This post has been written by Brinn Pierce, a student of International Development Studies at University of Sussex, UK. Her research interests include gender and sexuality.
The binary bathroom system is a near-complete colonial construct. Our society has long ago accepted this system as fact. In truth, It has helped create this fact, and in which it now maintains said fact. This bathroom system is a toxic place that seeps its disease into all forms of gatherings, from your local secondary school, to the nine to five office building up the road. As I will demonstrate below, it has greatly encouraged discrimination, segregation, and blatant sexism, all through the light of current western ideologies. This toxicity is literally built into the very blueprints of our reality. It is one of the essential elements of any new construction project. A bathroom is as common as electricity outlets or overhead lighting. This, in turn, means that the majority of these projects do not just contain a restroom but contain a tool of oppression as a cornerstone to their new structures. One individual will encounter this room approximately two thousand, five hundred, and fifty-five times a year, which leaves lasting impacts.
This piece will analyze how the binary bathroom systems are indicative of our colonial construct. As well as how these systems help maintain and reinforce gender norms and how they originally played a hand in spawning the binary genders in their entirety. The binary bathroom systems have a rich history in politics and controversy. The majority of the queer community and their allies are very much aware of this fact. What is less in the forefront is how these systems make our beliefs intrinsically tied to colonial gender norms. How these systems reinforce daily, the idea that gender is an intrinsic part of our nature and that it is of great importance that the genders remain separate. It is also the case that the fact that, in essence, the binary identification inherently indicates that there are only two genders and sexes is simply fundamentally flawed. There are biologically more than two sexes. Intersex people exist.
The Bladder Leash
Going into the history of how public restrooms have helped solidify society into gender roles we have to look back at the mid-eighteen hundreds when public restrooms first started making an appearance. These rooms were strictly restricted for men’s use. Women were thought to be a hindrance to the surrounding society. It was a time when women jokingly referred to each other as having a “bladder leash”. Women could only go for as far and as long as their bladder could hold out, planning their trip dependent on where families and friends were located for the use of the restrooms. Private spaces were for women, public ones were for men. Slowly, as movements came and went, women’s lavatories were introduced. Workplaces, however, definitely were not included in these spaces. This was until World War One when women were actually readily needed in the factories. Yet it still was not until nineteen ninety-two through Workplace Regulations that it was required to have these female lavatories in businesses. This now rings early true to what any gender non-conforming person is going through. Through the abuse suffered by the transexual and the binary-nonconforming communities when entering public or quasi-public restrooms, we have created a highly toxic environment that barely allows for actual entrance in the first place. It is not just an infrequent incident either, as the author Bender-Baird states, “the resulting lack of safe access to public restrooms is an everyday reality for those who fall outside of gender binary norms.” (2) These repercussions are ricocheting out with eerily similar results as they did back in the nineteen hundreds, causing a contemporary urinary leash for our present society.
A Whole Person
In a work by Wiseman and company, by the name “Lifting the Lid”, they explore the effects of traversing an inaccessible faculty world as a disabled person and how that hugely negatively affects the psyche. That of non-belonging to the bustling society around oneself is key in this concept, as they state “the impact that inaccessible toilets have on self and personhood and the hidden inequalities produced through these spaces, we can come to understand disabled people’s sense of (non)belonging” (6). All of these issues stem from, in essence, the same origin. Female, queer, and disabled all have a history of being equivalent to that of the lessor or even not complete humans. This is beautifully put by Boryczka: “This reading locates essentialism and universalism as two interconnected limits on sexism’s analytic purchase within a colonialist discourse used to identify women’s global oppression while simultaneously deploying it in ways that excluded black and third world women” (3). This was the lens that system for restrooms was made under. Bathrooms are “colonialist logic woven into sexism’s conceptual fabric” (3) There is still a mass disparity between the number of access that women have to public and private restrooms compared to that of men as well as restrooms that hold disabled access (4). It is also true that there are currently organizations fighting these inequalities. But it remains the case that these inequalities are a lot more insidious than they may first appear.
