The sign that has recently been appearing on bathroom doors across campus. Sign courtesy of MyDoorSign.com, which has been making, marketing, and donating these awesome inclusive bathroom signs
If you have been on campus recently, you have likely seen the above sign. In the last week or so, the plastic or wooden bathroom signs that normally read “Men” or “Women” have been torn down and replaced with paper signs like the one above. In many cases, these paper signs were accompanied by a manifesto titled “Desegregate Wesleyan Bathrooms,” which explains the logic behind the replacing of the bathroom signs. Unfortunately, the manifesto was not posted with every gender-neutral sign, and has frequently been torn down when the bathrooms were re-gendered. For those who are confused about why people have started gender-neutralizing the bathrooms, the text of the manifesto is reproduced below:
We demand that Wesleyan University stop segregating bathrooms along gender lines and provide all-gender bathrooms in all buildings in the University.
We believe gender-segregated bathrooms create uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situations for trans and gender-variant presenting people.
We believe gender-segregated bathrooms reinforce trans* invisibility at Wesleyan.
We resent statements by Wesleyan Administration that all-gender bathrooms are widely available on this campus, when they are in fact often difficult to find or unmarked, in inconvenient locations, or simply not available.
We acknowledge that some people, particularly women, may feel unsafe in bathrooms that are no longer gender-segregated. We invite further discussion about this issue, but are currently not aware of any studies suggesting women are more likely to experience harassment or harm in all-gender bathrooms. (Citation: Rothblatt, Martine Aliana. The Apartheid of Sex: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Gender. New York: Crown, 1995.)
We believe it is not the duty of trans* or gender-variant students to self-advocate for all- gender bathrooms on their hall/place of residence, and that residential bathrooms should be all-gender.
We want to remind white and documented people and people with class privilege that those most likely to experience violence and increased surveillance from gender- segregated bathrooms are people of color, poor people, and undocumented people.
The writers of the manifesto and organizers of the DIY gender-neutralizing of Wesleyan’s bathrooms collectively wrote the above manifesto under the pseudonym “Pissed Off Trans* People.” I asked them about their goals for student involvement in this process. They told me that they would like for the gender-neutralizing of the bathrooms to be a grassroots student process. Ideally, they told me, people would do it in their own residential halls and in public spaces they frequent. Those interested in participating would do what they can, and what they want to do. For some, that would involve taking down the gendered sign and replacing it with a gender-neutral one. For others, that would involve papering over the existing sign, or posting the manifesto next to existing single-use bathrooms. The organizers uploaded the PDFs of the gender-neutral bathroom signs and the manifesto to MediaFire so that those who wish to be involved or would like to read the manifesto can download it easily and anonymously.
I posed a number of frequently asked questions to them. They each stressed in their responses that their answers are just one person’s responses, and should not be generalized to speak for the entire trans* community, the other individuals who work under the pseudonym Pissed Off Trans* People, or the group’s policies and mission as a whole. Two people weighed in on my questions below, and a a third offered their comments at another time. To differentiate between the three individuals involved, I assigned a random pseudonym letter to each of them (P, L, and N).
Do you want to eliminate all gendered bathrooms, or just have a more even distribution of gender-neutral vs. gendered bathrooms?
P: Because binary-gendered bathrooms exclude by decree and become dangerous/inaccessible spaces for trans*/gender-non-conforming people, yes, the elimination of all gender-segregated spaces on campus is necessary. There is no reason that trans*/gender-non-conforming people should put up with cisgender supremacist coding of “public” spaces. (Of course, we know by now that university spaces are not really “public” spaces.) However, there are some very legitimate reasons why some folks need gendered bathrooms – I know one common concern raised is that survivors of sexual assault sometimes feel unsafe using bathrooms in mixed-gender contexts. What I’d suggest is that we immediately address this need and demand that in every building, there is at least one single-use restroom that can function as a private, gendered safe space for these folks and anyone else that feels uncomfortable. Often, though, this concern is lodged as a defense of binary-gendered bathrooms in general, as they currently stand – and that is an unacceptable appropriation of certain people’s needs that fails to account for the needs of trans*/gender-non-conforming folks, whose voices are almost always marginalized.
