Thursday, June 16, 2011

What about teh bathroomz?

This Sunday, I'll be volunteering in support of the Massachusetts Transgender Equal Rights Bill, which would add gender identity and expression to the state civil rights laws which prohibit employment/housing/education discrimination and establish penalties for hate crimes.

One of the most common objections raised to this sort of legislation is also sort of silly--the public bathroom issue. People are concerned that it'll be easier for people to get into the "wrong" bathroom and make people uncomfortable or perv on them or even assault them. Which I think is ridiculous on its face; it contains the unspoken assumption that trans people are dangerous, and that bathroom segregation is a crucial safety measure. Plus, there's been no epidemic of people dressing up as cis members of the other gender to sneak into bathrooms. (I think guys have actually caught on that we just pee in there. All we do is squat and pee and ideally wash our hands. It is not exciting.)

But this raises a major objection to bathroom paranoia: what about teh cis people?

Because, let's face it, there are some women assigned as women and living as women who, by fashion choices and/or genetics, look awfully masculine. (Ditto feminine men.) If we decide that bathrooms have to be used according to assigned sex, how are these people going to prove they belong? How does a stranger, on casual observation of a clothed person, know their assigned sex? Sure, the spectre of cis people having to somehow prove their gender in order to take a leak is as ludicrous as it is offensive... but so is the spectre of evil trans people hiding in bathrooms waiting to strike.

Personally, I'd like all bathrooms to be unisex, and I think they'd quickly become no more dangerous or awkward than a unisex reading room or unisex elevator. But failing that, we should at least not enforce the bathroom thing. Not only is letting people use whatever bathroom they want a reasonable accommodation for trans people, not only is it a reasonable accommodation for many cis people, but it also helps guarantee the safety of both cis and trans people. Because I have a suspicion that far more people have been assaulted or threatened in the context of bathroom enforcement than have ever been menaced by cross-dressed bathroom lurkers.

I've been fascinated lately by the slipperiness of gender, and this is just another example of how impossible it is to enforce rules based on the idea that gender is not only binary and biological--but binary, biological, and obvious.


  1. And there'd be more bathrooms available for everyone. There is nothing more frustrating than waiting a million years for the women's room while the men's room has crickets.

  2. Anon - The men's room only has one stall, though, so this is still dependent upon your urinal technique.

  3. I wonder if some of the paranoia isn't because men have far less privacy in the bathroom than women. It's weird to me that men are expected to whip it out where everyone can see. It would make me feel vulnerable if I had to pee with the door open in public. And I probably wouldn't want dudes watching me do it. I understand that trans women aren't just dudes in dresses but a lot of people don't. So...more privacy in men's bathrooms! Or unisex bathrooms with privacy, as you mention. My college had unisex public bathrooms in the dorms and it was FINE.

  4. The only reason I've ever seen a point to separate bathrooms is that I have so often used them as a safe space. In this context, my feeling of safety depends largely on the exclusion of cis-men because they are the ones who have a history of making me feel unsafe.

    As far as the prescribed use for bathrooms, I honestly don't care, so long as everyone who stands to pee keeps their aim true or at least wipes the damn seat.

    You might be interested to know that one of the buildings at my alma mater did have a unisex bathroom (previously a mens) with open urinals and closed stalls. Made for a few awkward moments but no real issues.

  5. I think people who want to keep bathrooms separate usually, like Kristin, want to keep cis men out, not trans people.

    I don't feel this way (and I am not saying Kristin does), but I've heard people make an argument that goes like this:

    There are creepy men out there who want to invade women's space, whether it's their actual bodies, their personal space, or just to fluster them. For one of these men, coming in the women's bathroom would be an exciting violation of some women's personal area, so they want to do it and be creepy about it even if they don't have a pee fetish or something. If people can just say they belong in a bathroom and we have to believe them, then not only will trans people come in, but random creepy men will just show up and leer at us and there's nothing we can do about it!!

