certainly has not been the last, but he’s still a pretty good representative example.
To back up his premise, he wrote that “America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.” In doing so, he illustrated both his own ignorance of the issue of bathroom laws and the flaw in the premise that we can find a way forward by ignoring differences in favor of assumed commonalities.
He said “liberals,” but the group whose bathroom usage has been made into fodder for public discourse is the transgender community, most particularly trans women such as myself. I suppose it would not do for Mr. Lilla to mention us by name, as suggesting that a conversation affects any group of people more specific than “liberal” runs counter to his message.
Well, let that go.
Liberals should focus on the problems faced by a majority of Americans? He’s not alone in thinking that. America is sick of hearing about our bathrooms, he says? He’s not alone in thinking that, either. His statement was a paraphrase of something said by Bernie Sanders, who, I have been told, was “just saying what everybody is thinking.”
Well, Americans who are transgender are part of America, and we’re certainly part of everybody. I would ask the critics of identity politics if they imagine we in the transgender communities are as sick of hearing about bathroom issues as they are, but the surprising answer is: we are.
Frankly, we’re not just sick of hearing about it. We’re sick of talking about it. We wish the whole topic could just be dropped safely and we could get on with our lives. It’s neither us in particular nor “liberals” more generally who made this an issue, but conservative culture warriors who decided to spark a panic about something that has been going on for as long as gendered public restrooms have existed, and who then used that panic to pass laws that do far more than merely inconvenience us.
It should go without saying, but the need to urinate is the end result of a natural biological process that happens even to the very best of us, often at the very worst of times. “Bathroom Bills” that serve to prevent trans people from having anywhere to urinate safely while in public impedes our ability to exist in public, which in turn constrains our ability to exist.
If you are sick of hearing about our bathrooms, I would invite you to imagine how hard it would be to conduct your daily business if the only safe bathroom available to you were in your own home. Outside of that, you would have to constantly choose between two dangers: the danger of being assaulted with potentially murderous force, or the danger of being arrested and brutalized by police and other inmates (and assaulted with potentially murderous force.)
The danger would be clear, but the choice wouldn’t always be so, as it would be up to the eye of the beholder of any self-appointed bathroom vigilante to decide which category you fit into, whether you were in the right room or the wrong one, and the answer would be more subjective than you imagine it to be.
For my own safety and survival, I avoid public restrooms whenever I can, just so I don’t have to make the choice. A few years back, earlier in my transition, I had to make that call while I was in an airport in a Midwestern state, one of those “real American” places that coastal elites are supposed to show empathy for.
What I thought of as my security theater costume back then was basically androgynous. I didn’t want to stand out, and didn’t want my appearance to contradict my official paperwork. When bad timing meant I had to use the gendered restrooms in the airport rather than a single-occupancy on an airplane, I had to make up my mind. Being less than one hundred percent sure I would be perceived as the woman I am if I used the correct bathroom, I decided to take what I figured to be the lesser risk at that moment of using the men’s room.
I didn’t make it in the doorway before a hand hit my shoulder. It was a woman whose husband had just walked into the bathroom ahead of me. She thought I was going into the wrong bathroom, and she was really determined to stop me. Vocally. Physically. Her tone was not friendly or helpful. I’m not sure why she was so vehement about it, but this just shows how emotionally charged the whole thing is for cis people.
It also shows that trans women can’t really win in a world where cis people want our bathroom use to be a national debate.
If you’re not trans, try to imagine a life where it’s more comfortable and convenient to use an airplane bathroom than an airport one, where if you can’t find a unisex single-occupancy restroom, you’re just out of luck.
How do you hold a job outside the home under those circumstances? How do you plan shopping trips? How do you go see a movie or take your kids to the park?
To put it very bluntly and very simply: the right to pee is the right to be.
The effect of laws such as North Carolina’s infamous HB 2—their very purpose—is to legislate trans people away, to make our existence unmanageable. It doesn’t just keep us out of bathrooms, it keeps us out of life, and eventually, out of living.
We don’t talk about bathrooms because we enjoy it or because we want the rest of the nation to talk about them with us. We talk about them because if we let those who oppose our very existence have the only say, we’re done for.
Now, this problem, however pressing it may be, does not fit the proposed rubric of one that is “faced by a majority of Americans.”
Most life-and-death problems don’t.
The petty complaints of life might be universal or nearly so. No one who stubs a toe enjoys it very much. No one likes being stuck in line at the grocery store behind someone who won’t get off the phone long enough to pay and move on.
But we don’t all have to worry about some politician deciding to start a national conversation about whether we should be allowed to do our biologically necessary business in a relatively private place and then get on with our lives, the way other Americans do without a second thought.
Similarly, we don’t all have to worry about being targeted disproportionately for “random” searches, “routine” stops, or lethal and arbitrary violence by uniformed authorities. We don’t all have to worry about what changes in immigration policy will mean for our friends and families.
The majority of problems, real problems, faced by the majority of Americans are not universal. A political party or movement that insists on focusing only on “universals” inevitably ignores the real issues that face most Americans.
This not only leaves serious problems to fester unchecked, but it prioritizes the problems of those who have few or no unique problems: the people who don’t face a national debate over being allowed to perform necessary biological functions, the people who don’t face systemic violence or institutional discrimination, the people whose fundamental rights aren’t treated as a matter for debate.
The case being made to American liberals since the election is being made a lot of different ways. Some people phrase it in terms of “not pandering to special interest groups.” Some people talk about “real Americans.” Mr. Lilla uses the term “universal.” Whatever the speaker means to say,it all comes down to the same thing in effect.
The Republican Party achieved great success in the last election in part by choosing to focus on the concerns that are coded in our consciousness as “universal” (the problems of straight, white, Christian Americans) over and above the problems unique to those who are coded as “special interest groups.” Many commentators on the left, right, and middle have suggested that we should be doing the same.
As great as their electoral success was, though, the right-wing still lost the popular vote and had to rely on coordinated campaigns of voter suppression and a last-minute boost from the FBI to put them over the top, because the demographic whose concerns are dubbed “universal” is shrinking in proportion to the general population.
The way forward for the left is not to focus on trying to win by competing for the same shrinking pool of votes which the Republicans have decided should count for the most, but to try to understand and address the specific—not universal—problems of most Americans.
If the anti-“Identitarians” are not persuaded, perhaps they should consider: restrictive voter ID laws tailored against Democrat-leaning demographics, polling place closures that restrict access to the polls in Black communities, and voter intimidation campaigns tailored at Latino communities do not fit the definition of “problems faced by a majority of Americans,” but they are nevertheless problems the nation’s liberals must confront and overcome in order to forestall a permanent conservative victory.
Appeals to a surprisingly narrow “universal” prevent us from naming the worst of the problems that afflict most Americans. What we cannot name, we cannot fight. Refusing to name a problem and refusing to fight it might spare the rest of America the pain of hearing about it, but it won’t fix anything and it won’t win elections.