Having been sirred twice this weekend, even when wearing large earrings, I am back to thinking about the social costs and benefits of androgyny. Doing a Google Image search shows primarily a lot of thin white girls in menswear, Grace Jones and Justin Bieber, and also the occasional thin young man in gender-neutral clothes. Obviously, this is an incomplete picture because Internet images are an inherently biased sample: what comes up in the first page is not the most common example of your search term but rather the most popular. The reality is much more variegated and, especially in the wake of the backlash to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage throughout the US, potentially much more dangerous. I recently saw a news story about a woman in Detroit who got pulled out of a restaurant’s ladies room and tossed out onto the street because the security guard thought she was male and wouldn’t let her show him her ID. All this mainly because she had a crewcut. Now she is suing; in places like Mississippi and North Carolina where such behavior has recently been legalized, suing might not even be an option. Just today a woman in England was kicked out of a McDonald’s ladies restroom for being too masculine.
Clearly this has to stop.
Once, while traveling in Japan, I walked into the women’s bathroom and a Japanese woman said, “This is the women’s bathroom, you know.” I replied, “I am a woman, you know.” Now that was twenty years ago, but even now, outside Tokyo, most girls and women in Japan wear their hair long and dress relatively feminine. (And don’t even get me started on the ‘cute’ subculture.) That woman saw a white woman with a very short haircut walk into the restroom in a short sleeve shirt and trousers (I was wearing earrings, but they were probably fairly small). Also, I was a B cup back then. (Ah, youth.) So some of the confusion was intercultural.
But part of the problem now in the US is also cultural. Some people cling to the old gender norms and others don’t. And when you add to that the very real challenges that transgender people face every day, and the danger of horrific violence that they often are threatened with, this whole thing goes beyond an issue of some people feeling comfortable to an issue of other people being safe.
The bathroom “problem” in this country is about at least three things: physical spaces, hate- and fear-mongering politicians and media, and gender norms.
The only real reason for segregated bathrooms is the problem of urinals. But if all bathrooms have stalls, we no longer have to segregate our bathrooms. Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a list of 70 gender-neutral bathrooms in 35 buildings. This is a good start. But it leads me the problem of intersectionality, and a broader conversation about ableism in this country. Katie Rose Guest Pryal does an excellent job of explaining the distinctions between accommodation and accessibility here. Briefly, accommodation means someone asks for special treatment and is given it (more time to take a test due to a learning disability; stairs and ramps). Accessibility means we make everything accessible so no one has to ask for special treatment (conference materials in large print so no one has to ask for a larger version; ramps). We need to make all of our new spaces completely accessible and redesign our older spaces to make them completely accessible.
Politicians and Media
Some politicians lead by example, others by diatribe. If they can convince people to fear the Other (Jews, Armenians, Mexicans, gays, transgendered) and spend time finding ways to make Them miserable, then the people won’t have time to notice what the politicians are really up to and also they will buy stuff to make themselves feel better. The fact that this practice goes against all values of civil discourse, egalitarian participatory democracy, and Christ’s command to love one another apparently goes unnoticed, steamrollered by the folks pandering to Joseph Goebbels’ adage that a lie repeated enough times comes to sound like truth.
Our ideas about gender are binary (masculine and feminine only) rather than single (there is an “average” human who is halfway between two extremes) or multiple (with 720 billion humans on the planet, there is likely to be many, many ways of doing gender). In a great little recent post, Ann E. Michael pointed out how much humans just loooove simplicity over complexity. I guess that is at the heart of the problem, a kind of intellectual laziness that the promoters of hateful rhetoric take advantage of.
So although bucking gender norms can be fun, it also comes with several issues that we need to keep in mind at the same time.