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America’s Profound Gender Anxiety

source: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/05/americas-profound-gender-anxiety/484856/

Outrage over transgender bathroom use is just the beginning of a long conflict over what it means to be men and women.

In April, the state of Mississippi did something unusual. It made the definition of man and woman a matter of law: “Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.”

The Magnolia state is not alone in grappling with the meaning of gender and sex. This spring, after North Carolina’s legislature ordered public agencies and local school boards to allow people to use only public bathrooms that correspond to their biological sex at birth, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it is suing the state. A similar bathroom bill was passed and vetoed earlier this spring in South Dakota. And the people of Washington will vote on a bathrooms ballot initiative in November.

America is experiencing a period of profound gender anxiety. Mainstream understandings of “gender” are changing, which may be why Mississippi legislators felt the need to codify concepts that have always seemed culturally implicit. Perhaps because the stakes are so basic, both sides tend to draw the other as caricatures: Those opposed to transgender bathroom rights are obvious bigots; those who support them want to allow “men in women’s bathrooms” and enable other predatory behavior.

Bigotry—fear or animus toward transgender people—is undoubtedly part of the outcry over bathrooms. But that’s not a sufficient explanation. To some Americans, maleness and femaleness is a basic, absolute part of what makes us human, a fact that undergirds their faith, sense of self, and daily life. To others, gender is mutable, ambiguous, and ultimately chosen.

American culture has been shifting in this direction for some time, pushed along by academic gender theorists, the sexual revolution, and the gay-rights movement. But even as feminists argued for decades that gender is socially constructed and multi-formed, and increasing numbers of people became open about being gay, lesbian, or bisexual, most Americans remained comfortable with the notion that some people are men and some people are women. All of a sudden, a different consensus seems to have emerged.

Culture can be selectively avoided, but the law cannot. Although some states have long protected transgender people’s access to public spaces, like bathrooms, those laws have been scattershot—roughly half the country does not have them. Until very recently, the federal government has not definitively protected transgender rights. Now, state governments that formerly did not concern themselves with these issues are being forced to confront them. And so are their people.

read more at: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/05/americas-profound-gender-anxiety/484856/