Bathrooms and discrimination have a long history together in America. Restricting bathroom access is a way to limit a minority group’s freedom of movement and their ability to exist in the public sphere. The debate over access can taint the minority group by association with the taboo subject of bodily functions, reinforcing the prejudice that these bodies are contaminated or inappropriately visible.
Kathryn Stockett’s popular novel The Help has been fairly criticized for centering a white-savior character, but my eyes and heart were opened by its depiction of the everyday indignities suffered by African-American domestic workers in the South in the 1960s. A flash point in the novel is one bigoted white woman’s campaign to make her Junior League cronies build separate outdoor toilets for their nonwhite employees. This arbitrary rule served no purpose but to signal the unworthiness of certain bodies, to punish them for having the most basic human needs.
Similarly, in Matt Ruff’s excellent new horror/satire novel Lovecraft Country, set in the Jim Crow 1950s, one of the main characters publishes The Safe Negro Travel Guide, the product of sometimes life-threatening research into which towns, motels, gas station bathrooms, and restaurants will tolerate African-American travelers. The protagonists’ run-ins with a secret society of white occultists are less troublesome than the effort to find a safe place to pee on a road trip between Florida and Illinois. The rules are set up to make it physically impossible for a black person to not break the law: either you’re arrested for using a white bathroom, or for loitering when you pull over to use the bushes.
This history should make us skeptical of the current manufactured panic over transgender bathroom use. I personally would prefer not to pee in bathrooms where anyone, of whatever gender expression, is using a urinal without walls around it, but I think it’s ridiculous and offensive to suggest that gendered bathrooms protect people from rapists. See, for example, this anonymous guest column for the British blog The Queerness, “Toilet transphobia: Sexual assault is not your weapon to wield” (trigger warning for rape description). The author was victimized in the public restroom of a bar:
I am a cisgender gay man. I was attacked by another man. This means that I am forced to undergo an incredibly painful process of re-adaptation to what should be the very banal everyday task of relieving myself when not in the comfort of my own home.
This is why I am so angry at those that would seek to deny trans people the right to use the appropriate toilets. It infuriates me that transphobes would effectively appropriate the trauma of sexual assault for their own nefarious purposes…
…The bottom line is this: I do not have the option of banning other men from public toilets on the grounds that men sometimes sexually assault other men there. Even if there were documented incidents of trans women assaulting cisgender women in such environments (there are literally none), the heinous actions of a minority should never lead to the collective punishment of an entire group. Terrible deeds are perpetrated by terrible people in a variety of scenarios and in all manner of circumstances.
Meanwhile, Buzzfeed columnist Shannon Keating connects the dots between civil rights issues then and now, in the recent piece “The Past Hundred Years of Gender-Segregated Public Restrooms”. Keating notes that separate women’s facilities (often inadequate compared to the number of men’s toilets in the same workplace) were first added to public buildings in the late 19th century because of Victorian paternalism towards white women in particular:
As women became more active in various aspects of public life, they had to be fitted into the interstitial spaces of a world that had not been built for them. (Male) architects and (male) city planners began to section off areas for them to exist out in the world, but without radically disrupting the precious social fabric of Man’s Land. These male decision-makers created separate spaces for women in everything from railroad cars to department stores to post offices…
…But of course, these comfortable, domestic, and hygienic safe havens were only ever afforded to white women. Decades before the “men in dresses will attack vulnerable ladies” ruse would be used to justify anti-trans bathroom discrimination, insinuations that racially desegregating public restrooms would harm white women proved a formidable barrier to achieving civil rights for black Americans. Today’s bugbear of the queer sexual deviant is directly preceded by the profoundly racist assumption, popularized after World War II, that black men would prey on white women should racial parity be established in public restrooms. As Gillian Frank detailed last November for Slate, the perceived sexual threat of sharing bathrooms with black people was coupled with a sanitary one — white women “emphasized that contact with black women in bathrooms would infect them with venereal diseases.” While separate women’s restrooms were indeed the product of sexist beliefs regarding women’s fragility and (lack of) power, white women were still afforded far more favorable restroom conditions than women of color — conditions they maintained for themselves through racist fearmongering.
