I can’t claim to have followed the issue of transgender washrooms closely. But as I understand the topic, it concerns the rights of people who have a gender identity that contrasts with their biological gender to have access to the public washrooms which correspond with their self-understanding rather than their birth-gender.
In recent months the debate over transgender washrooms appears to have moved to the frontline of the “culture war” with advocates seeing it as a human rights issue and detractors dismissing it as another example of the subversive deconstruction of biological reality coupled with social engineering gone awry.
When it comes to deeply controverted topics like this, the salient question arises: what role should experience play in forming our perspectives on the ethics and social policy dimensions of an issue like transgender washrooms? Put more generally, when should concrete reality force the revision of abstract principles?
These questions came to the foreground for me the other day when I read the following article at Slate: “South Dakota Governor Vetoes Bathroom Bill After Meeting Actual Trans People.” Here is a practical distillation of that core question. Should we allow the personal narratives of real people to revise our general convictions about transgender people accessing their preferred washroom?
Consider some other examples:
- We read the words of Jesus that any person who divorces for anything other than marital unfaithfulness and then remarries is an adulterer. And then our best friend’s marriage tumbles into divorce for something other than marital unfaithfulness and now, three years later, he/she is considering entering the world of dating again.
- We insist that we are pacifists and we decry war and military intervention the world over. Then we learn of a genocide unfolding in a far flung region of the world and must contemplate support for military intervention to stall the slaughter.
- We decry abortion under any circumstances save the life of the mother. Then we learn of a psychologically shattered fifteen year old pregnant with her father’s child.
When we encounter these new situations in all their distressing concrete particularity, do we retain our unshakeable moral principles in all their austere inviolability or do we begin to whittle them down with nuance and qualification?