Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Unbinding the Gender Binary

A good part of the reason that I study public space is that I am fascinated by the 'house of cards' nature of it. Public space is ambiguous because the people there generally have no history with each other, their encounters are fleeting, and there are not the structuring power relationships of work, school, family, neighbors, etc. to maintain order and enforce consequences. Societies then try to create ways to ameliorate the anxiety of public space through etiquette, laws, and even the built environment that reinforce social order through social groupings. We feel better if we know where people fit and we rely heavily on appearances, mannerisms, location, and actions to figure this out. What are they wearing? What are they carrying? Where are they? How are they getting around? Which bathroom did they use?

The problem is, of course, that someone's appearance, mannerisms, and actions do not always tell you where they fit. Sometimes they actively contradict. What do people think when they see someone who presents as one gender but uses a public restroom designated for a different gender? And that right there is the problem with the way in which we have divided up and labeled public space in vain attempts to make public space a little more predictable and orderly.

I find it interesting that the early mass civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s focused so diligently on removing the physical signs of Jim Crow, but feminists have not done the same for the signs of gender segregation. To be fair, second wave feminists did very successfully challenge policies excluding women from bars and restaurants (and the signs the reinforced those policies), but they never tackled sex-segregated bathrooms.

And sex segregated bathrooms do matter. There are signs all over American public space that reinforce a gender binary: there are two genders, you must choose one and act accordingly, these two genders are different enough to merit this separation, and even though we have removed other types of similar divisions this one continues to stand. When a group of my colleagues read a draft of the article I've written on feminist challenges to women's exclusion from some public accommodations, one of them (someone who teaches African American history) looked at me and said, "but I don't get it, what is the problem, women are different from men, just look at how we have different bathrooms." Sex-segregated bathrooms reinforce the idea that men and women are inherently different and must be treated as such, that biology trumps socialization, that women have more in common with women and men have more in common with men, just by virtue of their bodies.

It has been the transgender, transsexual, intersexed, gender queer activists who have taken up the cause that cissexual women have not. Safety was originally stated as the reasoning for this: transgendered people were not safe using public restrooms that did not match their presentation (most frequently cited for trans men using the women's room) or their biology (perceived as most dangerous for trans women using the men's room). The issue seems to have evolved beyond the safety arguments in recent years, however, and the discussion is now much more focused on how build public accommodations that do not rest on a gender binary that is no longer so binary.

Bathrooms are a hot topic in many public buildings, especially on college campuses. I've seen it even make its way onto my small commuter campus where, at the behest of activists from the Ann Arbor campus, one single occupancy bathroom in the computing building has been changed from a "men's" room to a "unisex" bathroom -- with some rather problematic labelling and singage indicating its new function. What is "unisex" anyway? Wouldn't "omni-sex" be a better label? Or why focus on sex at all (that's easy, because we are trained from early on to match our own personal plumbing up with the plumbing of the bathroom we choose to use)? Why is the fact that this is a public bathroom indicated with the traditional visual representation of a man and a woman? Wouldn't a sign with a toilet on it be a better indication of the room's function? We could have two toilets to indicate that it could accommodate multiple people or one for the single-holers.

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