By Sabah Kochhar:
Just last week, Alisha, a Pakistani trans woman and activist was shot six times in the northwestern Peshawar region of the country. She was left waiting for over an hour before the hospital could provide her a bed and give her treatment. All this, simply because the hospital authorities could not decide if she should be shifted to a male ward or a female one. As members of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Trans Action Alliance (the NGO Alisha was a part of) report, the authorities first decided to keep her in the male ward, until finally arranging for a private room despite the insistence that she be kept in the female ward.
To those in the hospital, Alisha’s identity as a trans-woman was seen as a threat. Hospital rooms operating on the basis of the male-female biological sex binary are rarely seen to realize the need for gender-neutral and trans-friendly options.
But while Alisha’s story is a tragic and horrific tale of anti-trans violence in the hospital, then sex based segregation itself has been existing for far longer, finding its place in bathrooms, public transport across South Asia, religious places and down to the educational system of co-ed versus “same sex” all-girls and all-boys schools. As BuzzFeed’s Shannon Keating writes, concerns about women’s bodies, their privacy, assaults and safety, secretions, and disease are through which deeper and more significant anxieties — regarding gender, sex and sexuality, shame, and power — have been codified into law and reified by social norms over the span of decades.
Today, these concerns about gender have been playing out through the issue of bathrooms, as North Carolina’s controversial anti-LGBT House Bill 2(HB2) was passed recently. The law emerged in response to an anti-discrimination ordinance recently passed in Charlotte, which allowed transgender people to use the bathroom designated for the gender with which they identify, instead of the sex corresponding to their brith certificate. Conservatives raised a hue and cry about this, claiming that allowing trans-people would give predators a chance to enter women’s bathrooms, and hence, the transphobic HB2 came to pass.
To those opposing transgender rights, gender neutral bathrooms , be it single stall occupancy or multiple stall, are viewed as sites of violence, with many voicing their concerns that women would be subject to assaults by men. What reality is, however, is that women in the US are far more likely to be under threat of assault from people at home, persons they know(9 in 10 survivors from among female college students knew their assailant prior to the assault) instead of strangers in gender neutral bathrooms. On the other hand, public bathrooms have proven to put the lives of trans-women themselves, in danger.
But as anxieties about bathrooms persists, what’s important to note here is the history of segregated bathrooms.
Though the first sex-segregated toilets were formally established in Paris in the 1700s, regulations requiring that American men and women use separate restrooms trace their roots to the height of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s. As production shifted from the domestic sphere to the factories, men would leave for their workplace whilst women were treated as domesticated subjects.
This led to an ideological division in labour where the public workplace came to be considered the proper domain of men; the private space of the home belonged to women. Herein lies the idea of “separate spheres” which is inherent in sex-segregated bathrooms.
Even as more and more women began to step outside and take part in the workforce, American culture didn’t abandon the separate spheres ideology. Most of the women in public spaces were still looked at with a mix of fear, suspicion and concern. Around this time, scientists also begun undertaking research to prove that the female body was inherently weaker than the male body, thus giving traction to enactment of policies and laws aimed at protecting “the weaker sex”, women, in the workplace.
Among these, there were laws prohibiting women from taking up certain work assignments and limiting women’s work hours. Separate spaces were exhorted. Libraries were thus designed with a separate ladies’ reading room – with furnishings that resembled those of a private home. Moreover, much like sex segregated transport seen in India today, bogeys were separated on the basis of sex. Even though sex-segregated transport may have ceased to exist in the US, countries like India or Pakistan continue to have buses with seats reserved for women, elderly and the disabled. Gender segregated coaches are still extremely popular in trains such as the Delhi Metro and Bombay locals, with the assumption being that segregation is a means to reduce the risk of assault. Yet, even though women-only train carriages are a seductive idea and one that many of us are find most convenient, the long-run effects are not a ‘separate but equal’ measure. As Jessica Valenti points out, just like other forms of sexism that put the onus on women to keep themselves safe, women-only transportation leaves openings for victim-blaming. The logic of “If she didn’t want to get groped, why didn’t she take the women’s coach?” In Delhi’s overwhelming spaces of rape culture, women have already been criticized for not traveling in the women’s-only transportation.
It’s along the same principles of sex-segregation then, that such bathrooms emerged. Not from an intent to protect women, but from the idea of separate spheres, where it was understood that women who were newly-entering the industrial workforce were here to stay in the public sphere. Legislators thus chose to create a protective, home-like haven for women in the workplace, designing separate restrooms, along with separate dressing rooms and resting rooms for women.
But these safe havens were exclusionary spaces in themselves, as they were envisioned only for white women. In America’s racially segregated climate, women’s only bathrooms were to be protected from the “threat” of black men, seen as predatory and impure vis-a-vis white women. Black women were also refused entry into these women only spaces. As Gillian Frank notes, for most white women “contact with black women in bathrooms would infect them with venereal diseases.” Even as the new “predator” in urban legend is the transgender person, the racialised fact that bathroom segregation was never in the interest of “all women” is an important point to remember as politicians drone on about keeping the best interests of women at heart.
What’s more, this racist history persists today as trans women of color are far more likely to witness systemic violence than their white peers.
But segregation isn’t just about gender and race. An intersectional approach would require looking at the idea of disability too, and it was as late as 1990 that the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, which granted wheelchair-users and others with disabilities the ease of access to bathrooms. The designing of gender-neutral single stall bathrooms with full doors have helped further spaces for people with disabilities. This evolution in conceiving bathroom designs should be understood as working towards inclusivity, not just “tolerance”. Bathrooms have been a battleground for issues of safety, hygiene and access – all three of which affect women, trans-people, black people and the disabled. For a truly just society, laying the groundwork towards inclusion is key.
To be clear, nobody’s suggesting a mass program to convert every single sex segregated space, especially bathrooms, into gender neutral outlets. It’s understandable that this won’t work right now.
But what we can do is sensitize ourselves to the gender binary (there’s more than being a socially constructed idea of man and woman!), and realize that sex-segregation of bathrooms wasn’t necessarily created with the idea of violence against women so much as it was for the idea of frailty. And when it comes to bathrooms, segregation hasn’t always worked for black people, disabled people, or trans women, particularly Black and/or Latinx trans-women.
Opponents often talk about “being impractical”, but what’s also at stake is a range of other issues surrounding safety and convenience. It could be the story of the single father who can’t change his baby’s diaper because changing tables are still mostly fixtures of women’s rooms, the mother who has to leave her 8 year old son into the men’s bathroom, the young man whose elderly mother-in-law suffers from Alzheimer’s and cannot make it in the women’s restroom by her self – all these are testament to why gender neutral bathrooms and gender-neutral spaces for care and relief are a must.
Universities in the U.S. have already been leading the way forward, with over more than a 100 colleges and universities having installed gender-neutral oriented fixtures. Even for those worried about threats of male violence, a system can be put in place where those identifying as trans-women have the right to access women’s bathrooms safely, and extending the same for trans-men and men’s bathrooms, whilst also making room for a third alternative of gender-neutral spaces too. This could thus provide options for all those across the spectrum of gender, as well as for disabled persons.
At the end of the day, it takes two minutes to relieve one’s self. Most people are just looking to pee. Why threaten that safety?