Anon left a comment on the previous post suggesting that the annoying man in my gym locker room might be transgender and, thus, it would explain his hesitancy about showering sans shorts. For a variety of reasons, I don’t think that is the case. I think that he is just a good ol’ fashioned straight homophobic guy. Maybe its my own bias, but I don’t think that a transgender individual would be a rude as he is in other parts of the gym (for instance, he literally coats the weight bars in chalk. I don’t mean he uses chalk on his hands (which is annoying by itself), I mean he takes a gob of chalk crushes it all over the bars.).
All that aside, though, it reminded me how uptight our society is about bathroom spaces. For many people who identify as transgender, something as basic as using a toilet can become an ordeal. People are vigilante about policing bathrooms to ensure that one uses the “right” one. Those who don’t fit into a strict gender binary are often harassed, threatened, or even arrested when they attempt to make use of the facilities.
The easy solution, of course, is for bathrooms to be changed into unisex places. No gender requirement means that everybody is free to use the toilet as needed. My goddess, that suggestion causes an uproar.
If I remember my ancient history right (and, granted, it has been sometime), eliminating bodily waste was not a gender-oriented activity for Ancient Rome (or Ancient Latin America, I believe). Men and women, in other words, all shit in the same public latrine, sitting side-by-side, and didn’t consider it at all “immodest.” Given the stench, it would be hard to imagine it as an erotic event (though I suppose somebody must have fancied it). It’s only in more recent times that individuals decided that defecating must be accomplished among people with the same anatomy.
Indeed, the specter of “unisex” bathrooms is frequently deployed by ultra conservatives as one sign of the apocalyptic end of civilization that will accompany “liberal” reforms. It’s all part of what I call “toilet politics.”
When arch-conservative Phylis Schlafly thwarted the Equal Rights Amendment during the late 1970s, she included restrooms as a key part of her campaign. People might not remember, but Schlafly shrewdly made the issue of where people piss into a knockout punch for gender equality. Should the ERA pass, she promised, it would mean that unisex bathrooms would be required in all public places. Men and women would be forced to pee together (she almost hinted that it would be at the point of a gun). Even those who believed that men and women should be paid the same for the same work couldn’t stomach the idea that they might have to go potty together. I am surprised that she didn’t claim that the ERA would have required dogs to use litter boxes and cats to raise their legs on a tree.
Much more recently (like, you know, last week), the right-wing used toilet politics to derail an Employment Nondiscrimination Act that would have provided protections for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people. When they realized they couldn’t defeat the bill outright, the right maneuvered to delete protections for transgender people. This created a moral dilemma for those on the left. Could the left support a measure that only protected part of the queer community? Were gays and lesbians willing to sell out the transgender community to accomplish a short-term goal that benefited only them? Although it surprised me not at all, it turns out that [corrupt] mainstream organizations like the HRC are willing to toss queer people off the bus if they think that they can accomplish something. HRC only supports rights for queer people based on how well they conform to heterosexual standards. Those who challenge the status quo need not apply. That, though, is another issue.
For our purposes, we need to consider how the right justified the deletion using toilet politics. Protections for transgender people, the right lamented, would mean the demise of restrooms as we know and love them! They expressed horror – HORROR! – that an individual who dresses as a woman, but still has a penis, would be able to use a restroom clearly labeled for “women.” What, they asked, was the purpose of posting a stick figure in a dress outside the door if we weren’t going to assume that a vagina was under that dress?
As you might imagine, the Concerned Women (Woman?) of America was more than happy to spell out why they opposed ENDA, especially if it included protections for transgender individuals. Queers, they promised, would make quick work of harassing innocent heterosexuals. “This [bill] means,” they authoritatively stated, “that female employees would have to endure both systematic sexual harassment and a hostile work environment by being forced to share bathroom facilities with any male employee who got his jollies from wearing a dress.” Yeah, that’s how sexual harassment would play out. Straight men would start wearing women’s clothing all day long just for the opportunity to harass women in the loo. Clearly straight men aren’t currently harassing women in the workplace.
Of course, the CWA also used this statement to declare “that homosexuals are largely affluent.” Why didn’t anybody tell me??? Here I am working and in debt when my sexuality should have elevated my economic standing years ago. Thank you, CWA, for telling it like it really is.
We should be leery anytime they claim to be concerned about women’s safety. Time and time again, they have demonstrated that is never their real concern. In this case, though, are we certain that equal access to restrooms would put women at greater risk of harassment? It seems to me, that having a transgender person in the restroom would be a huge asset to safety. They are also going to be very unlikely to harass [other] women.
Which brings us to the issue of who would potentially harass women in a unisex restroom? The same people who are most likely to harass them in other places: Straight men. Once again, I am not convinced that unisex restrooms present a greater risk for women. It seems to me that other straight and gay men would not tolerate a creepy guy harassing women in their restroom. Moreover, where is the supposed “safety” in our current bathroom situation? Last time I checked, restrooms don’t require a DNA sample to open the doors. Why would we imagine that a creepy straight guy doesn’t (or isn’t) already lingering in women’s restrooms?
Or is that we are imaging the mere act of being in a restroom with a woman would send some straight guys over the edge? Do we think that hearing a woman pee in the next stall would change an otherwise average guy into a serial rapist and murderer? If that is true, what is the difference, really, between a bathroom stall and regular drywall? Trust me, I have been in plenty of places where the drywall left nothing to the imagination about what was happening in the bathroom on the other side.
Toilet politics, sadly, tend to work. Since we are small children, we “learn” (read: are policed) into accepting that we have a “right” bathroom to use. Using the “wrong” one results in public shame and maybe even punishment. Indeed, I remember from my own grade school that one of the “games” during recess involved trying to force individuals into the “wrong” restroom as a type of ritual humiliation. Both boys and girls participated in this activity. If at that young age the message about toilets is already ingrained, just imagine how hard it is to combat it as adults.
Of course, toilet politics isn’t the exclusive domain of transgender individuals. Other queer folk are also swept into these rants. The brouhaha around Larry Craig exposed straight men’s many anxieties over public restrooms. It took almost no time for the Craig story to change from “homophobic hypocrite found propositioning cop for sex” to “Are straight men in danger in public men’s rooms?”
Campaigns to keep gay men and women out of the military also often involve toilet politics. What would happen, they argue, if gay men and straight men had to shit in the same restroom without privacy????
We also only need to look at changes in bathroom architecture over the past ten years. Divisions between urinals are now de rigueur. Given that I am more than a bit pee shy, I am not going to complain about this too much. Still, it does suggest a heightened anxiety and, I would suggest, a discreet type of homophobia (emphasis on the “phobia” bit). Indeed, authorities even announced recently that the infamous Craig toilet is receiving a make-over with new floor-to-ceiling stall dividers. Why stop there? Why not give each stall its own moat and bucket of boiling oil?
If we start to think more seriously about it, why do we place such a strong investment in our toilets? The truth is that unisex bathrooms are already in place in a number of public spots and they work just fine. Even my former Texas institution had a unisex restroom in my office building. Two stalls and nobody ever had a problem (though there were also “traditional” restrooms in the building as well). If scary Texas can handle it, I think the rest of the U.S. can as well.
We need to be skeptical when toilet politics appears as a justification for denying a group their rights. A reaction of fear and discomfort is what the right-wing depends upon to maintain an unequal society.