Debates over North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” and Target’s policy of allowing men and women to use a restroom that doesn’t match their biological sex, but comports instead with their gender identity, have flooded social media lately. Often, if Catholics get into the debate at all, there is a tendency to be heavy handed and dismissive of the entire issue. I don’t want to pretend that the just and moral thing to do is completely pretend like there are no transgender people in the world, or to call them hurtful names. But I also don’t think it’s the right move to sit silently on the sidelines.
Instead, I want to address the issue from a slightly different perspective than I’ve seen others do. That is, how can the Catholic idea of the near occasion of sin bring light to the debate?
One of the arguments I’ve seen many people make is that anyone who believes that restrooms ought to be reserved for biological males and biological females must be either ignorant of the plight of those who struggle with their gender identity, or just plain mean-spirited. Some have even claimed that the creation or designation of single-use facilities as a compromise, or other similar solutions to the issue, is fundamentally an act of discrimination aimed at causing harm to transgender individuals.
At the outset, let me be clear about a couple of issues: I recognize that those who struggle with gender or body dysmorphia have to be given dignified treatment, and they must be given, above all, compassion and mercy. They should not become a political football to be wrested from one group to another in a race to win an argument.
Further, I do not have even the slightest belief that transgender people are inherently sexually perverted individuals who pose a great threat to public safety. I want to be clear that it is precisely my contention that the real issue, as far as safety goes, comes from people who are not truly wrestling with their gender identity, but who may abuse the new legal rulings.
Now, let’s recall the concept of the near occasion of sin. In confession, Catholics traditionally promise during their act of contrition that they will avoid not just sin in the future, but even the near occasion of sin. This means while we recognize that sinful acts are the real enemy, we can do a lot of good for ourselves by avoiding circumstances or situations in which we are more likely to sin. In other words, our concern for sin ought to extend beyond the moment of committing an offense against God. We should put up our defenses sooner. Thus if you have a tendency to drive dangerously fast, leaving earlier would be good plan. If you’re an alcoholic, certainly you should refrain from drinking, but you also ought not to hang out in bars or have alcohol in your home if you live alone.
Now, what is the connection between the gendered division of restrooms and the near occasion of sin? Many people have expressed concerns about safety for women and children in restrooms. The most frequent argument is that men who do not truly identify as women will use the new legal coverage to enter women’s restrooms in order to assault vulnerable women.
Consider, for a moment, that there already are sexual assaults and other violations of privacy in restrooms due to sexual predators of various sorts. Given this fact, I think it’s right to believe that a legal protection for a biological male to be in the women’s restroom may be just enough of a confidence booster to lead some male sexual predators to wander into a space that they perhaps may have otherwise stayed away from due to concerns about being caught.
What’s most difficult about the legal argument is that it refers to gender identity as being the decisive factor. While I do acknowledge the reality of people who struggle with their gender identity, trying to base a wide-ranging public law on gender identity is very tricky because there aren’t clear objective criteria for verifying whether someone really has a gender identity issue, or whether they’re merely trying to gain access to an area (restroom, sports team, locker room, etc.) that they would otherwise be prohibited from.
The concept, then, of the near occasion of sin, provides a helpful lens to analyze this issue. If, as is well-known, restrooms are already the site of mostly males assaulting females, and if sexual predators find comfort in the law allowing them to be present in a restroom previously reserved for women, there’s good reason to suspect that it may push a few more over the edge. And while the number of women suffering sexual assaults is already too high, ought not we have some concern for the prospect that it could be even higher?
Of course, there’s no guarantee that any law will ever prevent anyone from breaking it. But we don’t thereby forget about making laws. Instead we still insist on the need for laws for public safety, and try to enforce them as best as we can. I’m inclined to agree that the push to make explicit laws about the use of restrooms may be unnecessary. As Ryan T. Anderson has argued, society generally got by with a live and let live policy in this area. However, the time for localized solutions or live and let live is now being pressed out of the conversation. Political activism is causing a new fight in this area.
I’m not sure there’s a clear way forward in this argument, but in any event, we ought all to pray for justice, and also for safety.