Sex, Gender, and Restrooms

It gives me no pleasure to take issue with Ann Althouse, who is one of the most intelligent voices in the blogosphere. But I've got to say something in response to her post (and its follow-up) on the issue of public restrooms.

The issue is: What changes in public accommodations should be made to protect transgendered people from violence and harrassment in public lavatories? Ann's answer, so far as I can tell, is: none.

The original post starts off reasonably enough. "I understand the problem transgendered persons sometimes have in finding an acceptable public bathroom," she begins, "but I consider the solution of abolishing separate mens' and womens' restrooms quite intolerable." And so do I, and I think most people feel the same way. Women have every right to be concerned about "safety and privacy issues" in a public, multi-user restroom. And I'll even add that some women may not be comfortable sharing a restroom with a transgendered person. This concern deserves to be taken into account.

What's the solution? "I have no problem with the sort of bathrooms that accommodate only one person at a time being made available to anyone," she says, but then reverses herself: "Well, now that you mention it, maybe I should take back my statement that I have "no problem" with the single-user unisex bathroom. The truth is I do. ... The simple reason is that a bathroom used by men is dirtier." So the single-seater is out. Not for reasons of safety or of privacy, but because "a bathroom used by men is dirtier." A reader who's cleaned public restrooms writes in to dispute this finding. And from there on, the post digresses into the details of bathroom dirt, the original issue long forgotten. Althouse concludes with the revelation: "Oh, my friends: there is a divide between men and women!"

Well, no kidding. Ann Althouse defiantly refuses to use the word "gender" - no silly political correctness for her. You know, if Ann woke up tomorrow morning with a beard and a bass voice, and people expected her to start using the men's room, I'm betting the word "gender" would enter her vocabulary pretty quick.

So, no all-gender single-seaters either. How about separate private stalls designated for men and women? I've seen those. Perhaps that would be to Ann's liking? Oh no, that won't do either: it's the one and only point on which she can agree with Ian Ayres, in her follow-up post: "Like Ayres, however, I do think there isn't so much point to limiting single-user bathrooms to one sex or the other."

It seems there is no solution that will satisfy Ann Althouse - nor does she appear particularly eager to find one, as neither of her posts on the subject expresses any real concern for the safety of transgendered people who need to go.

I wrote of my early experience with public (school) restrooms in this post, one of my first at Dreams Into Lightning. I've also written about the confusion about gender and sexuality to which both feminists and social conservatives have contributed. I've blogged on transsexuals in the Middle East here and here. Right now I will simply say this: Nobody wants men to stop being men or women to stop being women; nobody, at least, outside of a few fringe radicals. But there are a great many transsexual, transgendered, and differently-gendered persons out there who ask nothing of the world except the opportunity to live with some measure of safety and dignity.

In recent years, there have been enormous strides towards better understanding of transgendered and transsexual people, both in the general population and among the formerly hostile lesbian/feminist community. Flims like "The Crying Game" and "Boys Don't Cry" presented a nuanced and sympathetic (if tragic) picture of trans people. The popular lesbian magazines Curve and Girlfriends have reflected a progressive understanding of gender; and the popular Showtime series "The L Word" included a female cross-dresser named "Ivan" (and, for a few episodes, even a male lesbian) in its debut season.

Ann Althouse proudly proclaims herself "pro-gay rights". That's great! I look forward to learning what she plans to do to protect transgendered people like Riki Dennis.

UPDATE: Ann Althouse has a very good post on a restroom discrimination case (Hispanic Aids Forum v. Estate of Joseph Bruno) here: Is This Sex Discrimination?