Friday, February 23, 2007

With Liberty and Safe Restrooms for All

Once again, unisex bathrooms are front page news in the paper. Apparently a professor in the Communication and Culture Department is upset that the new building doesn't have gender-neutral bathrooms, and so he(?) has circulated this petition to get them included. Except that - oops! - the building is already in post-production, so all this was done a little too late.

The petition is well-worded and makes the issue seem pefectly reasonable. What they're asking for is a (note the singular) single-occupancy unisex restroom for the building. They acknowledge that this would add cost to the building project, which is presumably why they're asking for only one.

However, some of the other stuff they say doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

For example:

Persons who are not easily legible as male or female often experience various forms of intimidation in these places. If a person in a gender-specific restroom is assumed to be the "wrong" gender, there may be real threats to that individual's comfort and safety.

I love the way wrong is in shock quotes, as though it were somehow proper for men to be in the women's restroom and vice versa. Look, if a restroom is allocated space for a specific gender, and you don't happen to be a member of that gender, then you are indeed the "wrong" gender if you're in the restroom in question. Very simple, nothing oppressive about it, no need for shock quotes.

Choosing a gender-coded restroom is one of the most frequently reported sources of anxiety in this community: often, transgender people will go far out of their way to gain access to bathrooms that are more private or comfortable.

You mean the way vegetarians will go far out of their way to find suitable food? I don't see a problem with asking a vanishingly small minority of the population to go out of their way to satisfy their specific and highly abnormal needs. No slight to transgender people is intended here - it just happens to be fact that the overwhelming majority of human society has a specific gender identity and is completely comfortable with that. That being the case, I don't see why there's any need for us to incur expense and inconvenience so that the approximately 4 people on IU's campus who meet the relevant description can have a more comfortable restroom experience?

Alright, I get it - some will complain that handicapped people are no different, and we make accomodations for them after all. But here's why this isn't the same: physically handicapped people are not capable of "passing" as normal. The gender-ambiguous definitely are. Further, in the case of handicapped people, there often isn't another way: it's physically impossible (or at least hugely effort-prohibitive) for someone in a wheelchair to climb stairs, for example. But there is no such barrier to a shemale using the boyz room. All they need do is be a little discrete if they want to avoid feeling "uncomfortable."

I don't know how things function in the girls' room, but in the boys' room we're all pretty much discrete anyway. People avoid eye contact, you don't generally strike up random conversations with the dude one urinal over, etc. Men are naturally a little uncomfortable in public restrooms to begin with. So it's really not hard to show up and go unnoticed. Maybe the girls get chatty and catty, I dunno - but I'm betting they're pretty much like we are.

I think what we have on our hands with this petition is a fairly typical attempt by the GLBT community to gain acceptance on the cheap - through official sanction rather than cultural engagement. The debate about "gay marriage" is similar, I think. If the marriage issue were really just about property rights (which I agree is an important issue), then (a) they would be satisfied with civil unions and (b) they would be inclusive of polygamists. But the gay rights lobby is neither, as a general rule. Civil unions aren't good enough, and they go out of their way to ensure the public that they are not advocating extending marriage to those nasty polygamists. But why not, one wonders? What is so special about gay people, who have never, until approximately last week, had a tradition of marriage in their community, that they are "oppressed" if not allowed to marry, but polygamists, who have a long tradition of marriage in their particular "community," are "clearly off limits?" It's a ridiculous position, and so I can only think that the real agenda is getting government-stamped pieces of paper that certify them "gay" to wave in people's faces. It's a backdoor to acceptance.

Well, gender-neutral restrooms on campus - that's a similar sort of strategy. The idea is that if the university adopts a policy requiring gender-neutral facilities the same way they set aside sufficient funds for handicapped-friendly facilities, then being a gender freak is, at least officially, on the same level as being physically handicapped. But that's just it - it's not clear at all to me or, I suspect, most people that this is true!!! In fact, it's pretty clear to me that a "gender handicap" and a physical handicap are completely different types of things. Now, granted, sometimes people are actually born hermaphroditic, in which case there is a (usually non-obvious) physical analogue. But for the most part, gender-identity "issues" are mental issues. A person in one type of body identifies with the social definition of the other, or whatever the current Highly Similar Explanation is.

(As an aside, it's always amused me to watch the Gender Studies people trip over themselves trying to explain this one. On the one hand, they want gender to be a "social construct." On the other, they want to believe that some people are born with a specified gender and a mismatched body. Of course, these two positions are incompatible. Either gender is a social construct that is assigned to people in a certain type of body (in which case, there shouldn't be such things as "transgendered" people, really, since everyone should be capable of adopting their "assigned" gender), or else there's something physical about it. I guess it's something like feature checking in Minimalist (Syntactic) Theory. You know, something has uninterpretable features that need to be checked against another that has interpretable features that need to be valued. So the social construct is uninterpretable, and the child, which is born with "interpretable" gender features, then gets them "valued" by being raised in a particular social situation? Heh. But I guess the Human Subjects Committee is unlikely in the extreme to let us do the kinds of experiments necessary to validate this view...)

Recognizing the importance of creating a safe space for our students, staff, and faculty, we call on the Office of Space Management to incorporate one single-occupancy, gender-neutral, and accessible bathroom in the design of the Communication and Culture, Human Biology, and Medical Sciences building and all future building construction.

OR, we could all be kept safe at lower cost by just refusing to accept such people at IU in the first place. I'm being facetious, of course. But once admitted, I don't see why gender-ambiguous people should feel they can leave their usual concerns at the door? It's not as though the real world is going to be more accepting of them just becuase they went to a university with convenient(ly nonlabeled) restrooms!

But let me finish this on the petition's most sensible note:

Of course, single-occupancy, gender-neutral bathrooms also serve breastfeeding moms, people with extensive medical needs, and families with children too young to use a gender- specific restroom unattended.

This, I think, is a good argument for supporting including one such restroom in all buildings. Notice that breastfeeding moms and parents with young children are GOOD arguments for this kind of restroom. They should, in fact, be the MAIN such arguments. And if our transgendered IU "community members" get a perk as a side-effect, who am I to complain?

What I object to, really, is the bending over backward to make every insignificant minority feel accomodated, whether or not any identifiable social or economic need is satisfied by doing so. It's clear to me that there is a social need for parents to have a place to take their kids to the bathroom attended, or to change their babies' diapers, or breastfeed, or whatever. It's not at all clear that there is a pressing need to make transgendered people feel "comfortable."

So no, I'm afraid I won't sign the petition, because it sneakily tries to get me to endorse an unreasonable position under the cover of promoting a reasonable one. I won't be baited. Give me a petition that identifies mothers and children at the top of its list and transgendered persons in the "Of course..." clause and I'll sign that one. Similarly: give me a petition advocating either (a) the replacement of federal marriage laws with a private contract system or (b) a general purpose civil unions option, and I'll sign it. I'm not endorsing any bills or petitions recognizing gay-specific marriage as a pressing social need, because it isn't one.

In general conclusion: the GLBT rights lobby needs to pack up and go home. Their side-causes are often just, but they frame their arguments in completely inappropriate ways. None of their overt goals are such that they can't be reached by other, more acceptable, avenues than the ones they pursue.


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