On the heels of North Carolina’s recent decision to require transgender people to use public restrooms that correspond to their identified sex at birth, Target has just released a new policy indicating that transgender people may use restrooms in its stores that correspond to their present gender identity. While this initiative has received strong support from many corners, it is also not without controversy; most notably, the American Family Assocation (AFA) has called for a boycott of Target on the grounds that this policy “endangers women and children by allowing men to frequent women’s facilities.”
With these claims in mind, there is some importance to my inquiry in doing a bit of fact-checking. As the evidence suggests, transgender people are no more likely to be sexual predators than anyone else, and yet as a group they experience disproportionately higher levels of discrimination and harassment in public venues (and in bathrooms, in particular). Moreover, in response to those who claim that Target’s policy will invite sexual predators of all gender identities into bathrooms, the data indicates that people are no more likely to be attacked in a bathroom than anywhere else, rendering most of the safety arguments relatively void.
With that background, then, I want to consider why the present controversy over the bathroom is not just a random symbol. For those of us familiar with Jack Halberstam’s now classic commentary on what s/he calls “the bathroom problem,” this is old territory, for as Halberstam was pointing out in the 1990s, the bathroom is the cultural line in the sand: it remains one of the very few realms where a binary expectation of sex distinction remains the gendered norm.
Indeed, the bathroom is the presumed litmus test in biological sex. But there is quite an irony, Halberstam notes, for while we may say that the debate over the bathroom is about grouping certain types of bodies together for the sake of privacy, safety, or the like, this is an empty argument on several accounts. Because we tolerate all sorts of different physical manifestations of “male” and “female” (everything from short hair to muscles on some women and the long, lanky physiques of certain men), it’s difficult to say that any of us really expects perfect physical conformity. Even those who argue that this is a discussion about viewing the genitals of others may have forgotten that women’s bathrooms (the presumed site of the AFA’s complaint) are almost universally outfitted with stalls.
If hardly any of us actually physically represent our culture’s gendered ideal, then the topic is not one of visible diversities (for again, we tolerate an array of appearances), but how certain groups create psychological and even physical control over others who do not reify their system of social classification. To put it differently, the bathroom problem isn’t about the bathroom: it’s about how to demarcate those who violate the boundaries of “acceptable” difference and what stories we must manufacture (such as the “bathroom predator” myth) in order to cast difference as deviance. As Halberstam (and countless others) have described, even if one is not transgender, there is tremendous danger — to the point of violence — in using the restroom if one’s appearance is too gender ambiguous. That fact that virtually all groups freely tout their love of diversity (but their hatred of deviants) reveals the way in which diversity is not a synonym for difference as much as it is a term that designates a political strategy for difference management.
So while it is perhaps tempting to see this as a ridiculous argument about something as petty as “the facilities,” it is important to remember that the bathroom is a critical site of social worth in a very concrete way. The ability to move freely in public, to wield some power over the classificatory schema that determine one’s identity, and to attend to the basic needs of one’s body are all critical ways in which we become legible — and thus powerful — parts of our culture. The inability to do any one of these things is a marker not simply of difference, but of systemic marginalization.