Who’s afraid of the same-sex bathroom? asks Jeannie Suk at The New Yorker, and the answer, as we’ve come to know in the last year, is a lot of people. Last November, for one example, a group of bigoted maniacs swayed Houston into voting against a basic anti-discrimination ordinance last November almost solely off the strength of a fear campaign suggesting that trans women, if not discriminated against, would post up in women’s bathrooms and sexually assault young girls. (It is much more likely, of course, that trans women would themselves be assaulted if forced to use the men’s room.)
As Suk writes:
There is now...an active debate around what bathrooms we should be able to use. A recently proposed Indiana law would make it a crime for a person to enter a single-sex public restroom that does not match the person’s “biological gender,” defined in terms of chromosomes and sex at birth. The punishment could be up to a year in jail and a five-thousand-dollar fine. Similar laws proposed in several other states have not passed. These proposals attempt to counter recent moves in many states to allow transgender people to access bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity.
Gender-segregated bathrooms are legally mandated in many public places, Suk points out; it’s not feasible to imagine that schools, businesses, and office buildings could suddenly switch to neutral on a nice, progressive whim. But what’s notable is that these codes were created under the banner of nineteenth-century morality. “Today’s most-prominent arguments against inclusive restrooms are remarkably consistent with the Victorian notions that led to sex-segregated bathrooms in the first place,” Suk writes.
The same separate-spheres paternalism led to the designation of certain physical spaces for women apart from those for men, including bathrooms in public venues. These were safe spaces, if you will, tucked in a world in which women were vulnerable. As our society is currently experiencing a resurgence of paternalist concern about women’s sexual vulnerability—especially in the context of that great equalizer, education—it is no surprise that there would also be a new emphasis on the Victorian phenomenon of separate restrooms.
There’s also certainly something Victorian in the general combination of squeamishness and prurience that underpins any discussion of a less-divided bathroom setup. Bathrooms are places where people do things with their genitalia, after all, and genitalia rarely leads us to places other than 1) DISGUSTING or 2) SEXUAL or 3) DISGUSTING + SEXUAL. But the bathroom isn’t sexual; when it has been sexual, a place for cruising, America’s legacy of discrimination is a primary factor in the scene.
The connection of public bathrooms with condemned sexual behavior also has relation to our recent history of criminalizing homosexuality. For most of the twentieth century gay sex was criminal, and public disclosure of a man’s homosexuality spelled the death of his reputation and career. Public restrooms were sites of clandestine sex among men, and undercover police engaged in bathroom surveillance to catch men seeking sex in toilet stalls. David Sklansky, a law professor at Stanford, has argued that modern legal ideas of privacy were forged in the nineteen-sixties in part because of the Supreme Court’s distaste for this sordid police practice.
“The public restroom is the only everyday social institution remaining in which separation by gender is the norm,” writes Suk. The public restroom is also a place in which gendered behaviors can be exacerbated: 10-minute preening, explosively horrific shits. Put all of us together and we’ll move faster and be more considerate, and all those future Trumps out there who think female bodily functions are “disgusting” will learn that they’re no more disgusting than the rest.
Read the rest of Suk’s piece here.
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