Few people consider the public washrooms they use as bastions of segregation, but for York University sexuality studies Professor Sheila Cavanagh, these places are in fact among the last gender segregated public places in Western countries.
Left: Sheila Cavanagh
In her new book Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality and the Hygienic Imagination (University of Toronto Press, 2010), Cavanagh, a queer theorist, explores how the gendered nature of public washrooms has become a source of anxiety and political controversy in recent years.
“While talk about public facilities is often designated as out-of-bounds and not to mention crude and impolite in everyday conversation, these places condition ideas about gender and sexuality,” says Cavanagh. “Bathrooms have always been places where we segregate folks on the basis of gender, sexuality, class, disability and race.”
This segregation has a long history in North America, and Cavanagh says that in the not too distant past there were racially segregated bathrooms and water fountains in the American South. Today, people with physical disabilities are often desexualized by unisex facilities. “When you are physically disabled, your gender doesn’t seem to matter and you are desexualized in the built environment,” says Cavanagh.
She points out that separate bathrooms for the chamber maid or hired help were also built into many of the homes of the bourgeoisie classes. “In Toronto, bathrooms of today are often designated for ‘customers only’,” she says. “People who are homeless or street active or sex workers are frequently denied access to public facilities.”
The book is based on 100 interviews Cavanagh conducted with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer and/or intersex (LGBTQI) people living in North American cities. It delves into the ways that queer and trans communities are challenging the rigid gendering and heteronormative composition of public washrooms. Incorporating theories from queer studies, trans studies, psychoanalysis and the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, Cavanagh argues in the pages of Queering Bathrooms that the cultural politics of excretion are intimately related to the regulation of gender and sexuality.
The book took four years to create – two years for Cavanagh to transcribe the interviews and another two to write and edit. “I came up with the title Queering Bathrooms in discussions with my research assistants. We felt that it was important to prompt the reader to think about how the rules governing gender in the bathroom are queer – meaning odd or unusual,” says Cavanagh. “I refer to the hygienic imagination in the subtitle because part of what it means to govern the gender of bathroom users is to clean up or excommunicate those imagined to be ‘out of place’.”
What amazed her most as she compiled the book are the stories told by LGBTQI folks during the interviews. Many revealed they had witnessed or had been harassed for allegedly using the “wrong” washroom. It is no wonder, says Cavanagh, that activists must continue to campaign for more gender-neutral facilities.
“Access to bathrooms is a human rights issue and we must not police the gender of bathroom occupants,” says Cavanagh. “While it is important to build gender neutral bathrooms, like the ones built at York University by the SexGen committee, it is equally important to challenge what counts as a man and as a woman when in more rigidly gendered rooms.”
The cover image of Queering Bathrooms was chosen because the gender of the subject peering into the Victorian mirror is unclear, says Cavanagh. “The viewer wonders whether he/she is taking off a moustache or putting on lipstick. The slim hips and flat chest coupled with the wearing of a suit further complicates the image. I wanted a cover image that would prompt viewers to question our certainty about the gender identities of others in public spaces.”
Her recommendation is not to do away with the gendered designs of bathrooms entirely, but to be uncertain about what the gendered signs mean. “We must remember that there is always a gap between gender identity and the signs used to authorize our social status as gendered subjects. While gender-neutral toilets are an absolute necessity, it is equally important to be creative with gender signage.”
Cavanagh envisions that such creativity would allow the bathroom to become a pedagogical space where patrons would be gently challenged about their assumptions about what counts as a man or as a woman.
In addition to the book, Cavanagh says she gathered such a wealth of material that she is now working on a script for a new play, Queer Bathroom Monologues. The first iteration of the play was staged at the book launch at the Gladstone Hotel, which took place in November. “It was such a hit,” says Cavanagh, “that I knew I had to develop it for a larger audience.”
For more information or to purchase a copy of the book, visit the Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality and the Hygienic Imagination web page on the University of Toronto Press website.
By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor