The Illiberal Bathroom Experience

The Illiberal Bathroom Experience July 15, 2016


There are those who would argue, with some justification, that LGBTQA movement need not concern itself with the intricacies of a philosophy of gender thanks to the urgency of its political concerns: Equality first, and we’ll work out the details later. But if we are to think before we act, we ought to think before we legislate, and if we are to fight for a cause, it is certainly to helpful to know what we want caused. The celebration over Obama administration’s recent Dear Colleague Letter, which asked schools to open up gender-private institutions and facilities to transgendered persons, highlighted this need for a consistency between the political actions and the philosophy of the movement.  

The letter, for all its good intentions, lags behind contemporary theories of sexuality and gender. The administration argued that schools “may provide separate facilities on the basis of sex, but must allow transgender students access to such facilities consistent with their gender identity.” It becomes abundantly clear that this means that transgender students are to be allowed to use male or female bathrooms. Indeed, the letter is rife with the implicit ratification of the very gender-dualism that the LGBTQA community is fighting to undo, as when the administration argues that “nothing prohibits a fraternity from admitting transgender men or a sorority from admitting transgender women” and forbids any school from discriminating against “behavior that does not conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.” The implication is that there are three categories of gender identity: Male, female, and transgendered persons whose sex assigned at birth does not conform with their internal sense of identity.

This contradicts the best results of contemporary research into the essence of gender, which all agree, in various ways, that gender is on a spectrum. Gender identity, which fundamentally involves an individual’s unique, psychological experience of their sexual characteristics, cannot be only male or female. In the words of the Human Rights Campaign, gender identity is one’s “innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither.” 

The bathroom experience ordered by our government advocates for the self-conceptualized males and females of this world — but only at the expense of the self-conceptualized blends, dualities, and privations. It is all be well and good that a trans-man be allowed to use a male bathroom, but what of genderfluid people who often experience “alternating gender incongruity” suddenly and unpredictably — or even according to their menstrual cycles? The Obama administration demands that students or their guardians report their gender-identity to the school administration. If gender is a matter of psychological self-identification (such that I “look within” for the answer to the question of my gender) then gender must fluctuate, shift, wax and wane as all phenomena of psychological self-awareness must. Is the genderfluid community required to re-report their identity to a school administration with each psychologically experienced shift in order to use bathrooms and locker rooms? Clearly, such a bureaucratic requirement imposed on a minority group will be a source of trauma, hurt, and at the very least, an added difficulty in taking advantage of the same conveniences offered to the majority of students.  

One cannot offer gender-dualistic compassion in coherence with a post-gender philosophy. All those who do not identify with either man or woman — such as agender persons — are glossed over in the Obama administration’s letter. Would they be forced to register as male or female in order to use the bathroom? This would obviously amount to a violence against their own psychological self-experience. What about those living out the non-binary roles found in certain Native American cultures: Two-Spirit persons who experience themselves as both male and female? Obviously, the addition of non-binary bathrooms would be insufficient here, as it rudely assumes a conformity amongst the possible non-binary genders. The idea that the privacy concerns of agender persons, bigender persons, demigender persons and those experiencing genderflux (variations in the intensity of feeling gendered at all) may be met by a blanket “third” option validates of the idea that the male-female binary is the “real” gender, and everything else is a mere “alternative lifestyle” that can be lumped into a single category.    

If we take our current models of gender theory seriously, any middle ground that allows for male and female bathrooms is an act of oppression. If a school has only male-female bathrooms, this oppression is aimed at those who do not identify with either member of the binary system, and thus have no bathroom to accommodate them. If schools allow for a third, non-binary bathroom, then they implicitly assume that all third genders can be lumped together. (This becomes especially problematic if transgendered people are expected to use non-binary bathrooms. Not only are they explicitly binary people, identifying as a man or as a woman, but such a move could lead to a situation in which a trans-man and a trans-woman are expected to share the same bathroom, despite having opposite gender-identities — an obvious undoing of the Obama administration’s entire purpose.)     

In the end, a philosophy that defines gender as an individual’s subjective, psychological relation to various objective sexual facts — like the organs of the body — inevitably promotes the freeing view that here are as many genders as there are people. No one person’s psychological experience can be equated with another’s — therefore no one’s gender, which is a psychological experience, can be equated with another’s. Since it is a patent absurdity to have a bathroom per person, and a practical impossibility to privatize the bathroom/locker experience, the only means by which the administration could administer justice in accord with the principles of contemporary gender theory is to undo the link between changing, dressing, defecating, and urinating from the idea of gender altogether. The final frontier for such practical philosophies of gender is not “being allowed into male-female bathrooms,” but an end to gender-based privacy as such.    

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