The Metaphysics of the Bathroom

What accounts for the prominence of the issue of transgenderism and the passions that it ignites?

Tempers are running high over the transgender bathroom debate. Who could have imagined a few years ago that we would need to discuss the appropriate destination for the body’s evacuative functions according to gender, or that the controversy would be addressed in terms of justice and human rights instead of common sense?

How, exactly, could this have come about? The Encyclopedia of Surgery claims that “the number of gender reassignment procedures conducted in the United States each year is estimated at between 100 and 500.” Though no doubt there are more self-identified transgenders who do not have surgery, the numbers remain socially insignificant. What then accounts for the prominence of this issue or the passions that it ignites? The answer is that, even though we are talking about the bathroom, the matter is actually a metaphysical one, touching upon the very essence of human beings’ relationship to reality. 

For instance, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, speaking about the Department of Justice’s lawsuit to negate North Carolina’s law that restricts the use of public bathrooms to persons who were born of the designated sex (May 9, 2106), accused the state “of legislating identity and insist[ing] that a person pretend to be something they are not.” This touches on but begs the question: Truly of what sex are the persons whom the N.C law allegedly forces to pretend to a falsehood? What is the source of authority for defining of what sex they are? 

Attorney General Lynch asserts that the N.C. law is contrary to justice. The classical definition of justice is to give things what is due to them. That depends entirely on what those things are. In other words, if you get wrong what something is, you will be incapable of dealing with it justly. Now it is nature that tells us what things are. For instance, if you think a man is a dog and you treat him as a dog, you will be behaving unjustly – because, according to nature, a man is not a dog. This is true even if the man thinks he is a dog, or in today’s parlance “self-identifies” as a canine. This would still not excuse the person who treats him as one. And it would be worse if the person attempted to graft a tail on the man who thinks he is a dog – even though the act might be out of commiseration to make the man feel more comfortable as a dog. As Loretta Lynch implied, it would certainly be an act of tyranny were a state to legislate that this or any man should relieve himself not in public bathrooms designated for men, but where dogs do. That is because, whatever anyone might say or do, that is a man, not a dog, and we must treat him for what he is rather than for something he is not.

But what is a transgender person? Attorney General Lynch said that we must not “turn on our neighbors, our family members, our fellow Americans, for something they cannot control, and deny what makes them human.” Addressing the transgendered, she said that “you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives you were born to lead.” Here is the nub of the issue. According to Lynch, transgendered people are “born to lead” lives other than what they are “born” as – as contradictory as this might seem. She asserts that this disposition to be something other than what they are born as is “something they cannot control.” In other words, although literally born female, a woman may be intended by some criterion other than nature to live as a man. 

Before deciding whether it is possible or not to control the urge to be of a different sex than the one with which one is born, we must decide whether this urge aims at something that is possible at all. Is it possible for someone born a woman to be a man? How does a woman go about this? One way, at least partially, is a double mastectomy. Later, the uterus and ovaries may be eviscerated. In other words, a partial suicide – she attempts to kill herself as a woman (which puts her at much greater risk of finishing the job with a full suicide). Now having a double mastectomy is precisely something a person can control and, in fact, must choose to have happen. Therefore, what seems to be the case is that they do control an outcome that is other than what was given, and that the criterion for this outcome is the will and desire for it. As the current argot has it, they self-identify as something else. In other words, one can become what one is willing to reconstitute oneself as – even if it requires serious self-mutilation. One is not what one is by nature, but what one gets by will.

Who, then, is the “person pretend[ing] to be something they are not,” in Attorney General Lynch’s words?  How can Lynch claim that North Carolina is engaged in forcing a pretense, rather than the person pretending and demanding that others concur in that pretense? After all, a woman with a double mastectomy is no more a man than a man with a tail is a dog. And how can Lynch claim that recognizing basic bathroom reality is “legislating identity”? 

The ideas enabling Lynch’s views are ones of which she may well be unaware, although she is obviously under their spell. In rough outline, here is the line of thought. What does it take for a mind to deny reality? It simply empowers itself to do so – to deem reality as whatever it wishes. But first reality has to be gotten out of the way, at first theoretically and then actually. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s saying that “existence precedes essence” shows how easy this is. Sartre’s paramour, Simone de Beauvoir, made it more explicit. She asserted that nothing has an a priori identity: “The basis of existentialism is precisely that there is no human nature, and thus no ‘feminine nature.’” Therefore, she said so presciently, “The mammary glands that develop at puberty have no role in the woman’s individual economy: they can be removed at any moment in her life.” When reality disappears, so do women’s breasts! Voilà! Nature, de Beauvoir insisted, “is not something given.” How can this be? If “nothing has an a priori identity” and if nothing is “given,” why would surgery be necessary to change it? 

