The Fox Question

It’s a bit like the Staniland Question, only more depressing

In my chat a couple of days ago with Kara Dansky, the question feared by all parents of transitioning young men reared its head. What should parents do if their young adult sons head for the women’s toilets, when they know their sons might sever the relationship if they object?

This question has other iterations. What should parents do if their sons insist on female pronouns, and might cut them out entirely if they refuse? Should a mother be prepared to forgo a relationship with her child in order to protect women as a biological class? It’s a big ask. These young men are all too ready to walk away from their families. Parents walk a high wire, desperate not to encourage their boys further into their female identities — and betray women’s rights in the process — yet ever mindful that these lads need very little encouragement to ditch their folks overnight. But the version of the question involving toilets is more immediate. Strategies can be deployed to avoid using pronouns and names; we’ve yet to invent a strategy to avoid peeing. The first trips which parents take to see their sons in their new, college environments are linguistic minefields; the sight of their sons trotting off to the ladies’ room only emphasizes that these issues are far from abstract.

The question I ask is, in some sense, like the Staniland Question: Do you believe male-sexed people have the right to undress and shower in communal change rooms with teenaged girls? Those who answer ‘no’ to Helen’s question are not necessarily in agreement with one another about the remedy: some suggest separate cubicles (or even rooms) all round; others don’t, citing (among other things) the harmful effects of encouraging denial of biological sex, the value of communal single-sex spaces (especially for young women), and the sheer cost of all the wood and hinges and signage that this would incur.

I’m fairly ambivalent on this, not least because I actually like the idea of separate rooms, one per pee-er or pooper. It makes me feel classy: a bit like getting my own ensuite. Plus, it’s easier for people who might, for whatever reason, want to wash their face or reorganize the contents of their bag without everyone else looking. I’m also mindful that this is a tough issue for those who have chosen transition. I don’t write this to weigh in with my own toilet-based panacea; like my other articles on this site, I’m trying to put forward parents’ views, and help people to understand that they face impossible quandaries for which they never asked.

The usefulness of the Staniland Question is that it identifies those whose capitulation to ideology is apparently bottomless, and unites together those of us who just don’t think it’s appropriate for teenage girls to be faced with naked male bodies — which accounts not only for its popularity in gender critical circles, but also for the extent to which it triggers the activists for no-holds-barred self-identification. But my question is more depressing. It’s not a yes/no question, for a start, and demands a strategy as an answer. And I don’t have one. The Fox Question has no response.

I have sat looking at the last sentence I wrote for a few minutes, feeling ever glummer; but in some sense, it isn’t true. One response is, of course, to capitulate, and this is what usually happens. I have very little time for anyone who suggests that a parent should be prepared to kiss goodbye to their own child forever over the issue of toilet usage. After all, mothers and fathers visit their murderer sons in prison. You may well feel able to tell a woman that her son’s behaviour is so egregious that she’s better off pretending he was never born; forgive me if I don’t.

There’s another response — somewhat less despairing for those of us who want to protect single-sex spaces — which is political activism. Legislating to safeguard female spaces takes the heat off parents, and forces young trans-identifying people to recognize that concerns about the erosion of womanhood go beyond theoretical debate or purported phobia. Toilet use, then, is not just a hot button cliché, but an issue which goes right to the heart of the attack on the family structure; politicians’ failure to address it is yet another means of placing parents in the firing line. 

But neither of these responses works in the moment — hence my comment that the question has no response. A couple I know recently went to visit their son, newly independent and hell-bent on surgery. ‘Where’s he going to pee?’ the mother asked me, a couple of nights before they set off: and any answer I could conjure was woefully useless. I refuse to encourage her to give up on the idea of talking him out of damaging his body, especially when she is convinced that he will come to regret the changes he intends to make, based as they are on flimsy assertions and an ostrichesque denial of the other mental health problems he has faced for some years. Equally, I can hardly propose that she call off the trip entirely. She misses him. I don’t know what to say to her.

This thought is not a cheerful one — but it is a necessary one. Some people in gender critical circles seem to forget about parents, embroiled as they are in the colourful social media wars of young activists pitted against one another. For mums and dads, essentialism comes with a much higher price tag. If you consider yourself to be on the same side as parents trying to protect their kids, the Fox Question isn’t something you can simply ignore. What should parents do if their young adult sons head for the women’s toilets, when they know their sons might sever the relationship if they object?

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