Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Identity and Reality

There is a famous adage made even more famous by Star Trek: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one." Many take this to be incontrovertible. Morally, most agree that it is better to, for instance, save the lives of five people rather than to save one, given the choice.

Of course, given circumstances, if I had to choose between saving one of my sons or five other people, I know that I would save my son. Is that right? Maybe not. Maybe many people would say that is a selfish decision. Selfish or not, I know what I would do. All this goes to prove is that sometimes instinct -- especially the paternal instinct -- drives us harder than social morality does.

Regardless, I would argue that the adage above is, at least logically and ethically, pretty true. If I were a fire chief, I would hesitate to send fifteen of my firefighters into an out-of-control inferno in order to save one man who was probably doomed. (Of course, if I were a fireman and the person inside were, say, a small child, my instincts might -- as they have done for many a heroic fireman -- send me headlong into the blaze, regardless of orders...)

So, it is clear that the idea of the many being more important than the one does have its "hinge," so to speak. Nevertheless, because it has become a generally accepted adage, many people who are in the extreme minority have been (sometimes unbeknownst to the rest of society) pushed to the fringes of social existence. We seem to have, in the past, adopted the notion (unconsciously) that those who are different are inconsequential; even (and this is a conscious thing, when it happens) loathsome.

Recently, we started lauding sensitivity toward those who do not fit the mold of what it ordinary --which is an unqualified good thing. No one should have to feel worthless or completely outcast, or, at worst, depressed and/or suicidal... But, have we lost the valuable anchor of the old adage? Have we begun acting as if the needs of the "one" outweigh the needs of the many? Are we overcompensating? Has the pendulum swung too far?

I recently heard a news report, on NPR, of a school situation in Illinois, in which U.S. Department of Education has decided that a district:

...is violating the rights of a student who identifies as female by not allowing her unrestricted use of the girls' locker room. The district now has a month to change its policy or risk losing millions of federal dollars. 

One study indicates that 0.3 percent of the total population are transgender. Other studies seem to fall in a similar range. (These studies are of adults, but, it gives us, at least, a sense of the range.) 

With this in mind -- with this tiny percentage -- how far should we go to make transgender folks feel comfortable? Is it discrimination to tell a person who was born male that he needs to change in a private room rather than among young women? That he can't play on a girls' team?

Is it okay just to say: If you are uncomfortable changing clothes in front of boys/girls, then use the bathroom to change? Is it okay to say that, because you are physically male, you need to play on male teams (for gender-divided sports)? 

I think the number of girls who would be made uncomfortable by a biological male having "unrestricted use of the girls' locker room" is much greater than the number of those who might be comfortable with it. I admit it: this is me guessing. I think it is a reasonable guess, though. (Anecdotally, in discussion with a class of high school seniors, of mine, not one girl said she would be comfortable with a biological male changing in the girls' locker room.)

I also believe that every human deserves respect, friendship, love and dignity: gay, straight, transgender, Muslim, Catholic, Jew, disabled, etc.  I do not, however, think every human always deserves for the circumstances to be changed in order to make him or her feel comfortable; therefore, I think it is okay for a boy who identifies as a girl to have to change in the bathroom. I really do. I don't think, however, that that boy needs to be tortured as a result of his sexual identification. If a reader thinks that making that boy change in a bathroom is torture, we must agree to disagree. 

We all want to fit into society, somewhere, but it is equally important to embrace our own differences. In doing so, one must, it seems to me, accept certain levels of inconvenience (and, perhaps, even, some pain) as a result. Maybe it is okay for a boy who identifies as female to have to deal with changing in the bathroom until he is able to (or decides to) make the physical transition. 

In the end, it amounts to a question: How much do we change for a group that is at an (estimated) 0.3% of our population? I would truly love for every person to be happy, but we all know that can never be. We have come very far and I hope we will go farther, but perfect social harmony is impossible. 

We have proven that society's attitudes can change. Only a few decades ago, interracial marriage was a real issue of contention. Now gay marriage is legal and homosexuality (though still not "mainstream" in its overall acceptance) is no longer a life relegated to the shadows. These things resulted from a change in ideology; from a wider acceptance on both a personal and social level. 

To me, though, simply shoehorning someone into "the norm" is not real acceptance. To that boy who identifies as a girl, I would say: "I don't want you to change in the same room as my daughter. Sorry. I do, however, want you to know that this does not mean I don't value you as a human being. You are welcome to eat at my house and be friends with my kids, but, if you are uncomfortable in the boys' locker room, I'd rather you change in private than undress in front high school girls. Unlimited access to whatever you want can be an infringement on the rights of others. If it comes down to an infringement on the rights of 0.3% of the population, I will err on the side of the majority, as long as the majority treats you with sensitivity and respect."

This is, of course, attack-able. I know it full well. It's easy for someone to say that what I said above contradicts the notion that I value the person in question as a human. Again, I simply disagree. I think, at some point, the comfort of the many needs to outweigh the comfort of the one...as long as the one is safe and is treated with civility. 

Another possible counterpoint to this is that I am downgrading by using words like "comfortable" and "convenient" and "inconvenient" -- that a transgender boy having to change separate from all of the other kids is more than an "inconvenience." If humans treat each other well, though, these words are really all it would come down to if a transgender boy had to change in a bathroom. If the reality is that kids would give him a hard time, then insensitive parenting is to blame...which seems always to be at the base of every problem.

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