A Simple Icon
An image speaks a thousand words… Incredibly cliche, yet still rings very much with truth. The known distinction between the two sexes’ facilities is the bathroom sign. These signs are represented through a semi-stick figure ‘man’ in pants or a semi-stick figure ‘woman’ in a dress. It is preordained what the genders should wear. This especially highlights the eurocentrism of this binary because, in fact, many non-western cultures do not follow this specific sentiment, from the Sherwani in India to the Japanese Kimono. Yet it is never considered to be the slightest bit of confusion which door is for which facility. It has become so ingrained in our society and our past that for the majority of people, this false narrative has yet even to be a stray thought as they enter the restroom. This should be very troubling. As Apple and Berry illustrated, “The resurgence of conservative positionsis an attempt to regain hegemonic power that was threatened by women, people of color, and others. One need only read the pronouncements of, the former Secretary of Education of the United States with its emphasis on a common culture based on “our” western heritage and on a romanticized past in which all students sat still and internalized “our” values to understand how powerful is the current urge to regain a lost consensus over what counts as legitimate knowledge.” (6) Amusingly, as Steven noted, men wearing garments that hang from the waist were not uncommon in past western history (5). Yet this is the sign that any grade-schooler intrinsically understands. This is actually all the more dangerous for schools. Because it is in schools that uniforms and gender-confirming clothing are often required. In the United Kingdom, ninety percent of schools require uniforms, which will likely be worn from the age of five through eighteen. These uniforms are much of the same kindred spirits as the icons atop the bathroom doors; ‘boys’ wear pants, ‘girls’ wear skirts. This, yet again, segregates the genders, defines gender roles, and dictates that only two genders exist. All of this creates a highly flammable area for gender-nonconforming students, creating the need to suppress any outliers of gender norms. This also helps build a hegemony for the next generations as has been for the ones in the past. “In order for students’ definitions of situations (like those taught in their initial school experience) to be maintained, these definitions must be ongoing confirmed” (1). Every single day of schooling, every single visit past these ‘simple’ icons, these concepts will be reconfirmed.
The Daily Ritual
“Bathrooms are part of everyone’s daily ritual of bodily needs. Thus, every time a person must choose between the men’s and women’s restroom, they are subjected to the gender binary system. For trans and gender non-conforming people, this choice requires a self-surveillance of how they are presenting their gender that day and what kind of reception they may receive in public restrooms. When crossing the threshold into a public bathroom, people are forced into compliance with the gender norms operating in the sex segregation of these spaces or face possible violence. This forced compliance produces situational docility.” (2) I hope to convey that this actually goes a few steps further. I believe that any cisgender individual becomes intrinsically complicit in this violence. (Cisgender is when an individual identifies with the sex they were assigned at birth as their gender). A office building filled with employees abides by the two-gender system and implements segregated restrooms throughout its facility. A cis office worker stands up from his chair and chooses to ‘walk through that threshold’, agreeing with the binary choice and reinforcing the sentiment that only two sexes and genders exist. This occurs daily. Most people do not even question this fact of binary, and that is all the more invalidating. This system and those members who participate are telling intersex and gender non-conforming people that they literally do not even exist. “Faced with a built environment that denies their existence and facilitates gender policing” (2). Nearly every building that exists in the western world is a constant reminder that this colonial society does not accept specific people, that this society expects no divergence from these two gender norms. It is, however, also the case that just because a person is complicit in an action definitely does not mean that the person has any other choice. This especially is true when a bathroom is actually being currently needed. Also, the majority of people have the context that is a major hindrance from changing any of this. Income and reliance on the business that holds the binary restrooms might be key components for people. But if someone is in a position to take some kind of stand, I greatly implore each individual to do so. Because “sex-segregated bathrooms are technologies of disciplinary power, upholding the gender binary by forcing people to choose between men’s and women’s rooms” (2).
Conclusion: Towards a more gender neutral space?
We have created a two-gender system that is not just inherently flawed but perpetuates an archaic notion of what females and males are supposed to be. These concepts are still built on the same cornerstones of imperialism, colonialism, and eurocentrism. This system segregates and discriminates against all who are involved. We have programmed these notions into our children so they can continue our violence. The damage of these continuations extends through race and impairment, and it is true that to help solve these issues will not be a simple task. We, however, should not be negligent and cause the issue to fester further but should help make new tools to break down our current constructs.
(1) Apple, M. and Barry, F. (2002) Ideology and Curriculum.
(2) Bender-Baird K. (2016) Peeing under surveillance: bathrooms, gender policing, and hate violence. Gender, Place & Culture
(3) Boryczka, J. M. (2017) ‘An Anatomy of Sexism: The Colonized Vagina’, New political science. Routledge, 39(1), pp. 36–57.
(4) Greed, C. (2019) ‘Join the queue: Including women’s toilet needs in public space’, The Sociological review (Keele). London, England: SAGE Publications, 67(4), pp. 908–926.
(5) Kogan, T. and Patrick, S. (last updated 2019) University of Utah, Quinney College of Law.
(6) Wiseman, P. (2019) ‘Lifting the lid: Disabled toilets as sites of belonging and embodied citizenship’, The Sociological review (Keele). London, England: SAGE Publications, 67(4), pp. 788–806.