Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"Wrong Bathroom" – Politics of Gendered Bathrooms on Allegheny's Campus

My personal familiarity with transgender issues began largely with a volunteer experience that I had at “The Center,” San Francisco’s center for LGBT members of the community (as well as allies!) based in the city’s famous gay-friendly Castro district. Although I was only working there for a short amount of time (about a week or two) I encountered much more than I was expecting…perhaps most relevant to my post here: a non-gendered/sexed bathroom, complete with an advance “apology” note posted outside of the door that prefaced with The Center’s understanding of the variety of personal positions and self-identifications that visitors to The Center may hold concerning their gender and/or sex as well as an acknowledgement of the general discomfort and/or political problems surrounded by the experience of the public bathroom. They even apologized for the pictographic sign that they used to signify that the bathroom was intended for use of both sexes, using both the classic bathroom man slash classic bathroom woman with “gender-appropriate” clothing as sign coding, by commenting on the problem that they recognize in the larger society’s reaffirmation of gender and/or sex binaries through such common usages as in, for example, designating public restroom facilities. While I can understand their intentions and concerns leading to the posting of such a note, I find it quite interesting that they still chose to utilize the classic gendered bathroom imagery (and therefore be in their own way somewhat complicit in its continued use and coded meaning).

Although I had been exceptionally familiar with Lesbian, Gay and Bi issues, I hadn’t really encountered much concerning the Trans community outside of familiarity of the terms associated with it before my time at The Center which included assisting the running of San Francisco’s first Transgender Job Fair. It was this hands-on encounter, so-to-speak, with so many different members of the community who classified themselves as Trans for one reason or another that really heightened my awareness (and inspired my interest) concerning the ability for gender and sex to be fluid and/or defined outside of otherwise pre-organized/pre-established classifications. My interest in the idea of gender performance in particular carried into my studies through the Communication Arts department here at Allegheny College where I was able to learn new theories that seemed to speak directly to what I had perhaps experienced in San Francisco (and began to recognize more and more all around me in daily life.) For a department that defines and seems to pride itself on its progressive stances concerning cultural and social issues however, a very curious thing happened with the department move to the new Vukovich building (and might be seen as still happening) that seems counter to this stance.

Can you guess my direction with this? That’s right – the bathroom.

It was a cold January day when I found refuge in the shiny new home to the Communication Arts department after its move over winter break. Roaming the halls and exploring the new layout, I soon found myself on the third floor which is home to the offices of the CommArts professors. Stopping by one of my favorite professor friends to say hello and perhaps have a quick chat, I learned of something about the new building, particularly of the third floor, an explanation that he treated like an entertainment weekly scandal, his voice in a whisper, players involved to remain anonymous. He pointed me out of his office not far into the hall and pointed to the bathrooms. There were two single occupant bathrooms next to one another and although, as if intentionally made to reflect the forward-thinking socially conscious identification of the department, each was labeled with a permanent placard denoting them as non-sex/non-gendered restrooms. Much like at The Center in San Francisco, these signs presented both the classic female and male pictograms with the addition of a (note) unisex handicapped symbol. “Aw what an awesome idea…” I thought, presuming that some of the theories we have learned in class might have been applied to “real life” in the faculty’s involvement in the planning of the new building. That is, until my attention was diverted to the Zeroxed sheets slapped up on each door, one reading “men” and the other “women,” taped to the center like a “kick me” sign to stare you in the face, god forbid one were to possibly miss it and enter the wrong bathroom. “Hmm…” I said to him with a raised eyebrow, “So…who’s idea was this?” Pleading the need to keep names confidential, I could tell that he had an issue with it.

While we both acknowledged something problematic in this display, the signage didn’t seem as much of a problem as the gendered nature of each restroom’s interiors. One step into the women’s restroom and one finds a dainty mini coffee table upon which lay a box of facial tissues, lotion, and an array of popular magazines spread out attractively like a fan. Upon complaints from my male-identified professor friend, I suggested that he doll up the men’s restroom to his liking were he so strongly driven. At this suggestion, he shrugged the issue off his shoulders and the conversation quickly changed to a different topic. Although he wouldn’t tell me who was responsible for the re-gendering of the gender neutral restrooms in this first encounter, I have a feeling that with a little undercover work and a bit of charm I’ll be able to get the scoop out of someone.

Image from the Gender Anarchy Project :

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