    I think the people who make this kind of argument are the same people who strictly gender police. In their eyes, being able to immediately tell if someone is a man is the only way to protect themselves from men. Androgynous people make that harder, which stresses them out. But even more stressful, because they feel like women's spaces are safe, and belong to them, an androgynous person could penetrate the womanly mysteries and then turn out to really be a man. And that would be a terrible violation of some amorphous womanhood and make them all at risk for rape.

    Okay, so this has nothing to do with actual assault, is some prime rape culture by treating men as a violent force of nature, and also seems like a pretty unpleasant way to live. But when people bring out the "what about the bathrooms," I don't think it's trans people per se that they are afraid of, it's the breakdown of their supposed ability to protect themselves from men. Also they kiiiind of don't think trans people are real, but don't want to admit it to you.

    My college had a few single-sex halls, which only had a bathroom for that sex. Most of the time the hall would agree to make their bathrooms co-ed. I mean you don't only have single-sex friends over! So they ended up with even more gender mixing. It was not even a little awkward.

  6. The bathrooms in my dorm (stalls -and- showers) are co-ed (granted, I'm studying in Europe) and the only issue I ever had was a blindingly pale Slovenian traipsing about in a speedo. It was a little harsh on the eyes.

  7. Emma - My answer to that is that trans women (and cis women, for that matter) still aren't allowed to be creepy in a women's bathroom. If you silently get your thrills just from being in the bathroom, then... good for you, I guess. But if you behave in a creepy way, then you deserve to be thrown out of the bathroom and/or have the cops called, for reasons that have nothing to do with gender.

    And I add myself to the list of people who lived in a dorm with co-ed bathrooms and nothing bad happened. And they were considerably cleaner than the women-only ones; maybe because it was less "private," the unisex environment seemed to discourage the leaving of horrible bloody/poopy messes.

  8. Getting rid of gender rules on bathrooms helps a lot of people: trans people, ambiguous-looking people, people with small children of the opposite gender, handicapped people with attendants of the opposite gender. It would help the father and grown Downs Syndrome daughter at my local pool; she could use supervision in the locker room but he's not allowed in. It would help me, because then I wouldn't have to hunt down a guy to find out if my son is getting up to mischief in the men's locker room. It's just a win on so many levels.

    My Pagan group did women-only events (as well as open ones) for a while because women felt they needed safe space to talk about their issues. We had a trans woman in that group, and she was totally an asset to it. She became the wise old woman of our women-only events, and it would have been a big loss if she'd been excluded.

    If the problem is would-be rapists in the bathroom, what we need to do is prosecute the hell out of rapists, not block innocent people who just need to pee.

  9. My sophmore year of college, I lived in a house that had been converted into dorm rooms. It was all women. There was a single-person bathroom upstairs, which we immediately agreed to make officially unisex, but in practice, a lot of guys used the larger downstairs bathroom too. It worked out fine, because all of us who lived there knew each other fairly well, and we knew that no one would be getting in who wasn't a guest of someone living there. (The outside doors were always locked, partly because Women living alone aren't safe!!! and mostly because security couldn't be bothered to walk that far off campus to unlock them every morning.) So we were all confident that nobody creepy would get in, as you say. Getting people in the regular dorms to feel that way seems to be much harder, unfortunately.

  10. I knew I loved the school I'm going to when I walked on campus and saw unisex bathrooms.

    I've used the men's bathroom a few times when the line for the women's was huge. I felt all daring and subversive, even though my reasons for doing it were practical, not political.

    I took an all-afternoon field trip with my newly-transitioning brother, and he mentioned at the end that he was looking forward to going home and using the bathroom. He'd avoided doing so all day because he didn't want to deal with the problems of using either gender's bathroom. Made me sad.

  11. Unisex bathrooms make me inordinately happy, and through happy coincidence, my work has one. (Well, it's a women's bathroom. But the men in the office sure as hell aren't going to walk all the way to find a different one, so it's officially unisex.)

    Also, I find the concept of a bathroom as a safe-space completely laughable. I mean, seriously, are there gender laser cannons that prevent the wrong people from going in? Does the TSA screen people? I MUST KNOW THE MAGIC!


