On Striving for Gender Neutrality

I once experienced a freak Saharan heatwave with highs over 40° C while studying in Madrid. It was a dry heat, though, and very different from one recent 103° F July afternoon in south Georgia. I bounced to a thrift store in search of some well-worn (breathable) medical scrubs and that’s when I saw it: the plain, charred olive A-line mini. It struck me as the ultimate heatbuster and looked so sensible and professional that it triggered a brief flashback to my days in the corporate offices of a large regional bank and I wondered, as progressive as the bank was, if I would have been permitted to elect its female dress code. On second thought, I have no desire to cross-dress, but shouldn’t gender equality give men the option to wear skirts just as it gave women the option to wear pants many decades ago? As counterintuitive as it might be, I suspect the bank would have been much more cerebral than most universities in contemplating such questions. This being a summer break, I decided to test the waters and having donned various skirts for three weeks now, I reflect upon deeply disconcerting truths.

Academia ostensibly credits intellectualism over eccentricity, but it would seem that her ivied halls harbor a double standard. To whatever degree that universities have adjusted their heteronormative expectations to attend to conspicuous issues, academia seemingly remains unable to focus the more fundamental questions. By way of example, many universities are re-labeling their single-occupancy toilets as “all-gender” in what is portrayed as an accommodation to the transgender and genderqueer public, but it would seem that these newly created non-binary space really only serve to emphasize exclusion from the binary hegemony. More precisely, how is creating such spaces truly different from the old south’s separate-but-equal practices struck down by Brown v. Board of Education? Worse still, if only single-occupancy toilets are so designated, is this just a new-age three-fifths compromise?

Embarking on impromptu summer field research, I found that I had little difficulty using any university toilet, and I now ask myself if the formal signage actually created a gender-segregated space or merely reflected an unexamined social practice. Terry Kogan of the University of Utah College of Law suggests that gender segregation of public toilets emerged not as a “benign recognition of natural anatomical differences between men and women,” but rather as a sociopolitical construct of the American industrial revolution. He notes that gender-segregated toilets “were rooted in the ‘separate spheres’ ideology of the early [nineteenth] century, an ideology that considered a woman’s proper place to be in the home, tending the hearth fire, and rearing children. By the end of the [nineteenth] century, the separate spheres ideology had been filtered through the science of the realist movement, the public health concerns of the sanitarian movement, and the vision of modesty embraced by late Victorian society.” These same movements produced women-only rail cars under the guise of distancing the frailer sex from direct impact in the event of a collision. At a time when women were denied the right to participate in the political process, patriarchal legislators aimed to “mandate spaces in the dangerous public realm be set aside to serve as protective havens for women, as surrogate ‘homes away from home.’ In the workplace, this was accomplished through laws mandating the creation of sex-separated toilet facilities, washrooms, and dressing rooms.” (Kogan, Terry. “Sex-Separation in Public Restrooms: Law, Architecture, and Gender.” Michigan Journal of Gender & Law. 14.1 (2007): 3-9).

In light of such arcane paternalistic genesis, and considering our modern understanding of genetics, biology, and psychology, it seems to me that gender-segregated toileting should be abolished altogether. Considering our present social climate I am slower to extend this analysis to locker rooms, but when it comes to merely eliminating waste from the body, doesn’t a stall provide sufficient privacy? If policymakers truly espouse equality among all persons, they should not ab initio presume the sex of a person to predetermine neither incivility nor vulnerability. Instead of legislating which toilet to use, it would serve the public better to innovatively redesign stalls and fixtures and to set toothy policy that severely penalizes invasions of privacy. State governments would never get away with passing laws respecting the underwear worn by citizens, so how can it be Constitutional to compel citizens to publically disclose the even more private birth anatomy which may or may not now exist beneath such undergarments? Beyond this, where caregivers and carereceivers are concerned—whether it be parental or medical—there are Title IX and A.D.A. ramifications in limiting toilet access simply because the persons are of dissimilar genders. Some universities have created apps and maps to locate all-gender toilets, but do we really think it is acceptable to cast the burden upon the marginalized and call it progress? How is this different from requiring old-south “negroes” to utilize less accessible toilets? The pretense of digital convenience does not void the exclusionary message.

Many readers may be quick to reject my analysis out of hand. I too was ignorant of my own subliminal bias until my skirt-donning experiment. To be extraordinarily candid, I felt shame in the first few days that wind or stride-induced air currents might vaguely suggest my lower anatomy. I was somehow convinced that I had a duty to shield the public from consciousness of its existence. After a few days of internal conflict, I finally realized that I would never instruct a female to subdue the visible form of her upper anatomy, so how then could I impose such an irrational and inegalitarian demand upon myself? I also felt a sense of guilt for whatever public concern might be sparked by my anomalous attire. Gradually, though, I came to understand the prejudice of such thoughts. If it is misogynistic to posit that skirts predispose females to assault, it is likewise misandrist to presume that skirts telegraph assaultive likelihood from males. I consider myself neither a masculist nor a feminist, but I have to believe that fundamental equality begins by tasking myself with the same regard for wholeness of person that I have been taught to accord to the other sex(es). This means that I have as much right to be free of the prude’s scorn and suspicion as the scornful and suspicious prude has to expect decorum and lawfulness from me. This also means that the Fourteenth Amendment likely prevents public universities from excluding transgender and genderqueer persons from their preferred toilet.

There is a definite irony in that my quest to be comfortable in a summer swelter produced such an unsettling contemplation of my own heteronormative compliance and bias. I would like to think that my path of reflection produced a healthier concept of equality than I had before. The task of cognitively reconciling rational thought and cultural encoding requires impetus, and I am considering ways in which I could bring such humanist inquiry into the classroom apart from my actual course material. For now, though, I appeal to my fellow academics to examine their positions for subliminal bias and arbitrariness so that we may demonstrate and teach the virtue of an examined life.

Comments & Replies