WARNING: This piece talks about gender-based violence and may be triggering for some readers.
There’s a strong cultural anxiety surrounding gender-neutral washrooms.
The topic seems to hit hard at the core belief that individuals can and should be easily identifiable and labeled into distinct sexes: female and male.
Research suggests that this binary is dreadfully inadequate to accommodate the plethora of sex and gender identities that exist, yet we remain devoted to a two-sex system — so much so that we allow this to be mirrored within the architecture of the institutions we navigate.
The washroom is a prime example of how a social idea can be transformed into a tangible and dangerous reality, particularly for individuals who have transitioned genders or present themselves in a gender-ambiguous manner.
In 2012, Queen’s University adopted a policy to provide individuals with washroom and changing facilities that don’t require users to disclose their gender identity. The first steps to make this policy a reality are underway, and include changing the signage of single-stall washrooms on campus to denote a gender-neutral facility.
Using the washroom without fear of persecution isn’t a
privilege — it’s a right that all persons must have. It’s time for us to pressure our university to create safer spaces.
For many trans* people — this is an umbrella term that denotes not only transgender and transsexual individuals, but also gender non-conforming folks as well — and for persons who are identified as “queer”, marked often by their non-conformance to normative expectations of gender, entering a washroom can become a remarkably stressful event that carries with it the potential for violent confrontation.
Trans* and/or queer(ed) individuals are often labeled as “devious” or “perverted” by society. These individuals are often seen as corrupting the sanctity of the gendered washroom; they’re perceived to be infiltrating a space that’s not exclusively reserved for their use.
They’re therefore viewed as a social or physical threat to others, and are branded as trespassers.
Washrooms, it seems, are only meant for individuals who present in normatively gendered and sexualized ways. These are often individuals who are easily read or coded as female or male, and, as such, don’t challenge the established authority of the washroom sign.
Those who don’t or can’t conform to socially sanctioned gender expectations become targets of violence because they’re perceived to be out of place.
The concern for safety in relation to the washroom isn’t exclusively an issue that pertains to trans* and/or queer persons. Some people express concern over a washroom that invites men and women to share the same space because it may contribute to an increase of gender-based violence against women.
The unfortunate reality is that gender-segregated spaces don’t ensure or even guarantee safety. This contention also reiterates the myth that sexual violence is exclusively a male-on-female act, excluding all other forms of violence done by and done to people of all genders.
A violent aggressor won’t be stopped or swayed because of a sign on a door. It’s an arbitrary boundary that can easily be crossed. It doesn’t afford protection. That’s unfortunately the grim reality we live in.
Implementing gender-neutral washrooms could be a way to prevent violence of all kinds by providing individuals with a single-stall option that only allows one person to enter at a time.
Gender-neutral washrooms are also often designed to be fully accessible washrooms for individuals with different abilities, and therefore provide those with mobility needs a comfortable and physically safe environment.
What the gender-neutral washroom debate ultimately boils down to is a cultural belief that there are indeed only two sexes, and that a person’s body inherently reveals what sex they are in a visible manner.
What we need is a cultural revolution that respects and celebrates the infinite number of sex and gender identities that exist, and in turn understands the sex-binary as archaic and oppressive. This new way of thinking will ultimately change the very physical surroundings we traverse.
For Queen’s, this means making their 2012 policy a reality by not only creating more gender-neutral facilities, but also continuing to emphasize their commitment to building a safer campus for all students.
Dan Vena is a PhD student in the Cultural Studies Program and the co-founder of the on-campus group Men Who Like Feminism.
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