by Robin Gorsline & Malachi Grennell
The recent passage of HB2 in North Carolina and the discussion of similar “bathroom bills” in several other states, causes us as people of faith to consider how we respond when legislation is passed that targets vulnerable populations. We, as people of faith- and particularly those of us within Christianity- are reminded in these weeks following Easter that we are called to embody our love of Christ through our care for one another. If you love me, Jesus teaches in John 21:15-19, then care for My sheep, tend to My flock, feed My lambs. We also note that we can find no evidence that Jesus ever worried about who used which bathroom, and of course, he often crossed social boundaries of his time- including honoring those who transgressed gender norms (more about that here)
The controversy about individuals using the public restroom that corresponds to their gender identity (but not necessarily all of their body parts or birth certificate) continues unabated around the country. Legislators, school board members, and other guardians of the public trust are being bombarded with demands that individuals be required to use the public bathroom that corresponds to the gender identity noted on their birth certificate.
One can envision a leader in the movement to prevent people from “invading” the wrong restroom proposing a system of digital check-ins at restrooms in airports, shopping malls, schools, restaurants—everybody must carry a card with a chip that designates birth gender which must be swiped at the facility entrance. A loud buzzer will sound when the “wrong” card is swiped. They might even install cameras to record the attempt, and then publish the picture—a gender offender registry like those sex offenders’ registries (Steven Petrow suggests public restroom attendants here).
Such is our fixation on genitals, but the gender binary is neither natural nor necessary. From the moment of a baby’s arrival out of the womb and the declaration, “You have a boy,” or “You have a girl,” social rules work to make sure we are clear which box is ours, and maybe even more to the point, which box is not. Like the marriage debates where opponents of marriage equality insist that the only valid marriage is one with “procreative potential,” it all seems to come down to whether you have a penis and scrotum, or a vulva/vagina and mammary breasts. We are who our genitals say we are. In marriage, according to many who seek the old rules in place, there is supposed one of each, while in the public restrooms there can be many but they must all be the same.
Public bathrooms are not easy spaces for many people, including me. Part of that is that they are spaces designed to enforce the gender binary, and over the years I have grown increasingly uncomfortable in such spaces. And these are spaces that involve intimacy with our own bodies, and that includes draining our bladders and emptying our bowels—the latter being an activity associated with sometimes unpleasant odors and dirty substances.
I am not always comfortable in public men’s rooms. More than smells and uncleanliness, I am reminded each time of my own body and how it compares with those of other men. Some of that arises because I am aware that some men use these spaces for sex. I have not participated in that but when I lived in New York, I witnessed men (almost always men who appear to be white) displaying their penises (Port Authority Bus Terminal used to be notorious for that).
Men stand at urinals most of the time, and an awful lot of them stand with a wide stance (think former Sen. Larry Craig from Idaho) and even back a ways from the wall, so you almost can’t avoid seeing their penis. I know for some this is a deliberate effort to say, “Hey, look at me, I’m really hung.”
It reminds me that I do not have such equipment—a fact that continues to cause me some unhappiness (even after years of therapy and lovers who do not complain). Of course, there are many men equipped like me, and I suspect that they, like I, almost hug the urinal to avoid disclosure.
One way I avoid this is by using a stall. But if I stand to pee, I am sure everybody can hear that the stream from my little guy is not like the Mississippi in the stall next to me, but more like a small gentle brook in midsummer. And if I sit, I often discover that some man before me has peed standing up and made the seat wet—this of course reminds me of male cats I have known and loved, marking their territory (and dogs, too, of course, including our beloved Cocoa).
Bottom line for me, I don’t feel all that good in public men’s rooms.
I have several experiences with unisex bathrooms, at the last MCC Triennial General Conference and at Creating Change, the annual activists’ conference sponsored by the National LGBTQ Task Force. In both cases, activists posted signs on certain gender-specific restrooms indicating that the particular facility was now unisex.
At both, I was glad to use these facilities, sharing them with both those who appeared to be men and those who appeared to be women. In one instance, I met a female-identified MCC clergy colleague and friend. We both looked startled, laughed a little, and said, “Great to see you!” Later, we chatted briefly about the experience, each saying we were glad to meet a friend—it made it all seem real and even friendly.
In conversations with trangender friends, and with lesbian friends who look “butch,” I hear horror stories about people attempting to shame them for using the “wrong” restroom, even people calling security officials to evict the person, as Malachi relates below. I, for one, am making a commitment, here and now, and to be repeated personally with trans friends and acquaintances, to offer myself as a safe person, a friend, an ally, in any public situation where they feel the need of support. And I am going to educate myself to be more observant so I can be helpful when the need arises.
What all this says to me is how insecure we as a society are in our bodies. We have to police other people’s bodies to feel safe.
This is the real point I think. The history of public restrooms is not long, going back only into times when in industrial societies masses of people began working away from home. As long as it was just men, it was easy, but when women too began working away from home, it became necessary to create public restrooms. And in order to make sure women were safe, but also to make sure they knew their place, gender separated space was required (you can read a good article about this development here).
The safety concern remains. Women are still vulnerable far more than men to violence, mostly from men. So I understand why women may object to having someone who appears to be male in their women’s only space.
But I yearn for the day when we don’t have to police bodies. I have male genitals, and I enjoy them despite the anxieties I mentioned above. But there is so much more to me than them, and I know that is true about everyone.
