Wednesday 9 July 2014

That Whole Bathroom Thing

One of the issues which seems to really face trans people who are out and about in society is what toilet they should use, and what reaction they might face when they get in there. Can it really be that much of a big deal?

Unequivocal: Bathroom Sign
This topic entered my mind the other day when I went to work and noticed a sign which looked a bit like this one. It might be worth a discussion of what this sign actually says.

This sign is an example of what linguists call proto-writing; the sort of thing you see on road signs and the like. The idea is that the sign conveys a message which is clear even to people who cannot read, and is designed to be culture-independent. It contains a diagrammatic representation of two figures. One of the figures is a rudimentary outline of a human body, where the other has a triangular body to represent a dress or skirt.

Nowhere on this sign does it say "Men" or "Women". Genitalia are not depicted. Chromosomes are not discussed. The presence or absence of any characteristic is not questioned, other than some vague depiction of clothing.

It would seem quite reasonable, according to this sign, for people wearing skirts to turn right, while people wearing trousers should turn left. So why should anyone object if a man dressed in a skirt wanted to turn right? But how many women, wearing jeans, would turn left?

Different cultures
I know, of course, that this sign is a convenient shorthand. We know what it means, even if what it means isn't quite what it says.

This sign isn't quite as cross-cultural as it purports to be. In some countries, robe-like garments are common for both men and women. On a trip to the Middle East once, I was amused to see a toilet sign which had identical images for male and female, wearing robes, except that the female one was pinched in around the middle to represent a waist, where the male one wasn't.

I didn't take a picture of the sign, but this one is reasonably similar. It is a reminder that our Western cultural norms are not shared worldwide; that some cultures would look at the figure on the right (above) and decide the skirt was indecently short.

Trans people can find themselves in a real pickle about bathrooms. For example, Victoria Askey says of her transwoman spouse Treva:
Victoria: I hate the fact that she has to go through... wondering which toilets she can use without causing problems. I mean, use the men's and get beaten up, use the women's and get some female complaining, use the disabled and get someone complaining, and this can all be in front of my children. Some people don't seem to think before reacting. I hate the fact we are stared at. What happens if we go some place and she needs to use the toilet but there is no option to her? Then we have to come home just so she can pee.
Meanwhile, Rachel in Auckland reports this:
Rachel: After my drink, I need to visit the ladies room, weaving in and out amongst all the tables, a pretty blond woman stood (6ft 2 in heels to my 5ft 11) and motored her way to the ladies, just beating me. After she entered, she held the door open for me and smiled.
And Megan, one of my correspondents, writes:
Megan: To my surprise, women are somewhat friendly and just assume you're gay and have no interest in them. One particular outing, a young lady about 22 or so noticed the stall door lock was broken and asked me to guard it while she was in there. Fox watching the hen house came to mind! As she left, she guarded it for me.
Victoria is in the UK, Rachel in New Zealand, and Megan is in the US. So perhaps there is a cultural aspect to it. Perhaps some countries (or cities) are fine, where others are not. So hard to know for sure. Why do I have to rely on the word of my correspondents? Because I don't (yet) go out dressed, so I have never had to face up to this problem in a practical sense.

The solution?
I don't doubt that there are dozens of stories, good and bad, about trans people in bathrooms. I found myself in a debate with some radical feminists on the Gender Trender blog about this issue. Though I tried to be reasonable and balanced, it didn't work; I was roundly flamed, and everyone had plenty of fun calling me "Mr Vivienne" and so on. I suppose some people resort to insults because they can't argue articulately.

Nonetheless, some of them had a point to make, and I think it's worth bringing out that point here. How would a woman feel if she went into a public bathroom and found someone who was clearly a male-to-female transgender person?

