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Yes, Trans Bathrooms Represent Progress—That’s The Problem


President Obama recently said his administration’s directive that the nation’s public schools open both sexes’ bathrooms to transgender children came in response to school districts that contacted his Education Department for guidance.

This scenario contains multiple wrongs, but three are prominent. One is that school districts could not solve this problem on the basis of common decency or, failing that, common sense. The second is that when they dialed 911, the phone rang at the Education Department, which responded with a uniform national policy rather than allowing local experimentation, especially in the absence of any federal law.

The third is that all this is bunk. Everyone knows this issue was crowbarred onto the national agenda. The only question, given the fractions of fractions whom it affects—at least the fractions of fractions it affected before everyone’s bathrooms and locker rooms were involved—is why. The reason is progress. Those with an infinite appetite for it were running out of issues.

That is not to say all progress had been made or cemented. But quite a lot had been, and what has not, in terms of civil rights, pertains largely to ideals unrealized, not unrecognized. Yet progress does not work that way. It is never satiated. It goes looking for ever smaller perfections, and when it cannot find ills, it invents them. This brings us to the central issue: In the conversation over transgender access to public bathrooms, progress is most fundamentally at stake.

The Left’s Movement from Science to Faith

To those with a fixed and skeptical view of human nature, it is obvious that allowing men unfettered access to women’s bathrooms and locker rooms based on gender identities that are self-selected and fluid by the hour is an invitation to abuse. To those who believe human nature is progressive and perfectible, such concerns are matters of “ignorance.”

This charge of ignorance is itself a sleight-of-hand by which the concern is reversed and turned back on transgender people—as here—to make those who harbor it look like fearful bigots. Yet the concern is not that transgendered people are going to commit abuse, it is that abusers are going to pose as transgendered people and commit abuse and there will be no grounds on which to inhibit them. Only a supreme optimist about human nature would be unable to foresee this possibility.

This brings us to the heart of the matter, and the heart of the capital-P Progressive mentality: an unrelenting faith in humanity’s progress toward a postlapsarian state in which the sexual abuse that many of the same activists tell us is ubiquitous in other contexts is unthinkable is in this one. On the campuses, predators lie in wait, but undress without worry in the locker rooms. Who would go there with ill intent?

Call this the New Progressivism. It shares with the old a belief in society’s evolution but breaks with what was at least its purported rootedness in science. This faith in evolution beyond evil and this rejection of a fixed and fallen conception of human nature constitute the essence of the New Progressivism and are the fundamental distinction the bathroom debate reveals.

People Will Stop Doing Evil Because We Want Them To

The question is not the particular prevalence of prowling in bathrooms today: Bathrooms are not yet widely open at will to the opposite sex based on self-declaration. This is not a question of social science, it is one of human nature. Are human beings inclined to evil in general, and are there particularly evil human beings who, if impulse meets opportunity—and the administration’s bathroom edict certainly facilitates that meeting—will commit particular evils?

To answer that question “yes” is now to be marked as “ignorant.” The descriptor is significant. It is a nearly clinical, almost sympathetic, designation. It denotes one who has not yet made the intellectual progress others have.

Yet progress toward what? This is not progress toward a purportedly better economic or social state. It is not even progress toward liberation from sexual mores. At its core, the dismissal of the concern about abuse and the street-hustler tricks by which it is displaced are about progress beyond sin itself.

The New Progressivism is not the same as liberalism. There is a long and noble tradition of liberalism that accepts the concepts of limitation associated with a fixed human nature yet wants government to play a more assertive role in economic amelioration than conservatives prefer. Fair enough; debate can ensue. But the fact that the brand “progressive” has over taken the label of “liberal” in contemporary conversation is significant. Where the liberal wants amelioration, the New Progressive demands transformation.

It’s Not that It’s Evil, But Dated

The New Progressivism is so wrapped up in its language of liberation that it cannot see—or, likelier, does not care—that the rights it demands for some trigger invocations of competing rights by others. The right of an anatomical man to use a women’s bathroom conflicts, for instance, with the right of a woman not to expose her anatomy to him. To the progressive, it is the right of the transgender person in this situation to be liberated and the duty of the woman to conform.

The refusal to conform, to get with the program, is fundamentally a refusal to see that society has progressed. Thus the reprehensible comparisons of opposition to mixed-sex bathrooms with opposition to integrated bathrooms in the Jim Crow era: The idea is not just to shame, but to shame in a particular way, by means of association with the outdated. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, suing North Carolina over its bathroom law, consequently declared:

Instead of turning away from our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, let us instead learn from our history and avoid repeating the mistakes of our past. Let us reflect on the obvious but often neglected lesson that state-sanctioned discrimination never looks good in hindsight.

Note that locution: Those whose view of human nature is fixed and skeptical are associated with the “past”; because progress will proceed apace, they will be evaluated in “hindsight.” How might matters look if we accepted that certain things stand still? These include that there are men who prey on women, that modesty (including concealing anatomical parts from those who do not have the same ones) is a virtue, and that human beings have the capacity for good but the propensity to err.

Taken together, these sound very much like humility. Here emerges the most basic distinction between the New Progressivism and its critics. Progressivism attacks something as fundamental and universally accepted as that men are men and women are women—not that they have separate roles or immutably distinct characteristics or even that they must be attracted to the opposite sex, but simply that they are different, that those differences are rooted in objective reality, and that they are not interchangeable. The suggestion that all this not only can but must change at the instigation of a single generation, at a breathtaking velocity, is the very mark of pride.

Often, it goes before falls. There is a lot of talk about the crackup of the Republican Party today. We may be reaching peak progressivism too, approaching an unraveling as change after larger change is stacked one atop the other at an accelerating speed in a Babel that simply cannot support its own weight. The idea that it would never occur to a deviant man to exploit an open invitation to a woman’s bathroom may be the last absurdity that brings the tower down.