YMCA Trans(ition)

I am not Christian. Nor was my family of origin. But I grew up going to the Young Men’s Christian Association, better known as the YMCA, or for short, simply the Y.

I went to the Y with my dad, who I’d watch play handball and who would take me with him into the Men’s locker room, where I’d measure my own modest male equipment against his and that of other grown men.

When not checking out a basketball or rocking the vending machine into giving up free candy, I was attending Y sleepaway camp, where I would usually agree to pledge a “rag”—just a colored handkerchief really—a symbol of one’s acceptance of Jesus Christ as personal savior.

Already a religious skeptic, I would agree to go ahead with the rag ceremony (against the voice of my inner doubter) so as to be “one of the boys.” Afterwards, I would invariably air my doubts to the highest authority I could find–then tuck the rag discretely into my duffel bag.

So–to me anyway–the Young Men’s Christian Association was pretty much always just the Y.

What I didn’t know at the time—at least not consciously—was that I was by nature a conservative (albeit a questioning one) and that the YMCA’s mission (“to put Christian principles into practice”) not only provided me the grounding with which to question Christianity but also the means to benefit from the extremely egalitarian and family-oriented institution that was the YMCA itself.

It should come as no surprise then that years later–when I had my own young son–I would bring him to the Y.

A lot had changed at the Y, however, in the intervening years. Sure, there was the same ubiquitous in-door/outdoor carpeting and painted block wall. But handball had been replaced by racquetball (easier to play) and to compete with commercial gyms–and changing tastes–an impressive array of expensive machines had been deployed. Most crucially–to my mind at least–the Men’s locker room, where my dad had patted me dry and endeavored to answer my many questions, was now open only to me, not my son.

Of course, the Y claimed this was for safety. But it didn’t take an Einstein to see that childless and older members didn’t want children around and the Y didn’t wish to lose these valuable constituencies to rival gyms. Besides, if safety was the real reason, the ban on children in adult locker rooms only placed more adults in close proximity to children under 17–for in the Boy’s and Girl’s mom/dad/aunt/uncle were forced, in cramped quarters, to shower and dress with their–and others’–kids.

If it was apparent when my son was three, it’s crystal clear a decade later that today’s Y is no longer the YMCA of my youth. Only two racquetball courts remain amidst an armada of fitness devices, and behind a swank new front desk–where ubiquitous signage and graphics signal a gender, age, race and orientation rainbow –there isn’t the faintest whisper of Christianity.

Somewhere along the way, global YMCA leadership decided—slowly and quietly–to mostly jettison the -MCA (“Men’s Christian Association”) from its identity and adopt, in its place, a set of secular Core Values (Respect, Responsibility, Honesty and Caring.)

This drift (away from sectarian principles and towards secular inclusivity) would appear, at least on its face, to be a positive development. Not just in terms of fairness (members have long included women and non-Christians) but also in terms of membership development, where in today’s cut-throat, urban health-club environment–with real estate at a premium–growth is considered essential for long-term survival.

But there have been costs to this foundational shift. These would be only too obvious to serious Christians. But they’re also evident to a Judeo-Christian non-believer like me who wishes he could field his young son’s questions in his exclusively male habitat the way his father had fielded his.

Recently, however, this continuing transition (from YMCA to Y) has taken a decidedly literal turn. Several weeks ago, the executive director of the downtown Oakland Y where I’m a member posted signs outside the Men’s and Women’s locker rooms stating: We respect everyone’s right to choose the locker room that best fits their gender identity.

These signs were posted shortly after a new, male-to-female transgender member began exposing her male genitalia in the women’s communal shower and sauna/spa areas. Quite a few women were aghast, and several chose to remind the trans member that there was a locker room exclusively for men. At this, the trans member became irate—and then defiant. Several of the aghast women then complained to Y management.

Y management then dispatched a female employee to discuss the issue with what had become a group of concerned women. Though visibly sympathetic with the women’s concerns, the employee could only repeat (over and over): “We cannot discriminate—we cannot discriminate.”

Apparently, the transgender member walked in on this meeting and, later, was said to retaliate against at least one of the women in attendance, a recent immigrant from China—ordering her, in a threatening tone (when the woman was, by her own account, simply staring at the clock) to “STOP STARING AT ME!”

Y leadership then huddled and, whether to avoid a lawsuit and/or simply bow to the identitarian wokeness that is a increasing powerful force in this part of the country, chose to post and so clarify–and thus codify–a new gender policy.

Now, one might argue that were the Oakland Y to require that the M-F trans member use the Men’s on account of her male genitalia—in keeping with its Christian mission statement—the not-for-profit gym might be committing fiscal hari kari. For should a woke mob choose to organize a formal protest, the potential damage to this Y’s reputation (and to its ability to attract members on higher rungs of the intersectional ladder–and retain existing ones) could prove fatal.

It should be mentioned that had the trans member—who’s been observed engaging in unprovoked gender confrontations at other local establishments—instead opted to wear a bikini bottom over her male parts communally and to shower in one of the dozen individual stalls available privately, it is this writer’s opinion she would have been met with ne’er a smidgen–if any–of the uproar that accompanied her aggressive and activist invasion into the locker room of her choice.   

Of course, this was my initial response to the development. My subsequent reaction was levity. I envisioned (Walter Mitty-style) my 55-year-old, single, heterosexual, male self accessing the women’s locker room anytime I wanted—anytime, that is, I had an epiphany I was female! Heck, I might even convince a group of fellow men to spontaneously identity with me and march en-masse over to the Women’s in exploration (and–hem, hem–protest.)

But should this row have included a farcical aspect to me, to the women who consider themselves entitled to a locker room free of male privates (at least, visible ones) it was not the least bit funny. Not even should one reflect that some of those who objected might be considered to have brought this very situation upon themselves–with their insistence on social-engineering-style wokeness. (Ok, perhaps, a chuckle here is warranted—especially if you also consider that a group that is routinely advocated for by the woke, Muslim women, would no doubt fiercely object to the incursion of male genitalia into their female “place of dress”.)

All joking aside, this new policy–this terrific leap away from the YMCA’s founding Christian principles–is, to the non-trans women it most effects, no laughing matter. Though we certainly hold that all individuals have a right to be treated with dignity and respect, I believe we should also hold that insisting a male to female transwoman cover up her male privates in communal areas where naked cis-gender women (some with conservative religious and/or other values) are present should not be too much to ask.

It was clearly not too much to ask of the female to male transman who shaved his face next to me yesterday in the Men’s and who modestly wore a towel around what I could only assume were female privates—privates, which, had they been left uncovered, would not have made me feel unsafe though certainly disrespected (and I suspect the transman himself embarrassed and perhaps even unsafe.)

For you see, respect is a two-way street. Displaying it for both vulnerable trans individuals and cis-gender women with legitimate safety concerns in the face of encroaching male anatomy is what encapsulates, in this writer’s opinion, the very values the Y professes to promote: Respect, Responsibility, Honesty and Caring.

Martin Garrison is an Oakland, CA based film editor and dramatist. Martin’s writing has appeared in Filmmaker Magazine and appears regularly on his blog (www.heretictimes.com) and on Twitter: @martgarrison

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