Keating goes on to observe that our current bathroom arrangements also protect traditional masculinity at the expense of women and queer people. Our favorite movies reinforce the problem:
Public restrooms — and, perhaps even more strongly so, locker rooms — have always operated in the cultural imagination as sites of strict gender roles and compulsive heterosexuality…
…popular culture has long established tropes associated with each restroom. The men’s room is a place for aggressive macho posturing, bullying the weak, and artfully avoiding eye contact; women’s rooms, meanwhile, are hyper-feminine places for girls to get primped, gossip, cry, and avoid boys — boys who, in turn, fantasize about what goes on behind the closed girls’ room door. A number of ’80s teen movies, from Pretty in Pink to Porky’s to Fame, include scenes (which have inspired countless others) involving guys attempting to see into or enter the girls’ bathroom — and they either play the attempt for laughs or treat deeply creepy peeping Tom behavior with a cavalier “boys will be boys” shrug. While queer men in bathrooms are a threat, straight men are just guys doing what guys do.
In the shift from drama and comedy to horror, the bathroom becomes ground zero for violence against women. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho,the most famous bathroom scene in cinematic history involves a woman in the shower getting stabbed to death by Norman Bates, a notoriously genderqueer bad guy. In what’s arguably the other most famous bathroom scene of all time, The Shining’s Jack corners Wendy in the bathroom and proceeds to hack his way in. David Cronenberg’s Shivers, from 1975, features an absolutely repulsive scene involving a parasite that crawls up the bathroom drain and between a woman’s legs. And speaking of ’80s teen movies again, Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street gets an unwelcome visit from Freddy Krueger while she’s in the bath. If they want to avoid spiders and grudge monsters, women in horror films would do best to avoid the bathroom altogether. These scenes manage to sexualize the vulnerable and violated female body, while also suggesting that the Victorian paternalism of yore might still apply according to the fantastical versions of our modern conceptions: Women still need protecting.
Hollywood’s depiction of the bathroom reveals it to be one of the most powerful physical and social spaces when it comes to both revealing and informing our cultural anxieties around gender, bodily shame, abjection, disease, and sexual deviance. Just as the Equal Rights Amendment lost essential footing in the ’70s due to infamous counterprotestsclaiming that banning gender discrimination would result in unisex toilets (which, protesters cried, would enable sexual predators), so, too, have today’s social conservatives driven anti-trans panic by insisting that gender-neutral bathrooms would give (queer/trans) aggressors free rein to prey on girls. The mixing of genders in bathrooms, so our pop-cultural scripts go, results in awkward gags at best and rape and murder at worst. Anti-trans bathroom bills are, in part, the product of pop culture’s queerphobic and transphobic scripts…
…What we actually take for granted is why, exactly, public restrooms are segregated in the first place. We assume building codes are purely objective, rooted in science and dictated by function. Separated restrooms, in their guise of objectivity, only manage to reinforce age-old essentialist notions of binary gender difference. What would it mean to break down those walls?
The predator bogeyman — the impetus behind a million anti-trans petition signatures; a villain as potent, and as pretend, as Freddy Krueger — is not at the true heart of the bathroom maelstrom. Those who oppose equitable bathrooms are presumably far more afraid of what trans people represent than the nonexistent physical threat they pose. The expansive, complex, never-ending potential of gender, which separated bathrooms have veiled with the lie of their form-follows-function objectivity, is arguably what anti-trans protesters are trying to suppress — along with, of course, the fundamental fact of trans people’s humanity. Under the pretense of “privacy” and “safety,” social conservatives are stoking cultural anxieties around bodily privacy, genitalia, and sexual deviance in order to keep trans people from participating in the public sphere, a fate of bathroom exclusion that befell women, people of color, families, and disabled people before them. The bogus fear of an aggressor is, at root, most likely the fear of the Other gaining power.
Right now in my home state of Massachusetts, the Senate has passed an important bill to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity in public accommodations (hotels, restaurants, stores, hospitals, transportation, etc.). The House will hear debate on this legislation on June 1. Look for #TransBillMA on Twitter and visit the Freedom Massachusetts website for updates. If you live in MA and are transgender or gender-nonconforming, Freedom Massachusetts can use your stories of how you’ve been affected by discrimination in public places. Please contact them. Everyone else, talk to your legislators, and donate to support this historic campaign.