Blog Post

Public Restrooms Are Having a Moment

I wanted to take an opportunity to draw your attention to the (relatively) recent release of three pretty awesome-looking books. Granted, I haven't had too much of a chance to dig into them, aside from a brief browse at the Elliot Bay Book Company early last month, but that was enough to tip me to their coolness and prompt me to request them from the library. The books are Sheila Cavanagh's Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination (Toronto, 2010) and Olga Gershenson's Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender (Temple, 2009), and Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing (NYU, 2010), edited by Laura Noren and Harvey Molotch.

It seems that public restrooms are, as they say over on Gawker, having a moment.

Back when I was an undergraduate at Beloit College--and, more specifically, a Women's Studies major and a resident of the queer Alliance house--I helped spearhead a campaign for what I then termed "gender-neutral bathrooms" on campus. As both Cavanagh and Gershenson explore in some detail in their books, sex-segregated bathrooms can be a source of considerable daily stress and strife for transgender and genderqueer people, who risk discomfort, harassment, or even arrest for the social crime of refusing to fit easily into a binary gender system. The campaign--which ended up covered or mentioned in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, NPR, and the New York Times, among other venues--aimed to solve that problem and to mroe broadly draw attention to the limits of dichotomous ways of thinking and sex and gender. It was just one small (though successful!) part of a much larger movement, with organizations like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (with their "Toilet Training" video) and Safe2Pee, with its searchable map of safe bathroom options, taking the lead. And it seems to be catching on, especially on college and university campuses. I arrived at the University of Illinois a few years ago, planning to investigate the possibility of another campaign, and the University itself beat me to it--there are gender-neutral bathrooms all over the place now. And Beloit, I hear, is now planning to pilot a gender-neutral housing option in the near future.

At the time of our initial campaign, there were very few resources for specifically thinking about the intellectual dimensions of bathroom activism, which was pretty frustrating as an activist who spent a good deal of time talking about queer theory and feminism in classrooms and thinking through ways of practicing them. Judith Butler and her cohort were helpful (walking under a "MEN" or "WOMEN" sign every day of your life is a pretty good example of the sedimentation of gender key to Butler's theory of performativity), but what was missing was a systematic and collective intellectual exploration of bathrooms specifically.

No more!

Public bathrooms are places where debates about and experiences of technologies, bodies, gender, sexuality, public space, and "the politics of sharing" (as the Noren & Molotch book has it) converge in fascinating ways, so it's really exciting to see--with the three books listed above--the beginning of an attempt to theorize them broadly.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite documents from the struggle for bathroom equality: an interview with SRLP founder Dean Spade and Craig Willse, by Mimi Nguyen, for Maximum Rock'n'Roll.


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