  12. What I like about this is that genderqueers apparently never get to go in any bathroom at all.

  13. Holly,

    I totally agree with you. I just think it's helpful when talking to "what about the bathrooms!" people that they're often afraid because they think of gender role segregation as something that keeps them safer and more comfortable, and not just picking on trans people for the lulz. Not because it excuses it, but to address it.

    Rogan - It is totally laughable! And since gender laser cannons are still in prototype and the TSA won't return their calls, they have to glare at everyone who confuses them. The glare is the substitute gender-sorting laser cannon.

    Ozy - it works if you imagine that everyone really is either a man or a woman, and genderqueer people are just fucking with you. Or trying to get the special privilege of, um, having someone recognize the importance of their gender identity. Which would be a special privilege for them even though my strawman bathroom warrior is, of course, completely obsessed with their own gender identity and thinks it should rule all.

  14. My fav coffee shop is really really tiny and thus has one unisex bathroom with four stalls, each with a full length problem. There's also a fantastically cool tub sink with a wrought iron grate over it and spigots that extend down from the ceiling to hand height.

    I have no problems with unisex bathrooms as long as there are stalls = privacy and they are kept clean. It's totally unfair for androgynous-looking or trans-people to have to navigate having zero clear options.

  15. While we're on the subject, here's a super awesome resource for trans people, gender-ambiguous-looking folks, and other bathroom activists:

  16. Emma said: The only reason I've ever seen a point to separate bathrooms is that I have so often used them as a safe space. In this context, my feeling of safety depends largely on the exclusion of cis-men because they are the ones who have a history of making me feel unsafe.

    Ditto here. Women have rarely behaved toward me in a way that skeeved me out, but men frequently stare at me in ways that make me uncomfortable. I can't help feeling like if these guys get so worked up just knowing that I have a vagina under my jeans, lord only knows how they'll behave knowing my jeans are down and there's only a little partition keeping them from full access.

    What I really want is a bathroom with no creepy people allowed. But there's no feasible way to institute this, and since men have made me feel unsafe far more often than women have, gender segregation seems like the next best thing.

    Holly said: But if you behave in a creepy way, then you deserve to be thrown out of the bathroom and/or have the cops called, for reasons that have nothing to do with gender.

    Agreed...but a) something actually has to happen before you can call the authorities (whereas in theory, segregation keeps the icky things from happening in the first place) and b) so much of "icky" is subjective and not something legally actionable. If I tell a cop, "This person was leering at me and it made me really uncomfortable!" the other person is just gonna go "No I wasn't! I was totally minding my own business!" and then what?

    Just to be perfectly clear: I am emphatically pro trans rights and think it's ludicrous that trans folk should be hassled over their bathroom use. I am also quite aware that most men are perfectly harmless and that some women are rapists (or just creepy as fuck). I'm simply saying that in my own life, I've had a lot more bad incidents with men than with women so my knee-jerk reaction is that bathroom segregation is safer and better.

  17. That's interesting. Most "omg skeevy people in bathroom" talk I hear is from parents worrying about their young son(s) going in to the men's room alone. In which case: why not unisex bathrooms?

  18. Yeah, I think you missed the boat with "Which I think is ridiculous on its face; it contains the unspoken assumption that trans people are dangerous."

    I don't know how men feel about this issue, but I'm pretty sure most women aren't worried about trans people in their bathrooms slightest. I think women are worried about this turning into a slippery slope to unisex bathrooms whereby *men* (cis OR trans) are being allowed into their bathrooms.

    Whether it's effective or not, whether it's ridiculous or not, women are told over and over and over again not to be alone with strange men: don't be alone with a man in an elevator. Don't be alone with a man in a stairwell. Don't be alone with a man in a parking lot.'s difficult, but not impossible, to wait until the elevator/stairwell/parking lot is empty before using it. It can be a LOT more difficult to wait and wait until the bathroom is empty before venturing in.

