The regrettable, but unsurprising, theme being expressed in the current debate over access to bathrooms for transgendered individuals on the part of social conservatives, is that the safety of transgendered individuals is less important than the safety of those who are cisgendered. The main argument for forcing transgendered individuals to use the bathroom of their birth assigned gender is to protect children and preserve privacy. Although, even if we avoid statistics that reveal the increased danger for transgendered individuals and assume that there is equal risk for both trans- and cisgendered people, the implicit position being taken is clear in its prejudice against those who are transgendered. Claims of interest in safety, privacy, or protection that arise only now, when transgendered folk are asking for equality, reveals the positions are not motivated by safety (children have always been at risk in public restrooms) as much as it is fear and misunderstanding. Those who oppose Obama’s directive , and this is important, consistently reduce a state, or condition of existence to a preference of, at best, identity play..at worst consciously aware predatory sexual perversion.
Perhaps it is odd drawing from 19th century Christian existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard to help make an argument that supports transgender equality. Although, my goal is not to convince those opposed to reverse their position, but rather, to suggest a more empathetic understanding of transgendered identities through an existential lens, which then might influence a shift in how they view the individual, free from the stigmas associated with identity politic “agendas.”
In his 1847 text The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard explores what he refers to as “despair,” which is a “sickness of the self.” It assumes three general forms: the despair of having a self, not wanting in despair to be oneself, and wanting in despair to be oneself — these forms of despair occur when one is unable to be one’s self authentically. He writes, “having a self, being a self, is the greatest…concession that has been made to man.” What does “authentic” mean in this context? Well, for Kierkegaard, it has to do with Christianity…but we do not need to go that far, because what transgendered individuals are being deprived of is a very explicit expression of their being that is directly associated with their authentic self, and expression that cisgendered individuals have never needed to give a second thought too. As such, it doesn’t even venture into metaphysical or spiritual oppression. It is in the material..the here and now. What is crucial for Kierkegaard’s diagnosis is that it recognizes despair is born from mis-relation within the dynamics of one’s self. Thus, on the one hand, he recognizes an essential self with which we are tasked to develop authentically, on the other hand he recognizes that the reason for despair is born from an inability to relate to one’s self authentically. To express the magnitude of psychological disruption that inheres within despair, Kierkegaard writes that the despairer is “mortally ill…yet he cannot die,” and further, “to be forced to be ‘self’ in a way that he doesn’t want to be — that is his torment.” This degree of dysphoria might sound hyperbolic, but it is echoed by Laura Jane Gracewhen she interviewed by Marc Maron.
What Kierkegaard understands, and what social conservatives are apparently incapable of recognizing, is that in order for the self to authentically develop, it must be allowed to relate to itself authentically..which of course includes a representation of self that is aligned with the type of person one truly feels they are. Thus, if we consider this framework and apply it to the current debate, it is quickly understood that what is being denied these individuals is the freedom so much of us take for granted — freedom to be one’s self. Because, again, one’s gender is not an ornament or an accessory, it defines who someone is, it defines one’s place in the social dynamic…it is extremely meaningful.