L: Agreed. Single use bathrooms should be available if you’re uncomfortable.
Would you be willing to discuss permanently changing bathrooms to all-gender bathrooms with the administration, or do you view them as a lost cause?
P: Yes – in fact, we are talking to various administrators already. But I do know that we’re not going to wait for the glacial pace of policy and law reform to claim safe space bathrooms all across campus. I don’t find direct and instantaneous action incompatible with bureaucratic policy reform – they can happen at the same time, and they are. But there are certain ways in which the administration has felt like a “lost cause,” often when they call themselves allies and then condemn and punish us for the actions we (may or may not) have taken by all-gendering campus bathrooms. They tend to assume that their way of making change is the path we should’ve taken, or that we would’ve taken, if only we had thought through the “consequences” of our “actions.” They mention all the ways in which they’ve worked for our struggle in recent years, and that their doors were always open to our complaints – when we know that, actually, the daily experiences of discomfort and frustration and rage and marginalization and invisibility that many trans*/gender-non-conforming people go through have never even been on their radar, much less their priorities as community “leaders” (read: overlords). So, they may still be able to help us, but their opinions are not the bottom line, and their power status disqualifies them from ever really being “allies” in ways that matter.
L: We are doing so, but if we start something now (and we shouldn’t have to because countless others have done so in the past), it will be years before it sees light. I am doing my best to unlearn the illusions of “efficient” “systems that work.”
“Well, I would be behind this but it’s vandalism! And someone is going to have to pay to replace all those signs.”
P: A friend of mine put it this way: ”What does it reveal about how our lives touch when your ‘vandalism’ is my ‘Liberation’?” Basically, vandalism is only read as being “vandalism” if it involves the destruction of property that is normally considered to be valuable, indispensable, and even sacred, in a way. As someone who feels that the plastic plaques aren’t valuable in any way, even if they “cost money,” and that all they do is coercively gender me and keep me out of spaces that I need access to, the destruction of these signs is a welcome alteration of the contours of university space. And, also, why do they “have to” be replaced? (We’re actually looking into cissexist state laws that might require this – but doesn’t everyone already know that the laws were never made to support the lives of trans*/gender-non-conforming people?)
L: Invisibilizing trans people means that violence done to us is also invisible, giving the illusion that the only “violence” here is to property and not to our persons. Valuing property over the humanity of oppressed people is fucked.
Do you think that this direct action approach could backfire and harm future dialogue with the University and/or with other students about changing the bathrooms?
P: Frankly, peaceful and civilized “future dialogue” is not our priority here. We’re making sure that all of our trans*/gender-non-conforming friends and community members can access these bathrooms, not when administrators finally mull it over and say that it’s okay, not when every student at Wesleyan is well-versed in trans* politics, not when Connecticut state laws are changed – we’re doing it NOW because it can be done NOW. Another world is possible RIGHT NOW.
L: This act has political implications, but it is first and foremost to me about lived experiences we have every day. I am tired of being asked “what’s up faggot,” tired of being told I’m “in the ‘wrong bathroom,’” and other harassment that depends on this gender segregation. Committees and administrative meetings and “political acts” might yield eventual change, but they do nothing in the immediate lived time of people like me.
“But residential halls vote on the gender of the bathrooms, and most of them vote gendered bathrooms.” What makes the desire of trans people to have all-gender bathrooms worth more than the desire of some people to have gendered bathrooms?
P: Trans*/gender-non-conforming folks are almost always fewer in number than cis folks on residential halls. Since when has voting ever catered to the needs of minorities? Put more simply: What makes the desire of cis people to have binary-gendered bathrooms worth more than the desire of trans*/gender-non-conforming people to have all-gendered bathrooms? (What’s that? Is it centuries of systematic and individuated cissexism?)