Personally, I want all public restrooms to be unisex. But that is probably not practicable or acceptable. So, we have to be creative. Single-person unisex facilities may be possible in many cases. In workplaces and communities like churches and synagogues, we can experiment with multi-person unisex facilities, too, even setting up escorts or safety teams for those who are uncomfortable. Surely, in these kinds of communities we can begin to build a new world.
I just want to pee in peace, in fully human space, a new world where we don’t feel the need to enforce gender rules, racial rules, or any of the myriad ways we set up hierarchies of privilege.
The issue of bathrooms is, in some ways, complicated, and in other ways, remarkably simple. The reality is, every single person needs to be able to use to the bathroom. As a trans person, this is something I have struggled with for years: trying to figure out at what point in transition I “passed” well enough to switch bathrooms juxtaposed against my need for safety. As a result, I got very good at holding my bladder until I could pee in the privacy of my own home (which has the unfortunate consequence of perpetual dehydration most days that I leave the house).
I remember one experience in particular in which I was traveling with my mother. I didn’t yet feel comfortable using the men’s room, so as we stopped quickly at a rest stop, I walked into the women’s room. As I was in the stall, I heard the sound of escalating voices and quickly realized that someone had called security because “there was a man in the women’s room.” My worst fears realized, I sat in the stall, frozen, trapped, and unsure what to do. My mother, wonderful ally that she is, stepped in and said, “That’s my daughter; she’s allowed to be there.”
In that moment, she did the best thing she could have done. Having a gender 101 conversation in that situation wasn’t helpful. Calling me her “son” wouldn’t have been helpful (although she absolutely honors my identity and sees me as her son). What she did kept me safe and kept the situation from escalating further. When I finally came out of the bathroom, she gave me a big hug, and I knew it was time to switch bathrooms.
This was years ago, before these so-called “bathroom bills” were the subject of national attention. But just because the issue is finally receiving space for public discussion doesn’t mean that it’s a new issue: trans people have struggled with bathroom use as long as there have been gendered bathrooms.
On the other side, though, I do understand the role that women’s spaces play in providing an environment where women can be vulnerable without worrying about the threat of violence. This past weekend, I was able to attend a showing of the Memorial Quilt, honoring stories of sexual assault survivors. While there are quilt squares that speak to a variety of experiences and each story is unique, the overwhelming majority of stories and experiences came from women. Women experience a disproportionate amount of sexual violence and trauma, and I can understand and appreciate that women’s bathrooms are one of the few places that women don’t have to keep their guards up. In no capacity do I believe that type of space shouldn’t exist.
But in the faces of the people walking around in the quilt, as well as the stories I was reading, there were also more queer stories, experiences, and faces than I was fully prepared for. Queer people- particularly queer women of color- are subject to harassment and violence every time they step out of the house. As a survivor of sexual assault and trauma, I never want to do anything that contributes to another person feeling unsafe or uncomfortable. Balancing the bathroom issue is, for me, multifaceted and complicated, and often puts me in a position where I am risking my safety to protect someone else’s.
We must find a way to create safe space for all vulnerable populations. The easiest solution, of course, is to create single use gender neutral bathrooms so that those of us who do not fit the binary can pee in peace. I have never met a trans person who sought to use a public bathroom for the sole purpose of making other people uncomfortable. To my knowledge, trans people go into a bathroom for the same reason as everyone else- to use the bathroom. We don’t want to invade your sense of safety and safe space, nor are we a threat to you in any capacity. We need our safe space, too. The difference is that no such space has ever existed for us.
I don’t believe that one person’s safety should come at the expense of someone else’s, but that sentiment works both ways. The reality is, the biological imperative to use the bathroom will reliably trump any politicized understandings we have of gender and identity. Trans people are not trying to take safe space away from women; we are simply asking that we be included in that safe space in ways that are appropriate. As people of faith, we can do so much to help facilitate this kind of space, including:
- gender-neutral bathrooms in our places of worship
- offering to go with a transperson if they need to use a public restroom
- providing resources to support people when they have violence perpetrated against their bodies
- having open, frank discussions about the intersections of oppression: a homeless, non-binary transfeminine youth of color faces a much different struggle with respect to bathrooms than an adult, college-educated binary-passing white transmasculine person does. Simply “being trans” does not mean that there is a shared experience, and as people of faith, we seek to open our doors to everyone, not just those who look and think like us.
There is an inherent vulnerability in discussing bathrooms. As Robin mentions, it is an intimate experience between ourselves and our bodies, often times full of shame, feelings of inadequacy and dirtiness. By forcing people to disclose the difference between their presentations and their genitals by “picking a door” creates a volatile situation in which that private experience becomes the subject of public commentary. And unfortunately, there aren’t simple, easy solutions (for a humorous, satiric take on signage, click here).
Making all public restrooms gender-neutral is not a viable solution, but neither is maintaining the binary dichotomy at the expense of people’s safety. Jesus reminds us that it is through our actions that we show our love for him. Our actions must be ones that are aimed at providing safe space for all, rather than stepping aside to allow bigotry to increase the body count of our queer and trans siblings.
Now, what about you?
We have shared some of our thoughts. We’d be glad to hear yours. Please feel free to comment, add your own experience, ideas, perspectives, in the comment space below.