Segregated bathrooms are a kludge

Bathrooms are an important issue to me. When I present as a woman I use women’s bathrooms, and I want every trans person to have the right to choose their bathroom. But I realize that the desire some people have to exclude us from bathrooms is based on a legitimate concern. I heard this recently in a story from Afghanistan, where some people have made gender-segregated bathrooms a priority.

Graduates of the Women’s Afghan National Police training course in Kandahar province, Afghanistan smile after receiving their ANP graduation certificates Aug. 5 at Camp Nathan Smith. Photo by Spc. Tracy R. Weeden / Isafmedia.

In Afghanistan, crimes against women often go unpunished. The Afghan government recognized that a major factor was the absence of female officers, and hired a number of new recruits. Now, many of those police officers are leaving, because they are being regularly attacked and raped.

The most common locations for these assaults are the police station bathrooms, which are open to all genders. The female officers are most vulnerable when half-naked, performing involuntary bodily functions. The proposed solution, advocated by Human Rights Watch, is to institute women-only spaces, where a man would be automatically suspect.

It’s too often overlooked that the shared bathrooms in no way cause the attacks. These attacks are deliberate acts of violence chosen by individuals, encouraged by a culture that dehumanizes women, and perpetuated by a legal system uninterested in bringing the perpetrators to justice.

This story helps some of us understand why gender-segregated bathrooms exist in the first place. They are a kludge, a short cut to stop the worst abuses. And like all kludges, bathroom segregation doesn’t work one hundred percent. There are false positives – trans people who are denied access to the bathrooms that fit our presentation and marked when we use the others. Significantly, there are plenty of false negatives – men who walk right into segregated bathrooms and attack women without any claim to transgender status.

A kludge may be necessary to break through a logjam. Think of the US Marshals who accompanied Ruby Bridges when she became the first Black student to attend William Frantz Elementary School. Segregated bathrooms may similarly be warranted in the case of the Afghan police. But just as integrated schools no longer require guards for every Black student, in some places segregated bathrooms may no longer be necessary.

Twice when I was in college here in the US I lived on dormitory floors where the bathrooms were nominally reserved for a single gender, but the residents had voted unanimously to open them to all genders. When I was studying in Paris, the public bathrooms in the classroom buildings were similarly integrated, with all gender markings removed.

Of course rape and voyeurism still exist in both the US and France, and in some places it may still be necessary to segregate bathrooms by gender. But the two experiences I mentioned suggest that in some situations respect for women’s rights and the rule of law is so secure that we no longer need the kludge of segregated bathrooms to protect women.

Even in places where gender-segregated bathrooms are still deemed necessary, it is clear that people who want to rape, ogle or video women in bathrooms will do so if they think they can get away with it. A small minority of them claim to be trans, probably because they actually are trans. In the end, what really protects women in bathrooms is not ineffective attempts to keep trans people out of them, but strong enforcement of the laws against assault and voyeurism.

Living in the highlight reel

Steven Furtick, a Christian cleric who has publicly condemned homosexuality, has nevertheless come up with a great metaphor to help us understand insecurity.

Building on Furtick’s metaphor, it occurred to me recently that glamour, as described by Virginia Postrel, is the desire to escape from our behind-the-scenes into someone else’s highlight reel.


After taking this picture of myself last week, I’m thinking that narcissism is the desire to escape from our behind-the-scenes into our own highlight reel.

Visibility fatigue

There’s a concept that I want to introduce here: visibility fatigue. It’s something I’ve been noticing in relation to trans issues, and I’ll make those connections in future blog posts.

I have a T-shirt that says, “MIND THE GAP” with the logo of the London Underground. I bought it on a trip to London in 2001, when a recording of that phrase was played every fifteen seconds or so in stations that had a particularly large gap. Back home in New York, one day I was out walking and a guy gave me a knowing look, smiled and said, “Nice shirt.”

It seemed like he wanted to talk more, like we shared some great secret, but I was on my way somewhere else and didn’t really want to chat about it. I realized at that moment that there’s probably thousands and thousands of people here in New York who’ve been to London, ridden the Underground and heard that phrase. Did we really share that much that separated us from other New Yorkers? At that moment I realized that I didn’t really want everyone I ran into on the street knowing I’d been to London.

I have another T-shirt that’s one of my prized possessions. I got it at the 1996 Pride Rally, one of the first times I ever went out in public presenting as a woman. One day I wore it to the gym around the block, and on the way there I happened to be walking alongside my neighbor Jim. Jim asked me why I was wearing a big pink triangle if I’m married to a woman and we have a kid together. I explained that I was a transvestite and answered a few more questions, and everything was cool.

Most of the time, though, the shirt just sits on the shelf. It’s not that I don’t want to be out, proud and visible. It’s that I want some measure of control over it. It was work explaining this stuff to Jim, and there was no guarantee that he would be as understanding as he was about it. Sometimes I’m not up for that.

At the Lavender Languages conference this year I attended a talk by the Moroccan-French-Canadian artist 2fik who does amazing and very provocative things with gender and identity. He described some very hostile reactions he’s gotten – including death threats in at least one instance. But as I remarked to him, at the end of the day he can take off his clothes. He can have a break from being provocative.

I’ve always wanted to keep that ability to have a break. I grew up a long-haired boy in the seventies, and I remember that visibility fatigue – just wanting to blend in once in a while. It figured into my decision not to transition: I had succeeded in being seen as a pretty young woman, and enjoyed that visibility in small doses, but understood why so many women find it frustrating. I had also had the experience of not passing, and attracting attention that way. I knew that most people have times during a transition when they don’t pass, and some never pass. I didn’t want to be that visible all the time, with no rest in anonymity.

My tolerance for visibility has also varied over the course of my life. When I was younger I often felt a desire to be provocative. Now I favor more subtle approaches. I think that’s natural and good. But I’m glad that I didn’t make choices when I was young that don’t work for me now.

Some people have a lower tolerance for visibility and attention than I do. Others, like my neighbor “La Loca,” have a greater tolerance. If they want to use that visibility to teach people or just express their gender in a way that feels more comfortable, more power to them. Especially if they don’t wind up committing to a level of visibility that they can’t sustain with comfort later on.

In future posts I’ll show why I think visibility fatigue is important when talking about transgender lives.