School's Out: The Bathroom Debate
Public bathrooms, man. They’re endlessly controversial. (One day, I will write a full essay on the topic. For fellow theory-heads, they’re a rich site—a space of the Lacanian real, the Foucauldian heterotopia, etc.). Using the public bathroom means going into a confined space among strangers (or worse, friends and lovers!) with gaps over and under and between stalls—no real buffers for the travel of sound and smell—and allowing your body to perform that which many of us are socialized to believe is dirty, impolite, and embarrassing. We know that there’s a huge amount of anxiety over this stuff. Some people get “stage fright” and some will go out of their way to avoid “going” until they get home. I remember in high school that the done thing was to set off the hand dryer to create white noise in order to cover any indiscreet sounds. Yet we continue to design most public washrooms in a way that seems to mortify people. I’m sure there are many people out there, too, who have rationalized away this anxiety, but still, I can never understand why we choose to inflict the psychic trauma on ourselves.
One of the most troubling anxieties of the public bathroom is one that purports to care about the safety of women and youth, but really only ends up further marginalizing, and perhaps sometimes outing, trans* people and other gender-variant folk. This space of the illicit—a place where we perform excretory functions, inextricable from all their associations with sexual functions—has all kinds of confused conceptual proximity to the vulnerability of children and what might happen to them in these semi-private spaces of semi-nudity.
I’ve mentioned Canada’s “Bathroom Bill” (C-389) before. This is a piece of legislation that has passed so far in the House of Commons and would positively affect trans* access to washrooms in Canada. My campus just celebrated its Pride week and as I write this, I’m on the road with my partner on the way to the Rainbow Health Conference in Ottawa, both of which this year have been impressively trans* focused and have made me think more about this Bill and surrounding debate.
In my hometown of London, ON, a trans-identified person was fired a few months ago from the Trails End Market because her presence in either gender-designated washroom was apparently so disturbing that the employer felt that terminating her employment was the only way to deal with the situation. (And not that this former employee is likely to do much shopping at the Trails End after the shameful way the situation was handled, but what would happen if she returned as a patron!? I can’t see how the overriding situation of washroom access is alleviated by the management abusing their power to conveniently displace this one person). Since the initial human rights complaint and petitions of support for the employee, backpedalling has been done and different perspectives have been offered, but the instance nonetheless illustrates the type of panic that sets in as soon as the fantasy of strict gender separation is disrupted in spaces of such vulnerability as the bathroom. One of the worst aspects of this knee-jerk reaction is the way that it appeals so often to the responsibility to protect youth in order to operate under the hard-to-critique guise of public safety.
Here’s where alarmist calls to “protect our children” and reactionary desires to keep people categorically separate like to bust out the trope of the “gender-deviant predator.” There’s been lots and lots of work debunking the association of child abuse with predatory homosexuality and the association of the presence of sexual or gender variance with moral corruption of society’s youth, so I don’t need to rehash that here. (If you’re interested in this topic, here’s a particularly fascinating take that starts with analyzing child sexual abuse, homosexuality and clergy—written by queer religious studies scholars and clergy.) But I do want to bring it up because these debates seem to rage on amongst the determinedly uninformed, and I want to do what I can keep the issue alive in the minds of those who bring critical perspectives to such questions. If there’s one clear lesson I’ve learned lately, it’s that we humans need reminding of the good ideas and good intentions we’ve formed in the past. (Like the rest of nature, we’re cyclical beings.)
A new plea for gender-defined separation that I came across recently (which still fails to address trans* people’s right to washroom access) included the idea that on university campuses where there are increasingly re-designated gender-neutral washrooms, the problem will be with “a bunch of sniggering sophomores using the gender-neutral bathroom simply because they can, and reducing the facility meant to provide privacy for a specific group to nothing more than a mere joke.” The author of this blog concludes that the idea of the genderless washroom is impractical because “boys will be boys, even in the university setting… Even as adults most of us are still grade schoolers.” Not that the idea even deserves to be rebutted, taking away focus from informed debate, but I have to say that I sincerely doubt that people who think gender-neutral bathrooms are “funny” and who enact their vision of humor by using it to harass sexy members of a different gender (aaand the conversation yet again becomes about heterosexuality!) would be equally likely to express their discomfort by staying the eff away.
Also, how much evidence is there that this happens with single-stall bathrooms that already exist and aren’t associated with trans* or other needs around gender, sexuality? Are we forgetting that people do things in private contexts, too, like have house parties with lots of drunk people who need washrooms? Why no regulatory panic about this behavior? (Probably, I think, because teenage partying is construed as consummately “normal” and people like to imagine that if there were a trans* person in their midst, they’d know all about it). Why not the same level of moralizing about what it means when my partner and I walk into the same bathroom holding hands? Plus, most of the washrooms that have come to have this designation were previously—or still are—designated as accessible washrooms for people with disabilities. Accessible and “family”-designated washrooms are already spaces that respond to the needs of different gender users. As far as I know, a fair amount of male-designated washrooms don’t have baby changing tables, which puts male-identified parents and guardians in a tricky spot, much like the situation parents or caregivers of any gender may face if they’re traveling with a child of a different gender. Differently abled people who travel with caregivers of a different gender may also require a washroom where they are both allowed. Many accessible and family washrooms are single stall/single room, anyhow.
There’s so much to say about all of this, and there are ways in which even the small piece of analysis I’ve offered here can be further troubled, but what I want to add to the debate is that:
- It’s a dirty trick to invoke the “safety of children” in this conversation both because this phrasing implies a connection between non-normative gender and sexual predation/moral corruption, AND because makes it sound as though there aren’t also trans* parents and trans* children;
- Issues of gender and washroom accessibility go way beyond “accommodating” people who fall under the Human Rights Code rubric of “sexual and gender diversity”;
- It’s useful to be aware of the ways in which these public conversations not only retrench cis-heterosexuality as the moral norm but also keep finding ways to displace the focus from trans* peoples’ rights back onto the desires and activities of cis-heterosexuals. This isn’t just a failure of human rights, it’s also a subtler epistemic violence;
- I dunno, maybe we might also want to re-think the design of the public washroom in general?
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