Monday, October 08, 2007

Flushed Away

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.


Earl Cootie said...

If I had a nickel for every time a man in a dress pulled up to a urinal next to me and took a whiz . . . Well, okay, it's probably only happened a couple, maybe three or four times. Which would leave me with less than a quarter. But I'd still appreciate it, the nickel for each time, because I am far from affluent. Therefore I am not gay. Though each man-peeing-in-a-dress occasion has happened in the men's room of a gay bar. (So the jury may be out. I'll get back to you.)

Oh, this whole ENDA mess gets me so depressed. Especially when I find that some of the bigotry and divisiveness is coming from our side. But then that goes to show that we queers, too, are human (well, according to some) and have just as many faults as the heteros. Aargh.

Baal said...

another well thought out piece but I still want to know when the LGB community adopted the T part. It hasn't ever felt like a natural fit to me.

jeremy said...

Reminds me of something I read about on Margaret Cho's blog.

Doug said...

You should so run for office. I'd love to hear you debate with other congressmen.

Although I prefer to pee with other men, I think we'd all get used to unisex bathrooms if such an uproar wasn't made about it. Our fears are that much stronger when exaggerated logs are added to the exaggerated fire.

So much shame is attached to peeing and shitting. What have we got to be ashamed of? I'm pee-shy, too, and I always wonder why. I hate society and its repressive ways.

Oy, I think I need therapy.

Paris said...

I am convinced that just as a white person cannot fully appreciate what it is like to be a person of color in the US, so do non-trans people fail to appreciate the implications of limited access to toilets. I pass 110% of the time(that is, sometimes when I'm trying not to), but public toilets are still nerve-wracking.

Incidentally, to baal and others, my toilet nerves are directly linked to concerns for homophobic behavior as quite frankly, transmen have not entered the national consciousness and any irregularities in toilet behavior are more likely to be attributed to sexuality than gender.

But then, debates around the inclusive form of ENDA aren't about why the T has been part of the LGBT, but rather a referendum on how trannies make some queers uncomfortable.

Honey, it's legislation, not therapy.

Sarah said...

I don't think it really matters how/when the T got added to LGBT. Trans folk are undoubtedly a part of our community. I know several women who identified as butch lesbians when we met a few years ago and who know identify as trans. Do they lose their stripes?

Any nondiscrimination bill that doesn't protect trans people doesn't adequately protect lesbians, gay men, or bisexuals, either. The root of homophobia is a fear of gender nonconformity. People who are targeted because they are "perceived as gay" are perceived as such because they don't conform to established gender norms.

On another topic entirely, I was glad to see the other Big Gay Establishment, NGLTF, taking a leadership role in pushing for an inclusive ENDA.

Cooper said...

This kind of washroom indoctrination starts very early. My five year old son who has just started kindergarten told me the first week that "Emma went into the boys' washroom by mistake because she forgot and then she was crying and Madame Bev (his teacher) had to come."

LGBT suits me to a T. To suggest differently is manifesting the belief that being gay or lesbian or bi is superior to being transgendered, and in so doing denigrates us all.

M-Dub said...

Again, another thought-provoking post. I had a friend who was just starting to address his trans side and a group of us went out with him dressed as a woman. The brouhaha that ensued when he tried to use the ladies room was surreal. When I was in basic training, we went to White Sands, NM where we had a (mens-only) communal privy, and let me tell you, I don't want to go to the bathroom with ANYONE watching or sitting right next to me! There were no dividers...just ten toilets out in the open. One would assume that a unisex bathroom would have stalls of some sort. I highly doubt women would use a trough-style urinal!

pacalaga said...

I love that you make me think about things I would never have thought about otherwise. Are there seriously people out there who are concerned that there might be a man in a woman's restroom, or vice versa? Oy. Really, what difference does it make if the shoes in the next stall over have a Y chromosome in them? Things like this make me wonder if there really is a god like in the Bible - if there were, wouldn't s/he have flooded us all out again for our stupidity?
Regarding whether the T belongs with the LBG, why wouldn't it? I don't actually fall into that demographic, and maybe this seems really naive, but it seems like worrying about a demographic at all is divisive.

Teresa said...

I've had the cops called on me when I've been "mistaken for a man" in the ladies room, and I've been with other lesbians when they've been told they're in the wrong bathroom. I believe women purposefully use the "mistaken for a man" bit to harass and degrade lesbians. Trans or not.

Lyle said...

Interestingly, I read that unisex bathrooms are a new trend in public buildings. They're billed as "family" restrooms where mommy and daddy can both take care of their child but the article noted that one quietly intended side effect was a safe space for trans people.