    Yes, as we always say, none of these strategies prevent rape, since only not-raping prevents rape. But it doesn't mean women don't internalize these messages anyway.

    (And this doesn't even touch on how strictly women are socialized to pretend they do not have bodily functions when men are around, as you've pointed out in past Cosmockings.)

  19. It always gives me the sads when I see a place with identical one-person, locking-door bathrooms, and they STILL have the little stick-figure and stick-figure-with-triangle signs on them.

  20. Anonymous at 7:49-- "I'm pretty sure most women aren't worried about trans people in their bathrooms slightest." And yet, things like this still happen:

    If they think that trans women are "really" men, then "a woman who happens to be trans using the bathroom" looks to them like "a creepy man dressed up as woman and trying to sneak into the women's bathroom", and there you are. Trans people are being viewed as dangerous. I think you're certainly right that the meme that being alone with a strange man is dangerous contributes to women being uncomfortable with men in their bathrooms, but that doesn't mean there isn't transphobia involved too.

  21. We usually convert the 3rd-floor public bathrooms (there's a men's and women's pair on each of the first three floors) at the Winter Flea to gender-neutral ones. And sadly, every now and then someone complains that someone of the (apparent) OPPOSITE GENDER was in THEIR bathroom, and we have to gently explain how it works to them. And sometimes hand them the program book that explains it further. And occasionally we have to speak quite firmly to them to tell them that no, they can't wall the bathroom off just because they'd like it to be their Identified-Gender Fortress of Solidarity and will only feel comfortable weeweeing if they can lock out everyone different from them. But we've had less problems each year; folks seem to be slowly getting the concept.

  22. I'm all for gender-neutral bathrooms, but locker rooms? No thank you.

  23. "More privacy in Men's rooms please!"

    ...but urinals are so much more efficient.

  24. They could at least put walls between the urinals, armorsmith...hell, maybe some men's rooms have those for all I know...but to the best of my knowledge it tends to be either a urinal attached to the wall in plain view or some kind of fancy trough.

    I never did understand why society made men obsessed with their dick size and then constructed men's public showers and toilets so dudes' junk would be on display all the time. Seems kinda mean.

  25. You really have to work a bit to actually see someone's junk at a urinal. I still prefer stalls, though.

  26. As a woman who often goes to concerts, all I'll say to that is, I've yet to run into a problem going to the men's room, because I sure as hell won't be waiting for half an hour just to pee under a triangle, when the stick figure room is empty.

    Running into guys there, too, never did more than lift an eyebrow.

    My experience outside of the clubbing scene, though, is that most companies, unless they're quite large (aka, factories), have unisex bathrooms. Dorms almost exclusively too. Or, at least, if I'm in my boyfriend's room, I sure as hell won't be walking two stories up or to the other building just to pee in the right facilities. Me and everybody else included.

    This (non)issue confuses me.

  27. I want all unisex bathrooms for three reasons:

    - separate but equal is not fair

    - it would be easier for families

    - and because studies have shown they can be safer for everyone

  28. re: locker rooms, I know cis women who hate changing in front of other cis women. Can't they have a few little curtained-off enclosures like a boutique changing room, for anyone who has a preference for privacy? I just feel like the accommodations would not be that spendy, and people would get used to the unisex setup, and we need to just effin GET there.


  29. Also re: locker rooms. After spending the first part of my life as a female athlete who often played sports on men's teams and then the second part of my life as a dancer, I can and have changed my clothes/gear anywhere, no matter who was around...that doesn't bother me in the least (and the very brief flashes of skin are *brief* and not at all sexy). But at the same time, I really feel self-conscious and uncomfortable in anything that is even vaguely revealing, like plunging necklines and too-short skirts. However, I totally get how some women are more than happy to expose more flesh in public but loathe public changerooms. Conclusion: It's contextual and individual, but socialization plays a big part too. I think we are smart and creative enough to come up with flexible option for everyone.

