The Canadian Senate recently passed an amendment that excludes transgender people from using public restrooms of their choice. Transgender rights are facing similar challenges domestically, as Florida, Texas, Kentucky, and Minnesota consider bills that would limit or restrict the use of restrooms based on one’s sex assigned at birth. Additionally, Missouri State Rep. Jeff Pogue is pushing to ban gender-neutral bathrooms. As trans activists take to Twitter, sharing powerful photographs of themselves in bathrooms that do not fit their gender identity, some may be wondering: when did the loo become so political?
Gender policing is by no means new; in fact, regulating and upholding the gender binary has long been key to social and legal organization. Upon meeting someone new, it is common to make assumptions about their gender based on their body and presentation.
- Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna. 1978. Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Assumptions about gender vary based on context. Whereas gender identity and presentation may be used as criteria for gender-integrated social spaces, biological sex and genital appearance is emphasized in sexualized situations (e.g. dating) and gender-segregated spaces (e.g. bathrooms). Culturally held beliefs that men are dangerous and women are vulnerable exacerbate the policing of women’s only spaces like restrooms, while gender nonconformity may create ‘gender panics’ for nontransgender people.
- Laurel Westbrook and Kristen Schilt. 2014. “Doing Gender, Determining Gender: Transgender People, Gender Panics, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/Sexuality System.” Gender & Society 28(1): 32-57.
- Laurel Westbrook and Kristen Schilt. 2009. “Doing Gender, Doing Heteronormativity: ‘Gender Normals,’ Transgender People, and the Social Maintenance of Heterosexuality.” Gender & Society 23: 440-464.
The policing of gendered bathrooms can include anything from strange looks and verbal challenges to interpersonal violence and arrest. As a result, transgender and gender nonconforming people may avoid public restrooms or alter their presentation substantially to avoid harassment and conflicts.
- Betsy Lucal. 1999. “What is Means to be Gendered Me: Life on the Boundaries of a Dichotomous Gender System.” Gender & Society 13: 781-797.
- Sheila Cavanagh. 2010. Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.
Legislation that seeks to regulate bathroom use must first venture down the slippery slope of legally defining sex. This is no small task. In the absence of any federal definition of sex, dozens of judicial gender determination cases demonstrate the variety of factors courts use to determine gender, including personal identity, physical presentation, medical history, and genital appearance and function.
- Tey Meadow. 2010. “‘A Rose is a Rose’: On Producing Legal Gender Classifications.” Gender & Society 24: 814-837.