Gender Irrelevant

gender-neutral-restroom-signThe GCLS annual conference took over a whole floor of the Alexandria Mark Hilton hotel. And since 99% of the attendees were going to sit down to pee, it made sense to also take over both restrooms. Fortunately, the organizers also opted for an inclusive approach.

Leaving one restroom with its original “Women” signage and changing the other to “Gender Neutral” prevented the usual lines from forming at break times. And it gave me an opportunity to experience a men’s room from inside with none of my usual discomfort (not a fear of violence, actually, but that ‘lady-like’ fear of making others feel uncomfortable when you put your own needs first, eg. crashing the men’s room at rock concerts and ball games).

I was pleased to see that the space normally labelled for men only included a baby changing station.  And I got to indulge a point of curiousity about the urinals. As it turns out, what you see of a person using one is…his fully clothed back. Mr. Random Stranger didn’t even notice me walk by on my way to the stalls.

Sharing a public restroom with men (some trans, some not), women (some trans, some not), and genderqueer attendees and staff turned out to be a non-event. It was almost as if, in a utilitarian space shared by strangers acting with a modicum of respect and civility towards one another, gender was not relevant. The hotel’s plumbing didn’t seem to have any trouble getting its job done. And the guests’ plumbing didn’t suffer, either.

As one of the GCLS speakers pointed out in a plenary talk about inclusion, the only individuals known to have been called out, harassed, and/or arrested following the passage of state “bathroom bills” are butch-looking women. The specious arguments propping up these inane and offensive laws center on protecting girls and women from predators. But the impact of legislative transphobia falls tellingly on gender non-conformists.

Way back in the last century when I studied labor law, I read dozens of cases that zeroed in on the question of when sex or gender* are relevant in the workplace. And deconstructing the institutionalized boxes built to protect “men’s work” from the incursion of women required jurists to take a hard look at the persistent assumptions about gender and equality. In short, most cases called bullshit on the misogyny hiding under the various specious arguments propping up the employers’ discriminatory practices and policies.

As a woman who is sometimes “sir”‘d and sometimes “ma’am”‘d, who has gotten funny looks in restrooms and has defended myself from violence in a variety of locales, my first concern about these #@*! laws was not for myself. My gut response was, “Don’t you eff-ing dare take your fear and ignorance out on my friends and family.” I wanted to put that ugliness in a headlock, and walk it back across the street where it came from.

And most of the social media responses, gratifyingly enough, did that. Virtually, of course, and publicly, and with the built-in buffer of online communication. But, like the bumper stickers and yard signs I passed every day during the Prop 8 run-up, they also made it impossible to forget that we are not post- any of the -isms weighing down our society. Freedom of speech is still interpreted as the ability of some Americans to challenge and debate the civil rights of other Americans.

And while those arguments, whether cloaked in language about bathrooms or marriage, are annoying and draining, neither silence nor engagement feels effective. America, like much of the world, is still struggling to wrap its legal and cultural mind around the reality that gender is not a fact, either as a binary or a spectrum. It is a social construct with centuries of baggage about what it means to be a man or woman in this place and time.

As much as we’d like to, we cannot just quietly take care of our own business, flush and wash our hands. The simple acts of living, when done while not conforming to binary gender expectations, are still called out and challenged as transgressions. A woman with the audacity to love a woman, dress in ‘masculine’ fashion, play a ‘man’s’ sport or pursue an historically male-dominated career is still a threat to many. But some tolerance is offered, because who wouldn’t want the safety, comfort, adventure and security we ascribe to being a man? A man who rejects those privileges (for his daughters, or his lover, or just to be himself) is treated as a traitor, and at risk of verbal or physical (including economic) gay-bashing, regardless of his orientation.

And a person who dares to cross the gender binary, to move at will from one side to the other or consciously decides to reject the either/or? Well, they raise the central issue: what does our plumbing have to do with our humanity, with our potential to do good work or love well – to share joy, and be of value? What if it’s actually not relevant?

* Sex and gender are routinely conflated in public discourse. With discriminatory acts or policies, the effect is largely the same whether the difference is understood by the actors, or not.