“When They Say No, People Won’t Listen”

How anti-trans conservatives turn left-wing rhetoric to their advantage.

Kaelly Triller.
Kaeley Triller in a scene from “The Unintended Victims of Bathroom Bills and Locker Room Policies.”

Alliance Defending Freedom

Last week, the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group at the forefront of the war over trans people and bathrooms, released a video titled “The Unintended Victims of Bathroom Bills and Locker Room Policies.” It features several female victims of rape and sexual abuse who say they are deeply shaken by the idea of sharing bathrooms or changing areas with people who have penises. “This has such devastating implications for people like me,” says Kaeley Triller, a former communications director at the YMCA who says she was fired after objecting to the organization’s trans-inclusive locker room policies. “The presence of a male of any variety, whether he’s somebody who identifies as trans or not, whether he has deviant motives or not, that’s irrelevant to the reality that for survivors of sexual trauma, to just turn around and be exposed to that is an instant trigger.”

The ADF’s video was the latest example of the right’s attempts to marshal the language of campus-style social justice politics, with its emphasis on victimization, trauma, and triggers. For example, conservatives have long cast doubt on statistics showing that as many as a fifth of women experience sexual assault in their lifetimes. But now groups like the ADF are using that same embattled figure to argue that vulnerable women must be protected from sharing bathrooms and locker rooms with trans women. The ADF’s website reads: “Advocacy groups report that, in the United States, nearly 1 in 5 women and nearly 1 in 8 high school girls have been sexually assaulted.* For many of them, the mere presence of a biological man in a women’s restroom is a trigger that causes severe emotional and mental harm—regardless of that man’s intentions.” The asterisk is there to distance the ADF from the statistic even as the group exploits it; a note at the bottom of the page says that the ADF “cannot vouch for [its] validity.”

Similarly, right-wing websites that usually sneer at the idea of rape culture earnestly invoke it when warning about bathroom predators. Last year, a piece in the Federalist asked, “Are dubious claims about ‘rape culture’ an attempt to create a scapegoat for the emotional dark side of promiscuity?” Yet when it comes to bathroom bills, the Federalist takes rape culture as seriously as an Oberlin gender studies major. “We women don’t need men telling us how to live or when and where our safety should be a priority,” said a recent Federalist piece about bathrooms. The piece aimed biting sarcasm toward men who dismiss anxiety about bathroom privacy: “Because concerned women are always just hysterical, aren’t they? Like rape victims—hysterical broads with no self-control.”

The “Unintended Victims” video even features a black trans woman, Jaqueline Sephora Andrews; before her death in April, Andrews was part of a small circle of so-called gender-critical trans women allied with radical feminists who are opposed to the presence of trans women in female-only spaces. Her presence in the video is further evidence of the anti-feminist ADF’s eagerness to borrow feminist rhetoric. “In a time when so many sexual assaults go unreported, we’re telling them that their boundaries don’t matter,” Andrews says of cisgender women who don’t want to share bathrooms with trans women. “When they say no, people won’t listen.”

Obviously, there’s bad faith at work here—if not among the sexual assault victims themselves, then certainly among the right-wing propagandists who solemnly invoke feminist ideas that they usually find risible. It’s a kind of high-level trolling meant to highlight contradictions in mainstream feminist discourse, not to build support for rape victims.

Those contradictions, however, are real. There’s no coherent ideology in which traumatized students have the right to be shielded from material that upsets them—be it Ovid, 9½ Weeks, or the sentiments of Laura Kipnis—but not from undressing in the presence of people with different genitalia. If we’ve decided that people have the right not to feel unsafe—as opposed to the right not to be unsafe—then what’s the standard for refusing that right to conservative sexual abuse victims? Is it simply that we don’t believe them when they describe the way their trauma manifests? Aren’t we supposed to believe victims no matter what?

Some radical feminists believe that these contradictions should make people on the left reconsider their commitment to trans rights. Certainly, creepy men can and probably will take advantage of trans-friendly bathroom laws to try to prey on women. Shortly after Washington state allowed trans people to use bathrooms and changing rooms that correspond with their gender identity, a man barged into the women’s locker room at a local pool, announcing, “The law has changed, and I have the right to be here.” (According to local news reports, it was unclear if he was protesting the law or just exploiting it.) These laws create a tiny but real risk for women. In the absence of such laws, however, trans people risk their safety every single time they use the bathroom. They are in more danger without these laws than cisgender women are with them.

The ease with which conservatives are able to appropriate social justice arguments should, however, make some on the left reconsider the politics of personal fragility. If claiming to feel triggered operates as a political trump card, conservatives are going to play it. Indeed, it is conservatives who have often championed victims’ rights, arguing that the rights of accused criminals matter less than the safety of the broader public. Conservatives, not liberals, have traditionally pressed for the right of people not to be confronted with ideas; images; or, yes, bodies that offend them. It’s not surprising that they’ve found it easy to adapt arguments premised on extreme female vulnerability to their own purposes. Those ideas always had a conservative streak to begin with.

So far, progressives have mostly responded to conservative complaints about opening up bathrooms to trans people by loudly insisting that trans bathroom predators are a myth. This elides the fact that we have no working definition of what differentiates a trans woman from a man claiming to be a woman for iniquitous ends. There are, in fact, instances of men who’ve donned drag to spy on women in bathrooms or assault them in female-only spaces such as homeless shelters. There may well be more. Those who want to defend laws on gender-inclusive bathroom access should have an argument besides incredulous denial.

Rather than engaging in a victimology arms race, they might ground their arguments in the language of civil liberties. Civil libertarians know that we don’t punish people as a group for the actions of individuals. They know that in a diverse, fractious, free country, sometimes other people are going to exercise their rights in a way that upsets or even scares you. And they know that protecting civil liberties sometimes means forgoing other kinds of protection. It would be easier for people on the left to make that argument now, though, if they hadn’t spent the past few years arguing the opposite.