Policing the Potty

Some months back Haley and I watched the popular movie “The Help”. Throughout the movie (which focuses on the role of black women in the southern  united states in the 1960′s) There is this ongoing discussion about people of color using the same bathrooms as people with white skin. People talk about being well-to-do enough to build a separate bathroom for the negro help, there is talk of how “black people have diseases” that white people don’t want to contract, and there is even a scene where a black maid locks herself in the bathroom while her white boss screams outside the door in a panic over her bathroom being used by a colored person.

It is stunning how backwards this mentality was. I remember reading the book “Black Like Me” after I was married, shocked by all the assumptions and publications about the sexuality of black people in pre 1960 US. John Howard Griffin explained the wide spread understanding among whites was that black people were exposed to sex at a younger age, had insatiable sexual appetites and were supposedly willing to do “kinky” things with anyone who asked.

I know I am not the first person to see the comparison between racism and homophobia, but I couldn’t help but spot the similarities. I grew up understanding that gay people were just extremely sexual people, who wanted to have sex with anything that moved. I was told that homosexuals had decided to become this way after being exposed to sex early in life through abusive sexual encounters. I was also taught that homosexuals were disease ridden, with diseases that straight people never got. I thought that my sexual attractions to women were perhaps something that every woman had but didn’t talk about. Or maybe they were the signs that I could become an overly sexual disease ridden gay person if I ever opened that door. Whatever the reasons, I knew I didn’t want to be gay, one of “those” people, and I carefully shut down and ignored every question I had about my sexuality.

The bathroom debacle from the movie stood out to me as well. I am married to a transgender woman, and while she passes pretty well and hasn’t had any issues with using the bathroom that matches her gender, many trans people are not so lucky. A transgender woman can live and present as female and still get challenged over simple things like using the bathroom if anyone feels they don’t look female “enough”.  There are horrifying cases, such as this one in Maryland where a young trans woman got beaten up in a Mc Donalds after trying to use the ladies room. And there are the every day cases where someone reports someone to management. There have even been lawsuits and legislation to keep transpeople out of public bathrooms.

It doesn’t make sense to me. I think it has to be related to the over-sexualization of LGBTQ people. Like Justin points out in this excellent post “Can You Feel the Sex Tonight?” society continues to push this idea that straight relationships are about love, whereas gay relationships are about sex. I mean, why the automatic assumption that trans people using the bathroom are perverts? Maybe a trans woman appears more masculine than you feel a woman should, but how many guys out there are going to go through the effort to dress as a woman to have the chance to walk into a public restroom for 5 minutes to pee and wash their hands.  Even if you are concerned about someone’s appearance, a public restroom is a public well lit place, you are not really in danger. Why not base your worry about a pervert in the bathroom on their actions instead of their appearance. Someone who is hanging out in the bathroom, making rude comments, groping people, peeking under or over the stalls, pervert. Someone who stands in line, uses the bathroom, washes their hands, maybe checks their makeup before leaving, not a pervert.

While racism still exists in the USA, segregation is no longer legal. You will not see lawsuits to try and ban people from using the public restroom based on the color of their skin. I guess that should give me hope that someday the same will be true for the transgender bathroom wars.


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  • Stef

    My son went to Queer Prom the year before last with a bunch of friends. It is a formal dance, with a theme, thrown for youth under the age of 25 by a local LGBTQIA activist and support group. The idea is to have a welcoming and safe “prom” for all the kids who felt excluded or unsafe at traditional proms, and their allies. When he came home, I expected to hear about the things he typically talks about after a dance- music, clothes, who danced with whom, whether there were any fights or drama, etc. Instead… he immediately said “they did the coolest thing EVER! They covered the signs on all the bathroom doors, so instead of a picture of a little stick man or a little stick woman, there was a picture of a faucet and the sign said ‘this room contains a toilet. Be considerate, please don’t make a mess’. That’s it! How easy and awesome is THAT?!?!”

    He was right. I hate, hate, hate gender-segregated bathrooms. It makes life unnecessarily complicated for transfolk, but also for parents on outings with opposite gender children who want to be independent, but might not QUITE be ready for unsupervised trips to public bathrooms, often, for men who are out with a baby (a disgraceful number of men’s rooms do not have diaper changing stations!), and for other situations where you have two or more opposite gender people who might need to cooperate in the washroom (like the adult helper of a person with health/mobility/functional challenges, or simply someone holding back the hair of a friend with a sudden illness).

    Most people don’t realize this, but gendered bathrooms started as a novelty at a party. There’s NO reason at all that we can’t use co-ed bathrooms in public!

