North Carolina’s Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act — legislating separate bathroom facilities for men and women in schools and public buildings — brought unprecedented attention to the lives of transgender people in this country and set off a fierce controversy. After Governor Pat McCrory signed the bill, seven other state legislatures enacted their own “bathroom bills.” The federal government sued North Carolina, claiming the act violated federal anti-discrimination laws. Eleven states responded by suing the federal government. Companies like PayPal and organizations like the NBA threatened to boycott North Carolina. When Target reiterated its policy in support of transgender rights, the American Family Association organized a boycott of its own, aimed at the store.
Supporters of “bathroom bills” argue that such laws are necessary to protect privacy and ensure safety, especially for women and children, in public accommodations. Opponents claim that these laws strip civil liberties from a group of people who pose no threat to public safety.
Transgender individuals, people whose gender identity does not match the gender they were assigned at birth, face discrimination in almost every sphere of life. They struggle to obtain identity documents, appropriate and compassionate medical care, education and jobs. They suffer high rates of poverty, incarceration, suicide and murder. They encounter opposition to name and pronoun changes.
Nothing, however, is more symbolic of transgender politics in the U.S. than bathrooms. For a transgender individual, every trip to the bathroom is accompanied by anxiety and dread, so much so that many simply avoid public restrooms altogether, often risking their health. Transgender individuals are more likely than any other group to fear for their safety and to experience violence in public restrooms. Going to school or work becomes a fraught issue. So does every routine errand like a shopping trip. If transgender individuals cannot use public facilities, they cannot participate fully in public life. They cannot be regular consumers — or citizens.
In the spring of 2013, my students and I decided to study the social life of the potty in a senior colloquium on “The Politics of the Bathroom.” The course allowed students to contextualize the fight for transgender rights within the history of social justice movements in the last century. Public restrooms create social anxieties because they are spaces in which the public and private collide in the most intimate ways. While the need to eliminate unites us all, the design and distribution of bathrooms carve space according to social hierarchies of gender, race, class and ability.
We realized early in the course that nearly every social justice movement of the century has involved bathrooms. Jim Crow laws and apartheid, for instance, dictated separate bathrooms for whites and non-whites. Women’s liberation also fueled debate over bathrooms. Feminists coined the term “potty parity” to protest inequalities in the distribution of restroom facilities (restrooms for female senators were not provided in the U.S. Senate until 1992), while opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment argued that its passage would spell an end to separate bathrooms for men and women. Disability activists fought to make bathrooms accessible for individuals with physical handicaps. In the developing world, where poor sanitation spreads disease, the availability of toilets can be a matter of life and death.
Public bathrooms are significant in the fight for transgender rights because they both reflect and construct sexual dimorphism, our sense that nature produces bodies of only two kinds.
Those supporting bathroom bills see sex as fixed and immutable: Either God or biology created male and female.
For supporters of transgender rights, biology and the socio-cultural environment are mutually interdependent. The biology of sex is not so cut and dried. Genes, anatomy and hormones do not always line up neatly on one side or the other of an absolute divide. Nor do bodies function independently from their environments (physical or social). The concept of “gender” attempts to describe this interdependence, to recognize that life can’t be defined in simple either/or terms; it’s a more complex, messier project.
To focus only on the ways in which transgender individuals subvert the gender system, however, runs the risk of obscuring the very real violence gender non-conformity can incite. It ignores the embarrassment and harassment experienced by transgender people in gender segregated bathrooms every day; it ignores the fears of arrest and physical violence that accompany every trip to the toilet. It ignores the ways in which these indignities constrain individuals’ participation in the public sphere as full citizens. It ignores the politics of the bathroom.