This obvious contradiction can be explained by de Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s metaphysical contradiction. In classical metaphysics, existence and essence are like matter and form. They necessarily go together. Matter cannot exist without form; there is no formless matter. Likewise, everything that exists in the universe has to exist as something – the as is its nature or form. For instance, a dog cannot have existence outside of its being a dog. The only being thought to have existence as its essence, i.e. to exist necessarily, is God. Nothing else exists necessarily, and therefore nothing in the universe can have existence prior to its essence. Otherwise, what would it be? Nothing.

This is the whole peril and dread of the existential dilemma – man facing nothingness as matter without form, a metaphysical impossibility. Sartrean man is over a nihilistic abyss and, with no guidance from non-existent nature, must pull himself up by his own metaphysical bootstraps, by somehow creating his own essence, his own as, through his willful acts. He gets to, in fact must, make himself up – giving his formless matter its own form. In short, he “self-identifies” (in Sartre’s case as a Marxist). This self-willing, this replacement of God with oneself, is the source of the modern obsession with personal authenticity, which one must gain in order to be something, to secure one’s very existence. Otherwise, one is faced with nothingness. When the Human Rights Campaign, the LGBT advocacy group, speaks of the need for transgender persons to live “authentic lives,” this is what they are really talking about – the need for all of us to lead “authentic lives” exactly on the same terms Sartre and de Beauvoir set forth by creating our own essences. 

Without these high stakes, the bathroom issue makes no sense. What accounts for its prominence is the underlying and broadly shared denial of nature and the substitution of pure will as the means for unshackling us from what we are as given – allowing us to pretend that we can become whatever we wish and have the power to perform, no matter the extent of the defacement involved or the number of partial suicides required. The authority of nature could not be more directly or aggressively contravened than by the surgical assault against it. Suffering from what one is objectively by nature, the transgender person strikes back like a slasher against an attacker. Only when the attack is over can it be seen as having been against oneself – which is why, according to Walt Heyer, who underwent such surgery, “41 percent attempt suicide, 90 percent have a ‘significant form of psychopathology’, 61 percent also have other psychiatric disorders and illnesses, 50 percent had depressive symptoms, 40 percent showed symptoms of anxiety.” No wonder. Metaphysical contradiction leads to self-contradiction, even to self-annihilation. What is left is still a woman or a man, but now horribly mutilated. It is in the gender abattoir that we can see what this truly is – a revolt against being.

Only within the perspective of this revolt could it possibly make sense for an Attorney General of the United States to declare a propensity to “self-identify” a human right and to label any opposition to it “a pretext for discrimination and harassment.” Loretta Lynch crowed to the transgendered, “know that history is on your side.” Indeed it is, but it is the history of Sartre and de Beauvoir, leaving “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” behind in the rubble, as they strove for and defended the suicidal brave New World of Stalin’s Soviet Union, where man’s complete disfigurement came close to being achieved. 

The flag of history on the side of Loretta Lynch’s transgendered legion is the same flag flown by Marx, Sartre and de Beauvoir – a funereal flag unfurled over the entombment of human nature as a given in life to which we must comport ourselves if we wish to remain human and to reach human happiness in the ultimate things. It is the triumph of history over nature, as announced in our own country by progressivists like John Dewey, who said, “Man’s nature is to have no nature.” If this is true, there is absolutely no reason why one should not be able to go to the bathroom of one’s “self-identified” gender.

However, if we have no nature, there are also no grounds left upon which to say that we should not turn ourselves into monsters, so long as we “self-identify” as ones. This is because the distinction between the human and the nonhuman – between the moral and the monstrous – is lost with the loss of nature. These are the perilous grounds upon which our Attorney General operates, and which she insists on compelling the rest of us to accept in contradiction to our Founding principles, grounded in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

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About Robert R. Reilly 20 Articles
Robert R. Reilly was Senior Advisor for Information Strategy (2002-2006) for the US Secretary of Defense, after which he taught at National Defense University. He was the director of the Voice of America (2001-2002) and served in the White House as a Special Assistant to the President (1983-1985). A graduate of Georgetown University and the Claremont Graduate University, his books include The Closing of the Muslim Mind, Making Gay Okay, and Surprised by Beauty: A Listener's Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music. His most recent book, America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, is published by Ignatius Press.