Roger Green said...

I read just recently how it was theorized that backlash vs. the trannsexuals is hampering LGB progress. The piece wasn't critical of Ts, only making an observation. So, I dare say that there are a lot of folks like baal.

David said...

It all plays to rape fears and they are never rational. A couple decades ago the very idea of a black man left unsupervised in an environment where white women were present put some people into paroxysms of terror. Unisex bathrooms continue that legacy even though they strain logic. And logic is not something with which the American public has a strong track record.

Steven said...

What an insightful (is this the right word?) subject. I think it was well summed-up in the last paragraph. Had society continued as strictly a toilet-using society, without the introduction of urinals, I think we would have been more accepting of unisex bathrooms. I remember the first urinal I saw (or should I say used?), which was twice as wide as me and just as tall. I couldn't fathom relieving myself into something that wasn't a toilet and "seemed" like I was relieving myself on the floor (it was a model that went down to the floor). Now I don't give it a second thought.

Les said...

Bathrooms are some sort of holy temple of gender conformity. When I was in highschool, every single rumor about me being spotted making out had it in a bathroom. The "viewer" was always shaken and upset. She had gone to pee and been confronted with LESBIANS! oh, the horror. Only it never happened.

I have lingering fear in bathrooms and locker rooms from then. And there's always the implicit threat of violence. Women either fear it from me or may start it themselves. I've had people forcefully slam doors in my face to keep me from peeing in their cisgender hangouts.

I decided to not use women's rooms anymore, but I'm not more welcome in the men's room. Some places have gender-neutral restrooms, but often these are for disabled people. I get dirty looks for being able-bodied and using them. (I don't think my gender presentation is a disability, either, but what do I know.) clearly, I'm not supposed to pee at all. My presence is tolerated as long as people can imagine me to have no genitals whatsoever, only a smooth plastic form like a Ken doll.

Not that I'm bitter or anything. Pee as fast as I can and get out before somebody sees me or I have a panic attack. meh.

Marius said...

Excellent post! I think Teresa brought up an interesting point. Women are often the first ones to enforce certain societal rules. So, I wonder; should straight women be vilified by the gay community because they don't feel comfortable sharing a restroom with others who aren't like them? Of course, as you mentioned, straight men have issues with sharing a restroom with gay men. But it’s socially acceptable to vilify straight men, so that’s not really an issue.

Dave suggested that they all play to rape fears. That may or may not be true for gays and straights in this whole restroom debate. I can't recall any studies supporting such a thing, but it is possible. As you mentioned in your post, these fears stem from learning. We are taught to use the "right" restroom; it's just part of the culture. On a positive note, at least we don't live in certain Asian countries. Singapore and Japan are notorious for enforcing these highly restrictive rules. These and similar Asian countries also have a very low crime rate. So policing almost every aspect of public life does, in fact, improve the safety of the whole community.

As far as Transgenered people are concerned, I think T people should be included in the LGBT community. However, this group is VERY diverse, which complicates the issue.

Anonymous said...

There are many Ts that would agree with Baal. There is nothing inherently queer about transsexuality, despite vehement claims to the contrary of the Christian Wrong; some straight trans people have no more in common with the general LGBs than some straight cisgender people.

Automatically mixing in transsexual (not transgender - that's a broader label) issues with LGB ones offends some transsexuals. Not all countries have the restrictive laws present in several US states where post-transition transsexuals can't marry or legally change their documentation, so many straight trans people would claim that associating their sex change with the Great Sodomitic Agenda is detrimental to rights of transsexuals as social perception of now-LGBT issues is tainted with homo hijinx.

And no, we don't all agree with this view.


MaggieMay said...

Just an anecdote: when in North Africa this past summer, I noticed that many of the bathrooms in the university we were visiting were unisex. (FYI: there were stalls and urinals and pink toilet paper for everyone!) While this initially caused some of my crew (inc. me) some discomfort, I think everyone had acclimated to it by the second day. I thought it odd, though, that in such an extremely sex-segregated society, there would be unisex bathrooms in some places. And yes, there were more than a few women on the faculty there.

Anonymous said...

Throughout my college years, I lived in mix sexed dorms where men and women shared the bathrooms (and even showered together, with nothing but a thin plastic curtain separating us). I guess it was a novelty the first day or so, but after that, so what? I figured that everyone my age (35) or younger who'd gone to college had had a similar socializing experience around bathrooms, but after reading these comments, I guess not.

Kai in NYC

tornwordo said...

We are so hindered by our puritanical roots. So uptight about toilets and nudity and sex.

