Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Policing gender: gender-segregated restrooms

[Note: For this article, I will be using the pronoun "they" to describe singular individuals in order to recognize and honor those who struggle with gendered pronouns. Apologies for any grammar rules I may be breaking in order to do so.]

Very few children born in the late-1970s to mid-1980s can forget the epic teenage drama My So-Called Life, which aired on ABC for a single season from 1994 to 1995.  The show, featuring a young cast including Jared Leto and Claire Danes, was one of the most provocative of its time, addressing various issues including HIV/AIDS, homelessness, teenage alcohol and drug use, promiscuous sexual behavior, and the unique challenges faced by teenagers in the MTV-age.  What I remember it for most, however, is its depiction of an openly gay man of color, played by Wilson Cruz, named Rickie Vasquez.

The show features Rickie coming to terms with his sexual orientation and gender identity in a way that was remarkably fresh and realistic for its time.  And, most importantly for me, it was the first time I saw the effects of gender-segregated restrooms on those who do not easily identify with one gender or the other.  Rickie dressed most often in fairly flamboyant, although clearly masculine, attire. He wore an earring in his left ear.  The show depicted Rickie throughout the series applying and wearing eyeliner. His best friends were two girls, including the protagonist of the series, Angela Chase.

Instead of waiting outside of the girls restroom for his friends to do their make-up, gossip, or (most rarely it seems) use the facilities, he joined them.  Many times throughout the series, other female students using the restroom were not too comfortable with his presence. And yet, perhaps because he was attracted to other men, he was never officially banned or sanctioned by the school and his presence was seemingly tolerated.

Unfortunately, gender-segregated restrooms have made it difficult for people who do not squarely fit within a clearly female or clearly male gender presentation with a very serious problem: what do you do when you need to use the restroom, but you don't look like either of the polar sides of the gender binary for which restrooms are provided? What should be a basic biological, human function becomes an issue of safety.  If a gender non conforming person chooses the wrong restroom, they face violent resistance if someone in the room disagrees with their choice. This disagreement is often called the policing of gender. People who are uncomfortable with the gender presentation of someone else can use gender segregation as an excuse to assert that the person is somehow a deviant or criminal, or worse, violently express their disagreement with that gender presentation.

The Transgender Law Center (TLC) in San Francisco published a guide for activists in 2005 entitled "Peeing in Peace: A Resource Guide for Activists and Allies." In the guide, the TLC recognizes that this problem has not just been faced by those not conforming to gender norms. In the 1970s, when women were fighting to break down gender segregated employment opportunities, many women in traditionally-male professions had to fight for restrooms on job sites that only provided men's rooms. Similarly, people with disabilities struggled until the middle of the 1980s to achieve disabled-friendly restrooms.

While it seems somewhat petty to spend time pursuing gender-neutral restrooms, restroom access is essential to allow all people to participate in public life. Indeed, if a student feels unsafe in restrooms at school, they will likely skip, have attendance problems, and subsequently achieve low grades. On the employment front, if an employee is not allowed to use a restroom at work, they could be fired or quit because of their inability to use the restroom due to co-worker discomfort.

The "Peeing in Peace" guide accurately describes the search for a safe restroom as a very serious problem for many gender nonconforming people.  It writes,
Even in cities or towns that are generally considered good places to be transgender (like San Francisco or Los Angeles), many transgender people are harassed, beaten and questioned by authorities in both women’s and men’s rooms. In a 2002 survey conducted by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, nearly 50% of respondents reported having been harassed or assaulted in a public bathroom. Because of this, many transgender people avoid public bathrooms altogether and can develop health problems as a result. This not only affects people who think of themselves as transgender, but also many others who express their gender in a non-stereotypical way but who may not identify as transgender (for instance, a masculine woman or an effeminate man). 
So why continue this harmful segregation? What are the justifications? Many people are visibly uncomfortable when presented with the suggestion that multi-stall restrooms be gender-desegregated. Indeed, several weeks ago when covering intermediate scrutiny in Constitutional Law II, when my professor queried why individuals believed gender segregated restrooms survived intermediate scrutiny, many of my (interestingly, predominantly male) classmates answered, "Because it does." When pressed further, most tried to cite health issues, the "messy," "unclean" nature of men in restrooms, or endangerment of women and children, as reasons that gender segregated restrooms would withstand a constitutional Equal Protection inquiry. Indeed, I found the reactions of my classmates to be very similar to those that were most likely voiced by white people when asked why restrooms should be segregated according to race.

The TLC argues that these justifications have more to do with social perceptions than they have to do with any real important governmental interest. Countering the safety argument, "Peeing in Peace" writes,
The truth is that the current bathroom situation does not adequately ensure women’s safety. Putting a sign that says “women” on the door of a bathroom does not stop people who want to harm women from entering. Thinking that a sign will create protection might actually increase the potential for violence in bathrooms because if someone did intend to assault a woman in a bathroom, they would certainly know where to look. In doing bathroom activism, it is important that we help people realize that something as symbolic as a sign on a door does not provide any real safety or protection. 
The current bathroom situation is not particularly safe for children either. Many opponents of bathroom activism have stated that making bathrooms safer for transgender people will make them less safe for children. However, gender-neutral bathrooms can actually be safer for children because parents or other caretakers would be able to accompany them to any public bathroom thus personally ensuring their safety.
Additionally, if health concerns were really a problem, unisex single-stall restrooms, or indeed, private restrooms within people's homes, would need to be gender segregated as well.