Were more signs pointing people to existing gender-neutral bathrooms placed in more conspicuous locations (e.g. if bathrooms in PAC had a sign like the one in Olin directing people to the second floor), would that address some of your concerns?
P: No. Trans*/gender-non-conforming people are not the liberal exception to a cis-dominated world. We refuse the installment and explicit labeling of all-gender bathrooms “over there,” away from where the “normal people” get to pee as a final solution to the structural privileging of cisgender-segregated spaces over all-gender spaces. These kinds of “solutions” don’t address the reproduction of the gender hierarchy that they maintain.
L: FUCK NO!
Aside from residential halls and Olin, which campus spaces do you particularly take issue with?
P and L: All of them.
Other comments about the need for gender-neutral bathrooms and the goals of these actions:
P: The priority is to desegregate places that are high circulation, focusing on student and public spaces that may feel straight/cis. The goal is to upset those spatial designations.
N: Yeah. I always was aware of Olin as a place that didn’t have gender neutral bathrooms. I didn’t study there because I couldn’t go to the bathroom in that building. More buildings have gender neutral bathrooms, true, but they’re usually farther away, or on another floor, or there’s only one, or you’re taking over a space designated for those with mobility disabilities.
P: Even if a building provides a space as a gender-neutral bathroom, the idea of a gender-neutral bathroom that is set aside from the “main bathrooms” is something to be fucked with.
N: The default should be gender-inclusive bathrooms. If you’re uncomfortable, we can include a separate, single-use bathroom so that you don’t have to share your space.
P: Also, some people may think desegregating the bathrooms is for the sake of liberal inclusive ideology – being politically correct about gender on campus. That’s not the goal here. I think this comes down to actual lived experiences that trans people have here, and fighting back about real lived situations and problems.
L: Right. It’s about trans people’s needs, not to those of trans allies.
N: In some ways it’s ideological, but you also need to pee somewhere.
The gender-neutralizing of the bathrooms has already generated response from the student body via Twitter. Some question the practices…
— weshipster (@WesHipster) October 16, 2013
Campus bathrooms vandalized by subversive students who took offense to… gendered signs on the doors #Wesleyan
— WeirdWes (@WeirdWes) October 16, 2013
…While others make points in line with those of K, L, and N above:
.@WeirdWes Vandalized, or corrected? Subversive, or appropriately pissed off?
— Wesleying (@wesleying) October 17, 2013
— ner??us pumpkin (@weird_vibes) October 16, 2013
— Uptight Dyke (@withthevibes) October 16, 2013
Wesleyan has been the home of gender-related controversy several times in the past few years for policies surrounding large concerts like Spring Fling. Prior to the controversial Matisyahu show in 2011, the University administration sent out an email containing the following paragraph:
Pat down lines will be implemented as a security precaution. These lines will be executed in the gender binary. We understand that some students may not feel that one of the two most common gender pronouns may apply to them, but we ask that those students choose to enter whichever line they feel most comfortable in. [Emphasis Wesleying's.]
This was neither the first nor the last time that Wesleyan used gendered pat-downs at large concerts. When Girl Talk played on campus in 2008, similar tactics were used, with similarly negative feedback. At Spring Fling last year, gendered pat-down were once again used – this time, without the prior warning sent out in 2011. Along with almost everything else about Spring Fling 2013, the gendered pat-downs were criticized heavily. Zach talked with Ashe Kilbourne ’14 about the situation:
“Being trans*, part of what made me skip Spring Fling was the picture my friend sent me of the entrance to Freeman,” Ashe Kilbourne ’14 explained over Facebook chat. “Generally, I’d say this kind of highly public segregation is potentially humiliating for trans* people, and the gatekeepers involved rarely have any sensitivity to what they’re doing/policing. I heard upon granting entrance to a male and his female guest, a security guard told the guest to ‘give him a big kiss when you get inside.’ This seems exemplary of the entitlement people in gender policing positions feel to insert their rude shit into your life.”
