The maze that is gender identity can often feel like a tangled mess of political and cultural meanings, which necessitates an active interest in in order to decipher. At present I am writing a book on gender for the mainstream market and trying to find the exact angle to represent my research is proving to be the hardest part. How do you get the very complex ideas that gender involves over to an audience that largely has been encouraged to see gender as easy to understand because they believe much of it to be biological? One has to encourage people to unpack something huge that people don’t really realise is densely packed.
Such arguments for gender equality are of paramount importance, especially right here and right now where the Internet has encouraged people to explore their genders in ways that are unprecedented. It has also enabled people to fight for the various rights associated with their genders in ways that were not available to previous generations, for abortion rights, for equality at work and equality of representation, for instance.
Then someone comes along with a really neat way to explain a very complex set of inter-dependent gendered meanings that people normally dismiss as unimportant, or become confused by their apparent paradox. This is one reason why transgender rights are so key to our times, they really mess up people’s preconceived ideas about what it is to be a man or a woman, its not just about the transgender people themselves, but what they change about the meaning of ‘male’ and ‘female’ and they do so in a context where most people know nothing about transgender philosophy.
That someone is a transgender women, a so called, “male to female” (although the first thing you learn when you research transgenderism is that is a difficult term, because such people see themselves as ‘always female inside’, that’s the point). A Canadian woman called Brae Carnes took to selfie-ing herself in men’s toilets to highlight the ridiculous logic behind the political campaigns to restrict public toilets to their cisgender counterparts (those men and women who do not identify as transgender, that is, most of us).
Such “Bathroom Bills” which are being fought for in Texas, Florida and Kentucky are being introduced in order to protect cis-women and girls from men dressing up as women to gain access to women’s toilets in order to rape them. The faults of this logic have been aptly pointed out by journalists supportive of transgender people: it would be much easier for rapists to dress as cleaners to gain such access; that those women who have what is called “passing privilege” – that is they very much look like women – would still be able to gain access under such laws, so it would be unenforceable; also, the issue of butch cisgender women who may look quite masculine has not been discussed, do we all have to carry passports to enter toilets in such states? I would add that toilets are extremely dangerous places for rapists, the likelihood of someone entering mid-act is far higher than other more secluded spots, so why choose there?
Of course these laws are not about saving women, even if the politicians consciously think they are. Apart from the benevolent sexist overtones of paternalism that actually damage women and keep them as dependent, this is really about the fear of transgender people as different, as Other.
Carnes’ photos show the absurdity of the logic behind the laws. She depicts herself as a woman in men’s toilets, applying lipstick in front of urinals and immediately the crap is cut through. A straight line can be drawn, an easy representation of a difficult argument is reached and the absurdity is all apparent. The photos show that if the laws pass:
Trans women will be in the wrong (men’s) toilet, rendering them dangerous to men’s advances there (the whole point of the ban remember was to save women).
That women like her are unnoticeable in women’s toilets much more so than men’s (so how would it be enforced?)
That these women are not men, not by any usual interpretation of the word, rendering the laws once again illogical in that they use concepts such as ‘men’ and ‘women’ far too straightforwardly.
The root of the confusion comes from the lawmakers not understanding the concept of ‘gender’ being different to that of ‘sex’. ‘Sex’ is our physical bodies including our hormones and ‘gender’ refers to everything else about being male, female or intersex including how we understand our bodies and our hormones (in other words science is not exempt from potential gendered prejudice, much as it likes to think it is). The trouble is both are involved in each of us simultaneously, so which is it, gender or sex that is relevant to the laws?
If you say ‘gender’, you should allow each sex into each toilet, if they identify to be the opposite sex (I’m keeping intersex out of this to keep it a bit simpler); what a person believes themselves to be is all that matters. If it is just ‘sex’, then those who have transitioned, regardless of their passing status should be allowed to use their “new” sex’s bathroom. Interestingly of all the thousands of gender papers I have seen or read in both feminism and masculinities, no-one I’ve come across wants open bathroom doors to each sex, no sex wants to go there. This is rare considering most aspects of life are argued for parity in gender theory by at least one camp. As bathroom usage is about the bodily functions it is therefore more relevant to sex than gender and it follows that the second scenario makes most sense and keeps people feeling safe (men don’t want women in their toilets either I would imagine).
Then, something even lovelier happened, a transgender man (female to male) entered women’s toilets (his old hunting ground!) and did some selfies of him looking very butch next to women doing their make up. Suddenly the ridiculousness of laws that prioritise gender over the body come full circle, such a law would take trans men out of the men’s toilet and into the women’s – just the thing the laws are trying to stop, ha! I can hear the politicians: “What if their willies work and they can attack women? Aggggh!!!”
Let’s hope these frightened politicians don’t get to play out their irrational fears in the public bathrooms of those states and the laws don’t go ahead, otherwise there is going to be a pretty mixed up situation in such states, one that no one wanted. Not even post-structuralists (who see sex as almost irrelevant) like me.