    • http://www.lara-thinkingoutloud.blogspot.com lara

      Yes! My four year old son hates having to go in the girls bathroom with me. I love it when malls and other such places have “family” bathrooms. So kind.

  • http://penn.typepad.com Leah

    Your post is hitting home for me, but in a different way than I imagined you intend. We have a number of Somalis in our small town, and there’s a lot of thinly-veiled racism (masked as issues with the Muslim culture being “forced” down their throats). Today, there was in article in the local paper about how the high school has a prayer corridor where any student is welcome to go pray during advisory, lunch, and passing period. The comments section turned into a rant against Muslims and the Somalis for washing their feet in bathroom sinks. People also complained about how the Muslims get a prayer room (even tho it has no decoration and is ostensibly open to all students) yet they couldn’t put up Christmas trees all over the whole school. Anyway, conversations like that really show me that we haven’t come far enough. Sure, it’s no longer legal to keep people out of bathrooms because of the color of their skin. But that doesn’t mean thoughts and attitudes have changed, unfortunately.

  • Jason Dick

    Interesting. Personally, I’d rather just have nothing but unisex bathrooms and fully-enclosed stalls (the fully-enclosed stalls I saw very frequently in Europe…though they still had a gender divide for bathrooms).

    • pagansister

      I too noticed the fully enclosed stalls in Europe. They should be “standard” in this country. With those as a standard stall, there is full privacy and unisex restrooms would be easier.

  • Meyli

    Unisex bathrooms would be great.
    You know what really grinds my gears? How big of a deal it is for children to use the ‘opposite’ bathroom. At my preschool, a teacher may take a handful of kids to use the multi-stalled bathrooms, but OH NO that means boys and girls will go in the same one! Sometimes a kids takes notice – “Why are we going in the girls bathroom?!?!” But really? Do you have to pee? Yes? Ok, then go in the stall and do your business!
    Technically, by our larger company rules, children must be monitored in bathrooms of the correct gender at all times, no circumstances should they be allowed in the ‘wrong’ one. But how on earth is that practical for one teacher? If we did this, one teacher would have to take one gender to the stalls (where they can be supervised), while 10 kids of the other gender must wait one at a time to use the single-stall bathroom in the classroom. That’s hardly fair on their tiny little bladders.
    Ugh, its a bathroom. That’s where we pee. Just let everyone go in peace.

  • http://followingontoknow.blogspot.com Mrs. Searching

    Funny you should mention this now, because there is a transsexual man who walks around the farmer’s market where I work weekends, and I recently wondered the same about him – as in, what would people say if they saw him in the ladies’ room? He’s too masculine to really pass for a woman, but he tries, and he doesn’t seem like a bad person at all. I think I’d stick up for him if anyone gave him a problem, but he’s been doing this for a while without incident so he probably has it handled.

    • Melissa

      I’m glad you be willing to stand up for non-gender conforming people who only want the chance to pee without being attacked. And just so you know, if the transgender person you are referencing is “trying to pass as a woman” she would actually be a transgender woman. A trans man would be a person assigned female at birth who identifies as a male. And yes the problem with the bathrooms goes both ways, because a trans man using the woman’s bathroom could probably cause a stir as well.

  • http://www.makingthemomentscount.com/ amber_mtmc

    This parallel is quite striking to me and one that I haven’t considered so I am glad you bring it up. Just…wow.

  • http://lapalma-island.com Sheila Crosby

    I know a trans woman who was extremely uncomfortable using either restroom at work. I’m not sure whether that was down to other people or not. Anyway, her “solution” was to drink very, very little all day, so that she didn’t need the rest room during work hours. She drank so little for so many months that she wound up with kidney trouble.

  • http://www.ahumanstory.wordpress.com gaayathri

    A lot of the policing of bathroom issues for trans women is tied up in bizarre sexist notions of sexuality. Somehow because we remove intimate items of clothing in bathrooms they are considered places where women are vulnerable, and trans women are often considered to be “really men” by bigots and everyone knows that men can’t control their sexuality so allowing a ‘man’ into a place where women are seen to be vulnerable is apparently setting a cat amongst pigeons and getting everyone sexually assaulted. *sigh*, so many awful attitudes at play that are all linked together.

  • https://twitter.com/toastedtofu ToastedTofu

    There is an app for that!! It’s called “Pee in Peace” and it uses GPS to locate your nearest Gender Neutral Bathrooms!!!

  • http://www.gailatlarge.com Gail at Large

    Airplane lavatories are ALWAYS unisex… interesting that people accept this in the sky but not on the ground!