Sunday, November 8, 2009

The conumdrum of gendered bathrooms

by Josh Franklin

The week before break, Brown Hall residents received this email from ODUS:

Dear Brown Hall resident,

Our office has received complaints that male students are using the women's bathrooms in Brown Hall. If you have been using the women's bathroom, showers, etc., please stop. Male students may use men's bathrooms only (and female students, the women's bathroom). Violations will result in disciplinary action.

Thank you,
Dean Herbold

Since then, I've talked to a variety of students about gender and bathroom use in general. Something about single-gender bathrooms has always piqued my interest. While I was using the restroom at the Sexual Assault in Our Schools National Conference, a woman walked in, looked around, gave a startled expression, and started to walk out. A fellow conference attendee at the urinal muttered, "it's just binary gender..." and the half dozen people in the bathroom chuckled. And so, like I often want to do, I located the site of conflict with respect to gendered bathrooms in an illegitimate, culturally defined insistence on a particular form binary gender. Learning to share genderless bathrooms was one step towards a wonderful world free of the oppression of gender.

This year, I reconsidered my ideas about bathroom use when a woman started to use the men's bathroom closest to my room. I was at first taken aback, and the awkwardness didn't subside as much as I would have hoped. Being bothered by a woman in my bathroom didn't agree with my self-image as a gender-immune super-progressive. And upon reflection, it didn't agree with my masculinity either. I don't know how this reaction came to be, since it conflicts so strongly with my previous feelings--maybe it was masculine insecurity, maybe it was a hypersentitization that comes with reading enough feminist blogs.

To be honest, I don't know exactly what to think about the situation of gendered bathrooms. I could idealize all day, but in the end, we're stuck with two bathrooms and a culturally defined system of gender. Moreover, I realize that for other people--including survivors of sexual assault and transpeople--the stakes may be a lot higher than they are for me, an individual who, despite some mild insecurities, enjoys the male privilege of not worrying about my security in a place like the Brown Hall bathroom. So I want to hear what you EW readers think about gendered bathrooms--from the forbidden "co-ed showers" (heterosexism anybody?) to the locks on the women's bathrooms around campus. At the end of the day, it's just a bathroom, but I think that if we talk about it a little, we could start a discussion about gender, oppression, and sexual violence in the intimate aspects of our community's life on campus.

Photo courtesy of samirluther's Flickr Photostream.

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