I like dividers at the urinal. Otherwise I get stressed (for a couple of reasons) and can't pee.

Adam said...

I've had the discussion of unisex toilets many times with friends. It just makes sense to me to have everyone in the same place. The only reason why I can see that toilets are separated by sex is because someone somewhere thinks that the sexes cannot be trusted to restrain themselves from raping one another when they are expelling their bladder s and colons.

HRC just plain sucks, I thought so long before this ENDA debacle. I believe that most of the people that have the "equality" sticker on their car just have it as a signal that says "Cruise me."

dykewife said...

i don't think that unisex bathrooms would work and not because of morality issues. i don't think they'd work because of etiquette issues.

men even if they're friends don't normally talk while standing and peeing at the urinals. women talk nonstop. the toilet is a major source of socialization. that's why women go to the bathroom in groups. going as one and not talking to anyone is just abnormal.

so there you have it. i'd not want to sit on the toilet next to a guy who's pooping. i mean, i have enough issues around smells to tolerate someone else's stench. i had enough trouble with boy's diapers. *shudder*

i certainly woudln't want to sit and pee next to a guy who's peeing. all that splashing? i prefer to keep other people's urine off my legs.

Marlan said...

If I had a nickel for every time a concerned group told me what I should be doing, well, maybe I would be one of them there "wealthy queers," with an agenda and such.

Unfortunately, I, like you GP, are among the walking indebted--as if that had anything to do with it.

And Dykewife? I'm sorry, but boys' poopy diapers and girls' poopy diapers are exactly the same. Poopy. I've had to change them both in my day.

And how, exactly, would my peeing in a stall splash on your leg in the next stall unless I was aiming?

GayProf said...

Earl: It is depressing. Easy answers are also hard to find. Sigh

Baal: It all depends if you imagine the fight as one to grant yourself rights or one to guarantee sexual freedom and rights for all people. I conceive our fight as a fight for social justice. This means a commitment to ending all forms of discrimination and social inequity. Others disagree.

Jeremy: Thanks for the link.

Doug: I should run for office! A gay professor who is part Latino would have no problem getting elected in this nation, right? ;-)

Paris: I agree -- Sexuality and gender are intertwined in this nation. We should be rather careful, then, about what we are going to construe as "not our issue."

Sarah: I see that HRC is also trying to do damage control and claim that it really does want an inclusive ENDA.

Cooper: I agree. I do not accept the passage of a measure that protects my rights, but explicitly or implicitly claims that another group must wait for theirs.

M-Dub: The military is such a queer institution.

Pacalaga: This move was a genius stroke for the right-wing. It has divided us and left us immobilized. I hope, though, that we snap out of it and attack them for the bigots that they are.

Teresa: Homophobia is often imagined as the exclusive prerogative of straight men. Yet, many straight women can be truly nasty.

Lyle: I had meant to bring up the "Family" restroom. It seems like a way to make "unisex" safe by enshrining it within the [presumed heterosexual] family.

ROG: Divide and conquer is the oldest trick in the book.

David: I think that Americans want to think logically. They just don't get enough information to do so.

Steven: I was very excited to be able to "pee on the wall" the first time I used a urinal.

Les: This is the potential problem with the "Family" restroom as well. I imagine that single individuals will be viewed with skepticism.

Marius: Again, it's about how we imagine the fight. Is it just for a narrow assurance of our own rights (and rights for people exactly like us)? Or do we want to fight to transform society for all people to be able to express their sexual and gender identities?

Anon: There might have been a moment in time when heterosexual-identified transsexuals appeared on the path to acceptance over other queer groups. That, though, was a miscalculation in my mind. If we really believe in "queer" as a potential, than it should include all gender and sexual variety.

MaggieMay: People had to adjust to the unisex bathroom in Texas as well (especially given that it had been a men's room and it took awhile for them to remove the urinal). In the end, though, it just became a regular party of daily life.

Kai: Given how over-protective parents are of college-aged kids today, I wonder if such arrangements still exist.

Torn: As I mentioned, I like the dividers, too. Trough urinals? Forget about it unless I really, really have to go! Still, I can't help but think that the sudden appearance of the dividers is problematic as well.

Adam: Sadly, there aren't many other organizations springing up to replace HRC.

DykeWife: Are you saying that women don't shit in public restrooms? I find that hard to believe.

Marlan: We should inquire with CWA about where to obtain our affluence. Maybe there is a central office that issues a check?

Anonymous said...