    As a compromise, i kind of like the male/female/whatever trio I see in more and more public washrooms...larger traditional male/female facilities and then another single unit for a parent with an opposite sex child, trans people, handicapped, or anyone who wants a little privacy for whatever reason.

  30. First, I think the "men in bathrooms scare women" is a little too paranoid since that would imply that whereever men gather they gang up to frighten/threaten/molest/... women and we don't want to think that, do we? If a pervert wants to chase someone up to their cabin, they have some sort of deeper problem, which makes them a minority and also the sort of person one wouldn't want to encounter anywhere.
    Secondly, I have yet to use a urinal for women, which would be cool.
    My favourite anecdote about that is how disgusting the toilet seats in the bathroom at my school are (seggregated, of course); some women seem to think that not sitting on a toilet seat is neccessary to prevent them from eeew-skingerms. How can you relax the neccessary muscles like that? And don't they realize that this leaves actually icky spots?

  31. Leida, I think the idea is not that women can never be around a group of men for fear of her life, it's that bathrooms are a particularly vulnerable place. You could literally be caught with your pants down.

    I have to say, while I think there should be gender neutral bathrooms available for whoever wants them, given a choice, I would probably still go into a women's room, or a single-user one. I just don't want to watch anyone pee in a urinal.

  32. Emma

    If a rapist wants to rape you, where your pants are at that moment is pretty much irrelevant, and the chances of them saving you by being 10 inches higher are... marginal at best.

    And if you don't want to watch anyone pee in a urinal... how about don't look, then? Isn't that exactly what we keep on telling people when they complain at whateverthefuck they want to complain that day happening in the streets?

  33. RE: Anonymous

    I am a trans man. I have never dared used the men's bathroom, because I'm terrified of having the shit beaten out of me.

    I can't help but wonder where these women so scared of men think I pee. Under the rug?


  34. Ice -

    I'm not advocating segregated bathrooms as an actual rape-prevention strategy, I'm saying that people feel more vulnerable in the bathroom than out on the street. As in the proverbial, "caught with my pants down." It's pervasive and we have to address it in order to actually convince people to install co-ed bathrooms in public places.

    Like I said above, I've used co-ed bathrooms before and it was fine. I lived on a hall my senior year of college that only had a co-ed bathroom. But since a lot of other people on this thread have been saying that everything would be easier and totally non-awkward if every bathroom was mixed, I wanted to chime in and say that I enjoy my urinal-free existence and should every bathroom become mixed, I would be that weird girl going to starbucks to pee in privacy in a single-user bathroom. It's still less important than trans and otherwise people's need for safety and recognition.

  35. I was discussing this with my brother.
    We decided you could have the urinals in an off-to-the-side bit so uncomfy people wouldn't have to see it.

  36. Not to mention that it is unlikely that violence in bathrooms is restricted to cis-trans, or opposite-gender violence. It's perfectly possible for people of the same gender to assault one another in bathrooms. My university had unisex bathrooms, and even though I lived in a dorm with some sketchy folks, I never felt unsafe there.

    I have always felt a little sad that, if a trans friend of mine visited me here in Asia, if I wanted to take him to the bathhouse I would essentially be asking him to be okay with pretending to be someone he's not. He's a very practical person and it's doubtful it would bother him much, but it's so unfair!

  37. If a rapist wants to rape you, where your pants are at that moment is pretty much irrelevant, and the chances of them saving you by being 10 inches higher are... marginal at best.

    As someone who does martial arts, I would like to object to the idea that the tactical position of having one's pants fully on is in no way superior to having them around one's knees.

    Because if I have to get into a fight, I either want my pants all the way on, or all the way off. Halfway in between is going to seriously fuck with my combat readiness.

  38. Reminds me of this ad a few years back:

  39. I'm frankly a little more concerned with the people who are trying so hard to find out whether the other person in the restroom with them is male or female. Are they bugging you? Alert someone to the fact that there's a creepy person in the bathroom. Male or female, that's not ok. Are they leaving you alone, and just using the bathroom? Then STOP TRYING TO LOOK AT THEIR JUNK! Seriously, when I go to the bathroom, what I want, far more than a gender-specific "safe space", is some goddamn privacy while I do what I'm there to do. Grant the other people in there with you the same privacy, and don't stare at them or play guessing games or try to peek to see which way their feet go when they're peeing. That's just basic common courtesy, which you should have learned before you were old enough to go to the bathroom by yourself.

