Gina Maya | 3 April 2017.
Bears do it in the woods, they say, but Westerners do it as God ordained it, in a room labelled male or female. Never mind that gender-segregated toilets appeared not in Biblical times but the Victorian age; the issue of public toilets is becoming one of the touchstones of our post-Brexit, post-Trump age, regarding who goes where, and whether or not trans- or non-binary-identifying people count as legitimate.
Let’s start at the beginning, or at least, a beginning: in February 2017, the Trump administration announced they would remove federal protection from trans/non-binary-identifying pupils entering the school restroom of their preference. The move goes counter to Obama’s support for the trans/non-binary demographic, and is described as a policy of ‘conservative Christian lawmakers.’ Although it’s easy to be facetious and ask what Christ ever said about such a policy, the conservative aspect is one that needs to be respected, because nothing seems more traditional than gender. How could it not be if all we know is the gender binary, a historical narrative that goes as far back as any recorded time and place?
Writing as a transwoman, I don’t see this as just another Trumped-up moral scare, though it is that as well. On the other end of the scale in this past fortnight, and not wholly tangentially, the liberal paper The Guardian has run stories or articles on or from three different women in the public eye who try to distance female identity from trans-female identity, underlining our attachment to the gender binary and its cultural-biological basis. It echoes a perspective several decades old, of the transwoman as predator, as caricature, or at the very least, as someone without the lifetime experience of female disempowerment. I sympathise with the latter point in particular, but I’m wary of such public pronouncements, as I wonder where such a discussion is meant to go. Is it to suggest a different social label to go with different facilities, not just toilets but changing rooms, university-organized ‘night’ buses, as well as certain spaces on particular days designated ‘women-only’, for example at swimming pools, bars, and the like? At a time when more and more children and teenagers are coming out as trans and living their preferred gender much sooner, what does trans even mean, and how do you draw the line on the difference? Unless, of course, the idea is to delegitimise trans identity to oblivion, and force people back into two neat boxes, an advanced civilization that categorizes people according to A or B.
We may already be past that tipping point where humanity can be classified so conveniently, as the trans and non-binary minorities grow in size and voice. In my own example of ‘all politics is local,’ the first floor of my college is having gender-neutral toilets replace those designated for male and female, a first step to converting all four floors eventually. It’s certainly a solution to the binary-based system that some of us don’t conform too. Yet I’m conscious it’s not straightforward, as there are two significantly different ways of doing gender-neutral for the masses: a single room with a toilet and sink, like the disabled toilet, or multiple cubicles with shared washing facilities. For reasons of economy, I expect the latter to prevail in the main, as it will at my college building, and I can see why they’re rolling this out carefully.
What will communal gender-neutral toilets mean for people? For the Muslim who washes before prayers, will the absence of gender-segregation matter? Will women feel safe, mixing with the men? The change will affect us all in different ways, even if it’s hard not to resort to clichés – including the toilet-seat issue – with etiquettes to consider, or reinforce. There are myths to be confronted too: are women to lose their nicer, more fragrant area, or are men cleaner than we think, and women less so? Will a shared toilet space remove the mystique we hold for each other, as the forbidden disappears? That ritual of two women off for a mirror-and-make-up conversation in the safety of the ladies’ – will it disappear, or was it ever really there? Is the decor pink or blue, or do we settle for another colour, or no colour at all, just the blank slate of white? Speaking of changes, will all men sit, regardless of the purpose of their visit? And will we be in our cubicle, thinking more anxiously than ever about the neighbour next door and what they’re thinking about us and hearing from us?
Is this last question too close to the bone, or does it blow things out of proportion? But perhaps this is the point; we’re talking about a room that should function as nothing more than the facility where a person expels their waste. The restroom should not be glamourized as part of a rose-tinted past, as a safe-room against some bestial other, or as a symbol of our identity. Because humanity is more complex and worthy than to be protected or defined by a public toilet.
I’ve just started an English-Lit PhD on transgender discourse. I enjoy watching great films, and reading the reviews of bad ones. I love Edinburgh, and hate its weather. I’ve read Derrida, and didn’t understand it. My cultural highlight is driving along highways in Saudi Arabia while listening to Lady Gaga.
Article edited by Anahit Behrooz and Robyn Pritzker.