Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Gender-Neutral Accommodations and Unintended Consequences

A recent new policy directed at transgender teenagers has unleashed a firestorm of criticism within LGBTs and allies in the Religious Society of Friends. This significant backlash has been directed at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the oldest, largest, and most established group of Quakers on the East Coast. The controversial decision has been met with hostility by some and incredulity by others.

Liberal Friends were some of the first religious groups willing to designate gender-neutral spaces, which is what makes this decision so puzzling. It seems as though those who drafted this new language may have been seeking first to kill two birds with one stone, in place of a greater understanding of just what it was that they were doing.

What has made many upset is that the wording of this new policy is heavily disingenuous. Claiming it had listened closely to transgender concerns before making a decision, the committee reached a conclusion that shows profound ignorance. They certainly chose their words carefully, but even a casual reading reveals their real intent.

All participants will use the sleeping and bathroom arrangements in alignment with their biological sex. All bathroom, showers, sleeping and changing quarters will be clearly marked as “male” or “female.” In a facility with one bathroom, it is to be used by one gender at a time.

Changes to the existing policy now insist that everyone must share lodgings and bathrooms in accordance with a person's assigned at birth, biological gender. The planners must have failed to take into account even the most simplistic understanding of Transgender 101. Under their decree, those who have made considerable strides adjusting to their rightful gender would be forced back into an identity they deliberately rejected. It is difficult to believe that an otherwise progressive faith group could overlook a detail this elementary.

In setting the new policy, the leadership feigned one direction, but addressed instead a wholly separate issue entirely. Not designating bedrooms and bathrooms specifically for men or specifically for women had produced unintended consequences. Heterosexual teenagers were using the freedom of that arrangement to have sex. Bedrooms and bathrooms had been designated co-ed, making it remarkably easy for sexual relations to proceed without fear of being caught or disciplined. It is worth noting that this would be less a problem if the participants involved were legal adults, but here we are discussing the activity of minors.

One of the consequences of being part of a liberal faith group is often a hand's off attitude towards sexuality. Once they become of age, we want adolescents to understand their bodies and we also hope that they will use good decision making. We want them to think of themselves as healthy sexual beings, but wonder how much authority to use to keep them in line. The shame attached to sexual thoughts and sexual expression is commonplace within conservative religious doctrine. This is what we seek to avoid with our kids. In the end, we may take our permissiveness too far, especially when a few hormonal teenagers are consistent offenders at conferences and gatherings.

Rather than restrict the rights of transgender teenagers, a better strategy would be to find a more effective way to discourage sexual activity. Most people, of any age, follow the rules. When I was younger, some youth conferences I attended had an unwritten, but nonetheless understood hook up culture present. Other organizers made it plain that romantic and sexual relations had no place there, and I made sure to take note of it.

My personal opinion, which is really about fifteen years of hindsight, is that conference sex is the surest way to create totally counter-productive drama. The easiest method to introduce needless negativity and ruin everyone else's good time is to have private problems spill over into the larger meeting. Sexual conduct to a person of any age is emotionally intense. I speak from experience. Earlier in my life, I did not have had the same reservations in place that I do now.  

In the meantime, it might do each of us well if we were schooled about what it means to be transgender. Even better, talking to someone who is transgender would make the concept real for everyone. The committee who drafted this policy erred mainly from ignorance, which is what happens when planners don't address persistent problems with more than glancing blows. Quakers are many things, but institutionally, we are petrified of confrontation. In the future, I hope we all stiffen our spines and recognize that confrontation is necessary, even if it puts us outside our comfort zones.     

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