GayProf, it doesn't sit well with me to cover transsexuals as a group with the queer label. Transgender people, sure - there are endless varieties of gender presentations and identifications, and many TG-identified people also ID as queer anyway. But the girl next door who's more stealth than a F-22 won't appreciate being considered "inherently queer" if the matter of her past is discussed exclusively (if at all) with the man she sleeps with. And neither will her boyfriend.

Even if queer rights groups fought for surgery coverage (fought meaningfully - it's easy to add "and access to sex-change surgery" to your mission statement, but tougher to follow through on it) many binary-gendered straight trans people would still want nothing to do with us queers. It's their loss rather than ours, but I'd still prefer to see more education on transsexualism as a specific subset of transgenderism instead of a blanket inclusion. They really have it easier even in my very conservative country; I don't want to drag them into the intolerance and oppression that openly queer and gender variant people are facing now. It's not about letting them off the hook, it's about not stooping to their level.

The stealth straight binary-gendered ones who aren't ashamed of the rest of us often become queer allies without taking the label for themselves. Labeling them as queer is misplaced and pointless - it supports the non-argument that sex change isn't.

(still the same anon, stealth as trans, out as queer)

Antonio said...

In regards to divider, I've been at gay clubs without dividers in the bathroom and seen guys adhering to the 'one urinal between me and the next guy' rule.

dykewife said...

of course women' don't shit in public restrooms! we don't fart or belch either. silly goose.

actually, it never occurred to me that there'd be stalls involved, just that there would be toilets, side-by-side with people labouring away trying to block out the sounds and stench of other people's labours.

Marlan said...

Toilet etiquitte truly is a learned, cultural phenomenon. In Amsterdam, there are outdoor public urinals on streetcorners where men can just "belly up" and pee.

They also have unique urinals in the Schipol Airport outside of Amsterdam. Inside each globe-shaped basin is a small icon of a bug, embedded in the porcelain glaze. Apparently, it helps guys to see something to pee on, and keeps the restroom cleaner. I thought it was fun trying to wash that bug down the drain until I realized it was part of the fixture.

Oh, and also. While peeing in that restroom, a female attendant was cleaning the rest of the fixtures. In America, they would shut down the whole bathroom to do that. In Holland, no big deal.

Artemis said...

While I can see how unisex bathrooms would make people of all sorts feel more comfortable and safe, I wonder if we don't also lose some of the gender fun of going to the bathroom?

In my (female) experience, I've loved the bathrooms best that had vanity and lounge areas. Places to do make-up and be "girly," as it were, may not survive in a purely unisex world. And this would be a loss for any femme or woman-identified woman/girl/dame, no? Do these behaviors survive unisexification?

And thanks for all the great blogging!

Anonymous said...

I know a few male-identified people who'd appreciate a place to do make-up without fear of a bashing... I say the vanity areas stay!

monica said...

I think I would miss the girl stuff too--the pink lounges are great places. It's nice to be able to escape the eyes of men. Things like asking someone for a tampon could revert back to the same code that it had in high school (stick gum or chicklet); I know it seems facetious in light of the more serious problems that some have...but still. Putting on make-up, dealing with your period, maybe even breast-feeding; for women it isn't always just piss and shit in the restroom.

Signalite said...

Unfoirtunately, I couldn't make it to the bathroom in time after I peed myself reading about how largely affluent the gays are. (If they are I certainly don't know any!)

gloopy said...

I teach at a large university, and my old office was right near a unisex, one-stall, disabled-friendly bathroom. It was the only bathroom on the floor on that side of the building, so everybody used it.

I can't tell you what a relief it was for me not to have to CHOOSE which restroom to use.

Later, I was moved to another office near gender-specific restrooms. Now I feel uncomfortable every time I have to make the big choice. Even when nobody else is around.

I'm sure that unisex bathrooms have some disadvantages, but I'm sure we would all adapt. After all, we have adapted nicely to these stupid and pointless gender-specific rooms...

ZoeFiasco said...

I think Dykewife got it right the first time. Separate-gender bathrooms did not arise out of rape fears but from an understanding of basic (biological)male and female bodies. Any woman who's stood in line outside a "ladies' room" while guys moved quickly through the men's room door knows this. Never mind poop -- it takes us females at least twice as long to pee, since we can't just sling it over the porcelain.

I guess I could get used to having a man in the next stall, but I definitely want doors -- no open-air urinal-style peeing, thanks very much. (BTW, after I had back surgery I tried using an ergonomically designed plastic funnel that supposedly allowed women to pee standing up; it ain't all it's cracked up to be, ladies.)

Transpeople should be able to use whatever bathroom they're most comfortable in, and the rest of us should just deal with it.