North Carolina recently published HB2, a law known as the bathroom law. The reaction has been huge with states and companies starting boycotts. And this morning, Pearl Jam joined the long list of entertainers who have canceled their trip to Raleigh. In short, the law states that people must go to the bathroom of their biological sex rather than gender identity. The law allows (and encourages) a third bathroom model for people who don’t fit into the traditional genders. This three bathroom model is used in the San Diego airport (not a very conservative place) and so is perhaps not quite as reactionary as it is portrayed.
But with or without the law, there’s no police officer checking your ID before entering the bathroom—trust me, I live here. The primary “enforcement officers” are the same as ever: the public. And the only way for the public to judge is by how someone looks, male or female.
Of course looks can be deceiving. Someone might look male but be going to the female bathroom because that is his actual sex. Or someone might look female and go to the female bathroom because that’s how she will be perceived. And there are some people mid-transition whose gender is ambiguous. The public has no way of knowing. And so the law proves rather pointless except in a few situations like public school where a student’s gender is known and changing in a dressing room is common.
And so we return to a case in Illinois that I have already written about and now modify below. The case regards a transgender female (physically male) student who sued a school for limiting her access to the women’s dressing room. I have no doubt that many more cases like this one will soon be appearing in courts across the country. And governments like North Carolina’s will have to decide the best way to deal with these situations. These situations are particularly complex in schools where the needs and rights of students and parents must be considered and balanced. It is the obvious complexity of the issue that bothers me as the politics become increasingly polarized and simplified.
It is as if we are stuck in a WWII mentality—good guys vs bad guys. Most wars and most policies are a lot less black and white. But it’s sure a lot easier to fight and kill when you’ve convinced yourself you’re the good guy and you’re only hurting bad guys. Of course there is a time to boycott, but there are also serious consequences particularly in our nation’s ability to work through complex issues together as Nathan Christiansen points out (even though he is a large opponent of HB2).
To me, as far as bathrooms are concerned, HB2 is ultimately little more than a three bathroom solution, a solution I find ultimately less likely (for practical reasons) than a one bathroom solution—where privacy is shrunk into the individual stalls rather than bathrooms. While I believe integrating bathrooms is probably the best solution, it is not without some tragedy. If I think back, I can see this privatization of privacy play out in my own life time (the remainder of the post is mostly unedited so if you’ve already read “The Privatization of Privacy,” then skip to the end):
As a child, we often attended Goodson Recreation Center where we would go swimming and when we were done, we would all shower, me, my brothers, and my father, all naked, all in the same room alongside strangers—normally old men.
In middle school, things were different. It was always an awkward moment when I had to change in and out of gym clothes. Part of the reason was that I still wore whitey-tighties while most everyone else had colorful boxers. But there was also the vulnerability of being publically naked, or mostly naked. We were never entirely naked. But in the back of the locker room were old metal showers that had not been turned on in years. Though the room remained unlit, the metal spouts stood as an almost unbelievable reminder that students had once showered together after gym.
In high school, most everything stayed the same, except for the swim team showered in their Speedos. Occasionally I would get entirely naked in order to put on compression shorts for soccer, but I changed fast and sometimes sought greater privacy in a toilet stall.
In college, when I would use the urinal, I found it hard to urinate if someone was standing next to me. I would either walk away without having gone, or just stand and wait until he would leave and I could finally go. The fact that I needed to urinate and could not caused me to realize, even years ago, how private my restroom and dressing room experience had become.
As I contemplated my experience again, I was surprised to see how even the design of the urinals imitated my own transition towards an individual privacy.
Early on I remember big ball-park urinals like this one:
People would urinate not only next to each other, but into the same basin. Then there were separate urinals like these:
These urinals at least made it so you wouldn’t see someone else’s urine. Then there were the half-walls that separated one urinal form another:
You could only see the shoulders and heads of the people standing next to you. But the walls have grown taller and taller over the years. Now I find that most modern urinals are normally sectioned off. Though I have never seen this in person, there are apparently separate stalls for some urinals, and best-practice journals recommend that all urinal walls extend from the floor to the ceiling.
I believe things will only continue down this path of privacy—defined on the individual level rather than broader gender markings. In regards to the publicized transgender issues, it seems unrealistic to try and solve the problem by building new rooms for other gender types. By the time we accommodated homosexual, bisexual, trans-men and trans-women who are attracted to men, and trans-men and trans-women who are attracted to women, etc. we would have a very long hallway with an array of creative signage or just one-size-fits all solution (like HB2 suggests) that doesn’t fit anyone very well.
Instead, I assume we will be tearing down the walls that stand between the men and the women’s bathroom. But they will be replaced with new walls, individual walls, as I have already described.
While we are, to our credit, increasingly accepting in the public sphere, we are simultaneously becoming increasingly private. A dressing room that once felt private now feels public. And we retreat further into stalls—privacy becoming increasingly private. We have entered an era of hyper-privacy.
And as we increase in privacy, the demand for an outlet increases. The result of this hyper-privacy, the sequestering of ourselves like a monk in a cell, is an orgasmic release. Our privatized gender escapes through fissures in the wall. The more private our lives become, the more exposure and nakedness tends towards the pornographic. It seems to me that our hyper-private lives naturally yield hyper-sexualized fantasies. And in this case it is more than our bodies, but our very genders that are sexualized and pursued—beyond body parts or features, but gender itself.
In some ways we have never been more Victorian (an era we condemn for its interest in gender and its associated roles). Gender defines us now more than ever. We have more classifications, but they enforce rather than undo our gender fixations. When have we ever been so aware of and so defined by our genders?
I will not condemn “society” or any particular movement. I wouldn’t even know which direction to point the finger: either towards the progressive agendas that incessantly make gender a personal issue, or the puritan sentiments we’ve inherited that promote privatized concepts of modesty, or both. But I will suggest a possible response, one that I have begun to take in hopes of counteracting the hyper-privatization of my life.
A few years back I decided to change my public bathroom experience. Simply enough, I needed to use the bathroom even when someone else was next to me. So as a form of private protest—me against myself—I began to shower naked in the locker room after I worked out. It is not entirely unheard of, but it was a change for me. And a year or so ago, after a good workout, I entered a hot-tub in a locker-room with nothing but me and my skin, my brother and his skin, and my uncle and his skin. There was something manly, something freeing, something good about being naked and not caring—nothing strange, nothing awkward, nothing sexual—just being naked as men together.
I know this is perhaps something someone struggling with transgender issues or homosexuality or teenagers in a co-ed locker room might not ever experience, and perhaps we ought to give it up for their benefit and sink into our personal and hyper-private genders. Or perhaps our locker rooms could become as casual and unassuming as many nude beaches. But for now, we’re a long way from solving the Victorian problem. If anything, we’ve gone deeper down the rabbit hole.