The Little Gadfly: The terribly important issue of… toilets.

By A. Faulkner

North Carolina’s HB2 has been all over the news the past few weeks.  Even with my less-than-stellar news habits, I couldn’t help but pick up strings of conversation.  I was confused though.  It all seemed to be boiling down to a debate about whether letting people self-select the silhouette with the skirt vs. the one with the pants as the restroom of preference was dangerous.  Today I finally sat down and waded my way through a dozen articles to get the real story and…  It still seems to be boiling down to a debate about personal safety vs. personal expression.

I feel I should offer a quick disclaimer here: I have never taken so much as a single a gender studies course.  I’m speaking to you casually as though you and I sat down for a coffee somewhere to talk about our week, the world, and all the crazy people in it.  This isn’t meant to be an academic debate and I have no credentials to stand on, if that’s how you take it.  Let this disclaimer stand for any future articles as well.  I’m just an average former English major, tilting my head at the world and thinking, ‘Huh?’

So firstly, let’s just all stare those bathroom sign silhouettes in the face for a moment and realize that a lot of our discomfort is coming from incredibly rigid and increasingly outdated ideas about gender norms and the gender binary.  I mean, we still frequently distinguish the women’s restroom from the men’s restroom with a silhouette with a skirt vs. one with pants.  Obviously this is something of a practical issue – not a whole lot of defining features in a silhouette, and all of them stereotypical – but I think it also represents a traditional way of thinking about men and women, and how we’ve continued to keep their spaces separate when it comes to restrooms, though we’ve conceded over time that they maybe don’t need separate sitting rooms and staircases.

So one question to ask ourselves might be why we need separate restrooms at all and why we can’t solve this whole debate by simply making all restrooms unisex.  There are a bevy of practical issues of course.  Frankly, I’ve never understood why, construction-wise, female and male restrooms are different. In short, I do not understand the urinals-out-in-the-open concept.  I just don’t.  I even read an article on it, and I still don’t get it.  Certainly reconfiguring existing facilities so everyone had physical privacy in unisex restrooms could be expensive and impractical.  That being said, the arguments against unisex restrooms (and that are being used similarly against transgender individuals using the restroom of their gender identity) seem mostly based on issues of personal safety, mainly women’s safety, rather than monetary or practicality considerations.  A part of me wonders if the restroom gender separation, and differing physical facility designs, and our women-centric safety concerns all tie together in a sweeping gender holdover: men as invulnerable innate aggressors and women as delicate, defenseless victims.  I mean, our physical design of men’s restrooms assumes they have no emotional sensitivity to a lack of privacy and when we discuss unisex restrooms, or, like the HB2 debate, when we discuss transgender individuals using the restroom of their gender identity, the cry is always “Women and children won’t be safe!” as though men will not be at all impacted by the decision.  It might all be part of one big gender stereotype.

But let’s go ahead and muse one safety considerations, and, indeed, if the argument is mainly that women and children will be in danger, let’s consider this threat in particular.  This gets very confusing very quickly.  Both opponents of HB2 and supporters have used the discomfort and perceived threat to women argument:

  1. Supporters of HB2 argue that the bill is concerned with safety in light of the fact that a) transwomen are really men, ultimately, and therefore innately dangerous to women, or, I presume, b) men who are not really transwomen might enter women’s restrooms for nefarious purposes and there could be no legal recourse to keep them out of this space. I take these to be flawed arguments.  As to scenario A, any transwoman who passes remotely for female (more on passing later) is probably not going to cause much discomfort and they just want to use the restroom like all the other women, no nefarious planning.  As to scenario B, writing a new law never seems to stop people who want to break the old ones.  If a man wants to sneak into a women’s restroom, he can do that whether or not there’s a law that says he’s legally allowed in there or not.  On the flip side, HB2 would require transwomen to use the men’s restroom and experience the discomfort and potentially real threat to be encountered therein.  But as the lawmakers don’t consider transwomen ‘real’ women, they don’t seem to be concerned about the threat or discomfort of these women. (;
  2. Opponents argue that under HB2, transmen will have to use the women’s restroom, as this is the gender specified on their birth certificate, and that this is more likely to result in real discomfort among women in their private space than just ‘letting’ transmen use the men’s restroom. This argument seems to be toeing a strange line wherein there is the connotation that indeed transmen are scary and you don’t want THEM in the women’s restroom with your wives and daughters, do you?  But I can understand that these opponents arguing back on the lawmaker’s same tenets; you don’t want transwomen in the restrooms because you really consider them men, but do you really consider transmen women?, they seem to be asking.  And society would probably say ‘no’ to the images these opponents have posted of bearded transmen; this is not our old, gendered idea of who should be using the women’s restrooms.  So I suppose that’s a fair counterpoint. (;

All of this debate still only seems to apply to individuals that fit obviously on the gender binary though.  Almost all of the debate is centered around transwomen and transmen who ‘look’ like they should go in one restroom or the other.  What about people who don’t fit in either category?  What about people who are androgynous or gender fluid?  How exactly is it that we’re going to define gender for the sake of using public, gendered bathrooms?  What expressions of femininity or masculinity are required for entrance into one bathroom or the other?  Or, if we boil it down to ostensible sexual organs, does that mean if you express your gender identity through reassignment surgery, then you are allowed in the bathroom of your identity?  That’s a steep price to pay for the choice of a restroom (literally, there are socioeconomic implications here).

I don’t have answers to any of these questions.  I think gendered restrooms present a bevy of problems in an era where we’ve begun to consider if gender exists on a spectrum and is fluid.  I think those problems will only continue to multiply as we continue to question and probe traditional thinking.  So, I suppose, my real answer to all of these questions is that measures like HB2 are not the solution in the long run, regardless of which side of the debate you fall on.  The real issues are more fundamental than which gendered restroom an individual should be allowed to use.  It is the very idea of ‘gendered’ anything that is the problem.


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