    Honest to Pete, people, mind your business.

  40. I’m following on from perversecowgirl and Emma’s comments mainly, and probably am mainly just rephrasing what’s already been said but here we go…
    People that don’t want trans women in the bathroom probably either think 1) they are men pretending to be women to get into the ladies loos for some nefarious purpose in which case it’s outright transphobia) or 2) it’s the start of a slippery slope to unisex toilets where men are allowed in. The second reason is particularly interesting since it’s easy to argue that women’s toilets are the *only* socially approved space specifically for women.

    Gender-segregated toilets, strangely, make a safe space that actually belongs to women. The argument up-thread was that if someone were being creepy in a mixed loo then you would report it anyway because being a creep is wrong…. but how often do women feel they have the right to complain about a creep, and know that they will be believed even if they do? A man being in a women’s loo is *socially wrong*, and therefore can be reported and believed, or acted upon directly through violence, sadly for the genderqueer and trans folk who do get the shit beaten out of them, on that fact alone, without the worry of trying to convince someone (usually another man) in authority that some boundary was crossed.

    This is in addition to the points about social female indoctrination that you should never be alone with a strange man *because he might rape you*. This point has double the strength when you realise that in a loo, there is no escaping the fact that men have penises i.e. the thing with which they could rape you, and that you are in the weakened position of literally having your pants down and your ‘lady bits’ exposed.

    There is also all the other “feminine” behaviour that goes on in the ladies’ loos – applying make up, crying, gossiping, escaping the creepy guy trying to chat you up in the club etc. Without the loos, where would women be able to do these things without fear of reproach? Any other public space automatically becomes male if a man walks in and there’s nothing the women present can do about it.

    It doesn’t matter that the women’s toilets could easily become unsafe if a man so chose to invade them, because generally what man would? He’s a “man”, why would he use the girls’ bathroom?!! If he does, he clearly looses man points and is a {sexist, homophobic insult of choice}. So in a way the gender roles for men help make the women’s toilets ‘safe’.

    All this sucks and is poor justification for why trans women should not be allowed to use the women’s toilets but I think it makes clear why a lot of people’s gut reactions, are ‘just, no!’ Theoretically and practically, I am all for unisex loos but whenever I’ve had to use one I feel really jumpy and get out as fast as I can even though I know it should not be a problem. I assume this feeling would go away if unisex loos were par for the course, as has been mentioned above.

  41. Also, "hi"! I love your blog Holly. De-lurking now. :)

  42. Leida, I totally agree on the disgusting nature of women's bathrooms at times. I'm willing to bet that the same women who bitch at men about leaving the toilet seat up at home are the same women who are too dainty to let their butts touch the public toilet seat so they hover and spray all over, leaving a disgusting mess for the next person. Lift the seat if you're too paranoid or use one of the paper butt gaskets if they are supplied! Can't blame men for that one ;)

  43. If anyone already said something like this, I'm sorry, too tired to read all the comments
    the whole bathroom issue is meaningless anyway. A female enough looking man could dress up as a woman anytime, if he wanted to watch women in the bathroom. Also, lesbians and gays have to use the bathrooms of their same sex, which might also be seen as threatening to some.(I wouldn't want a member of any sex watch me pee). By enforcing laws on any gender- sexual orientation, in my opinion this situation actually gets safer and less of a threat, because all of those preferences get recognized easier by the public. If anything, we could install more bathrooms. Who says it's only the heteros who feel uncomfortable sharing a toilet with all those different people? If I was lesbian I would feel weird in public showers.
    And if they are talking about dangerous people: a rapist or murderer would find a way, weird feelings alone are no excuse for discrimination.