Kilbourne mentioned that they weren’t the only trans* person who opted not to go inside for this reason.
“The offer to ‘choose the line you prefer’ only gives the illusion of security,” Kilbourne said. “Trans* folks may prefer one gendered space over another, but they are almost guaranteed harassment or incredulous looks if they follow their preference and don’t have passing privilege.”
Wesleyan is also not the only place where these sorts of conflicts have arisen risen. Brown University’s Blog Daily Herald posted at the beginning of this semester about the second year of renovations at a residential hall named Keeney Quad. One of the changes during the renovations was the changing of all gendered bathrooms to gender-neutral ones. On October 4, Brown’s Residential Life department announced that the gender-neutral signs outside restrooms were mistakenly put up during renovations, and would be replaced by permanent gendered signs within two weeks. Student reactions to this decision were varied. Many students pushed back against this decision, removing temporary gendered signs on the bathrooms. Others argued that, while they were fine with gender-neutral bathrooms in most situations, they preferred gendered bathrooms when showering. Earlier today, the Blog Daily Herald made a post about student efforts to re-gender-neutralize the bathrooms following the installation of gendered signs.
As a parting note, I leave you with two calls to action by two of the gender-neutralizing organizers. First, P’s point about gendered bathrooms and power:
Spatial construction of gendered space is a power that some people have over the bodies, identities, and lived experiences of people who use or can’t use those spaces. The way that bathrooms gender space is a form of cis-supremacy. That shouldn’t be a power that people have over others. I don’t know about other people engaged in these actions, but I know I’m not going to wait for University policy to change and I’m not going to start a lengthy dialogue with Michael Roth about this because it needs to happen now, and it can happen now.
…And L’s point, about helping trans* people:
Feel guilty about the time you used the wrong pronouns for someone? Turn that guilt into something useful. Don’t understand trans identity/politics/anything, but would like to? Identify as an ally? Here’s a great place to start: It is easy to take down a sign. Grab it with your hands and rip it off. Put it in the trash after or take it home as a souvenir. Go here. Download these materials, print them, have them on your person and put ‘em up wherever you see fit.
What do you think about the gender-neutralizing of Wesleyan’s bathrooms? Sound off in the comment section below.
BZOD EDIT 10/26/13, 2:44 PM: On Saturday, October 19 at 8:42 AM, Professor Claire Potter (formerly at Wesleyan, now at the New School) posted this comment:
Former Wes and trans-identified faculty voice, who fought for gender-neutral bathrooms (with only some, but some, success): I’m surprised that there is no political discussion of the use of the word “segregation,” which invokes a history of intense, legally enforced and lethal racial oppression in this country. Does the use of this word — without acknowledging the differences between bathroom politics on an elite, liberal arts campus and bathroom politics during a period of massive resistance to civil rights for African Americans — make sense? I wonder if there isn’t another word that would better capture the uniqueness of this issue rather than allowing it to merge uncritically with other forms of social emergency.
In response, the Pissed Off Trans* People requested that I replace the previous bathroom renaming kit with this one. This changes the “Desegreate Wesleyan Bathrooms” to “All Gender Bathrooms Now”. I have accordingly changed the title of this post and the image of the flier.
* * *
We haven’t had a ton of posts about trans* issues lately, but be sure to check out this article in the Pacific Standard, recommended by a shoutbox commenter. It’s quite thought-provoking and interestingly addresses the history of the singular “they” in the English language. Also, here’s an interesting op-ed on Oberlin College’s blog about gender-neutral bathrooms.
Who Killed Spring Fling’s Vibe?
Matisyahu Regulations Calls to Mind Girl Talk ’08
Pacific Standard: Are Gender-Neutral Pronouns Actually Doomed?
The Brown Daily Herald: ResLife to remove Keeney gender-neutral bathroom signs
Blog Daily Herald: “Where will I poop?” A Keeney exclusive
Blog Daily Herald: Sh*t hits the fan: Another Keeney exclusive
Oberlin Blogs: What’s that about the bathrooms?