Some women, such as the women that Rachel and Megan met, seem to be genuinely untroubled. It seems no big deal to them. But I am reasonably sure this isn't true of everyone. Some women might feel really uncomfortable. Some women might feel threatened, or in danger. How do those women react? Most likely they say nothing, avoid eye contact, hoping that this unwelcome interloper will quietly go away. That reaction may be misinterpreted as acceptance. In other words, just because the women in a public bathroom don't run screaming when a crossdresser walks in, doesn't mean they are all comfortable and accepting.
Random Radfem:  It is also not the responsibility of any woman to object to your presence. Most woman are not going to confront a man- probably a much physically larger man- in an enclosed private room. No matter how uncomfortable they are made to feel, it is safer to get out than to risk the chance of being physically attacked if the man in question is mentally unhinged.
Seriously inclusive
I think that some male-to-female transgender people deliberately seek to insinuate themselves into spaces which are traditionally women-only, as a means of validating their identity as women. The radical feminists see this as a violation, a masculine act: the imposition of male privilege on other people, whether they object or not. Nonetheless, I don't see this. I see it as being essentially a personal thing, perhaps even a selfish thing:  I think the transgender people are trying to say: “look what a real woman I am”; rather than saying “women do not deserve legal recognition”. I don't accept the radical feminists' express accusation, which is that any trans person in a women's bathroom is a sexual predator with the intention of molesting its occupants.

(I am reasonably certain that a crossdresser visiting the men's bathroom while dressed, would provoke anger, outrage and bewilderment. Mind you, this isn't a subject on which I have read much at all).

Why is it that bathrooms have become the battlefield upon which these bloody conflicts are played out? In this wonderful article from The Atlantic, journalist Julie Beck analyses our attitudes to public bathrooms.
Beck: The public collides uncomfortably with the private in the bathroom as it does nowhere else, and the unique behaviors we perform stem from a complex psychological stew of shame, self-awareness, design, and gender roles. This culturally agreed-upon separation creates unique single-sex spaces. There is perhaps no other arena that so stridently reinforces gender separation and difference.

Biologically speaking, men and women don’t need separate bathrooms—they’re using them for the same reasons. While there are a few functional differences—many men prefer to pee standing, women need receptacles to throw away tampons and pads—it’s not hard to imagine a unisex bathroom that would, at least in theory, work for everyone.
The public bathroom is therefore a focal point in the behaviour of men and women. Beck comments that men and women behave very differently in public bathrooms. Women are more relaxed, chatting, sharing makeup, where men avoid eye-contact, don't speak to each other, and don't even stand near one another if they can help it.

This cartoon came from a website for librarians.
As an aside, I am indebted to Beck's article for making me realise that I am not alone in being too uncomfortable to pee in the presence of strangers. Where possible, I choose a cubicle in public toilets, because I need privacy, otherwise I can't go. It seems there are plenty of people out there who are worse than me in this regard!

Overall, then, these are my thoughts about the whole bathroom thing. First, I think that men who wear women’s clothing in public are, in general, politely tolerated. While I completely welcome this, I think this tolerance is a privilege; I do not see it as a right. (And, as I have mentioned on this blog, there are some people who are not helping the cause here).

Next, I think that women should be entitled to safe, women-only spaces, for any reason they think fit, or even for no reason at all. For me, this means that they are entitled to object to the presence of a trans person in the women's public bathroom. If someone objected to my presence in any public space (e.g. a mall, an airport, a library) I would quietly leave without making a scene or causing a disturbance. If someone objected to my presence in a women-only bathroom, I would immediately leave without question. I do actually worry that it might offend someone or make them uncomfortable, and for me at least, this would not be OK.

I think that things are changing. I have noticed several restaurants in my town which just have a series of unisex cubicles. No problem. Beck's article says that gender-neutral public bathrooms are now mandated by law in any new or renovated building in Philadelphia. In addition, see here for the story of parents using the law to force a school to allow their transgender daughter to use the girls' bathrooms. Once again, the tip of the iceberg.

While transgender people are trying to get into the women's bathrooms, women themselves now have access to a range of devices which allow them to pee standing up. Nonetheless, I suspect it will be a while before women are elbowing men out of the way at the urinals!

My thanks to Tasi, for drawing my attention to Julie Beck's article and Lexie Cannes' article, and to Melissa Lyn for the Unshelved cartoon, which came from this webpage. See also here for my comments about the tampon advertisement featuring a meeting between a woman and a crossdresser in a public bathroom.

Addendum 27th April 2016

The bathroom debate continues to feature prominently in public media, with several US states enacting laws which restrict which bathroom trans people can and cannot use. Other states have had similar laws thrown out.

Meanwhile, the Huffington Post has produced this interesting article which summarises and synthesises the status quo. In addition, Lexie Cannes has written this eyebrow-raising article which contains reports of several women being thrown out of public bathrooms for being mistaken for transwomen. Ouch!