Many college campuses have chosen to make their multi-stall dorm restrooms gender neutral. In 2005, I visited my brother, who was then studying at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin. His freshman dorm had entirely gender neutral restrooms, and I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that nothing seemed different when I walked out of a stall and washed my hands next to a man.

What we are left with, then, is a socially ingrained discomfort that persists in maintaining gender segregated public restrooms for entirely arbitrary reasons. What results is a landscape of hate and bigotry that prevents the most vulnerable in our society from even accessing and participating in public life.


S said...

I agree, restrooms are a public space that reflects how society conceptualizes important issues like race, sex and gender.

When thinking about uni-sex bathrooms in T.V., Alley McBeal immediately came to mind. Although I did not watch the show, I recall comments about the unisex bathroom from those who did. My quick Google search of the T.V. show lead me to an article published by Slate in 1998, entitled "The Secret Story of Ally McBeal."

Jeffery Goldberg, the author, expresses a number of interesting thoughts about right-wing T.V., but the one discussion that caught my eye was about the unisex bathroom in Alley McBeal. Goldberg recaps a conversation he had with a woman who said that the unisex " . . . bathroom is put there on purpose, to show how crazy it all is to mix men and women like that."

Because I did not watch Alley McBeal, this comment is lost on me. I hope someone who watched Alley McBeal can help me understand what "crazyness" unfolds from a unisex bathroom. I suspect the author was trying to argue that unisex bathrooms provide a space where both men and women can occupy, but should NOT because of (biological ?) differences and that challenging those biological differences challenges the natural order of things. I am curious how ths woman would respond to transgendered people.

I believe the presence of unisex bathrooms are increasing in the United States (small note, King Hall has its own unisex bathrooms). However, I fear that for many, the only unisex bathroom experience people have had is through Alley McBeal. Although it is true that I have not seen Ally McBeal, I suspect that the unisex bathroom encounters are not representative of how things really go down in a unisex bathroom. It would be nice if there was a T.V. show that was brave enough to to counter poor representations of sex, gender and race.

On separate note, I suggest reading the article, because the author has an interesting conversation with a friend about how feminism failed and women are bitter, how Kramer v. Kramer was a stupid movie with a dumb plot, and women are asking whether feminism (and the encouragement to pursue a job instead of a family) is worth the "empty womb."

Megan said...

I agree that sex-segregated bathrooms reflect the commonly accepted, however faulty, idea that there are only two sexes- male and female. And I fully support integrated bathrooms...but, upon reading this blog post, I was immediately taken to the women's shower/restroom at the pool. Instead of stalls, the pool shower facility is an open room with a few shower "posts," each with four shower heads. At most pools, this is the preferred layout of the shower facility. This may because a room, as opposed to stalls, is a more efficient use of space, and possibly also because a single room is easier to clean and maintain. In this situation, where the restrooms are connected to an open shower room, I am not sure that I would be comfortable having men around. I also do not think it is acceptable to use my discomfort to explain and/or validate the use of sex-segregated restrooms, to the detriment of people who identify as transgender or transsexual. What do you think is the "solution"?

AMA said...

I remember moving into my college dorms and noticing that all the bathrooms were gender neutral (including the showers). My parents were squeamish, but none of the students seemed to mind at all. I can't recall ever feeling uncomfortable about the bathroom situation my first year. Later in college, I began to see rebellious signs covering or vandalizing the segregated bathrooms - they all urged for gender neutral bathrooms for non-gender conforming students. I recall thinking this was extreme, but liking the idea. I'm totally in support of unisex bathrooms today, so long as women's safety is not compromised. Since I look kind of like a boy at times, I get an occasional double-take in women's bathrooms. This doesn't bother me, but it does make me more comfortable to use unisex stalls. I can only imagine the potential for harassment for transgender people who simply need to use the facilities.

My preference is the sort of compromise that we see at King Hall where we have Men's, Women's, and Unisex bathrooms and people have the choice as to where to do their business. In my experience, all options are utilized, but I have yet to find a student who is made uncomfortable by the Unisex bathroom.

It always amazes me how incredibly uncomfortable people are with even the slightest bit of gender-bending. Unfortunately, I think that this intolerance is nearly one in the same with, or just a small step from, sexism and homophobia.

Rose Sawyer said...

I agree with AMA -- I like that King Hall gives the option of male, female, or gender-neutral restrooms. This seems a good way to make everyone comfortable and happy.

Alejandro said...

This blog post raises some interesting issues. I had previously not thought of the fact that there are individuals who, as another poster put it, do not conform to the idea that there are only two sexes; male and female. Unisex bathrooms would seem to offer the best solution for such individuals. I am aware also that many men and women seem to object to the idea of segregated restrooms, some even likening them to segregated segregated on the basis of race or ethnicity.

While I certainly understand this point of view (and believe that unisex bathrooms should be available in every facility), I can't help but think that to do away with gender-segregated bathrooms altogether would create more problems than it solves. For one thing, I would guess that most women, and a good number of men, would feel very uncomfortable sharing restroom space with members of the opposite sex. Were women-only and men-only restrooms to be done away with and replaced with unisex restrooms, I can imagine that many people would do everything possible to avoid using such restrooms or at least use them much less frequently.

Given these realities, I think that providing all three options (women-only, men-only, and unisex) is the best option in that it allows men and women to choose the type of environment they feel most comfortable in.