tiffanie brunson

The Bathroom Problem

Role: Author

About the project: This essay examines the social discourse around gendered public restrooms. The typical argument is centered around transgender men and women who experience discrimination in the form of denied access to the gendered bathroom aligned with their gender identity. The counter argument Is generally that whether you Identify as a male or a female, your biology decides which bathroom you should use. But what happens when you are born ambiguous genitalia? I use excerpts from Aaron Apps's Memoir, Intersex: A Memoir, and academic research papers to answer that very question. 

I thought my bladder was going to explode. I bounced up and down while looking at the cheesy, ambiguously ethnic paintings that adorned the walls but nothing was working. I had four glasses of water and the woman in the single-stall lavatory didn’t seem to be coming out any time soon. I listened eagerly for a flush for what felt like hours. A door opened abruptly and my heart began to soar. Finally! But, no. An elderly man hobbled out of the room opposite me with a look of relief on his face. I envied him. The small, white, bald headed, angular woman in an ill-fitted dress hung on the door, reminding me which room I was welcome in. But I was reaching the point of desperation and no plastic plaque could control the outcome. I glanced around for any signs of people watching, but I was completely alone. I dashed in to the men’s room and noticed nothing as I relieved my screaming bladder. While I went through the routine of toilet paper, sinks and paper towels, my surroundings slowly came into focus. There was a toilet, a mirror, a sink, a cabinet and a paper towel holder. What exactly was it that made this room specifically male-oriented? What made this room more penis-friendly than the identical room across the hall? How did structures of brick, mortar and porcelain succumb to the societal construct of the gender binary and make me an alien, an unwelcome visitor?

In Intersex, a memoir by Aaron Apps, Apps retells the traumatic experience of being probed and prodded by doctors at a young age because he was born with ambiguous genitalia. Because his sex organ was large enough to be considered a small penis, his parents consented to raise him as a boy and medically alter his genitalia to more closely resemble normative male genitals. Though the memoir focuses on the consequences of normalizing the body through his encounters with doctors and being pinned down by his parents to inject him with steroids, his story also includes a graphic depiction of the bathroom:

I keep wiping. I’m filthy. I’m moist with sweat-reek. I hear voices echo in the bathroom. “Mommy I have to peeeeee!” a small girl’s voice squeals before she giggles. “Get into the stall. I’ll be right there,” her mother answers. The woman’s room. That’s why there were no urinals when I entered. I thought there was something strange about the space. How can I leave? What will the little girl say when she sees my fat, masculine frame falter past her? What will she say as she sniffs me up into her nose cavities? (Apps, 7)

Though his presence in the woman’s room is accidental, his intersex body disrupts the binary of the bathroom. He is not merely a man in the wrong bathroom. He is a person with both and no sex, with a “masculine frame,” defecating in the women’s room. The multiple layers of gender confusion and ambiguity muddies the identity the bathroom places on him.

The bathroom has been a place of turmoil for identity long before Aaron Apps stepped inside it. In Jack (formerly Judith) Halberstam’s book Female Masculinity, he identifies “the bathroom problem” as a disconnection between the reality of the modern gender spectrum and the reality of the gender binary that exists in the bathroom through stories of gender queer people being thrown out of bathrooms or arrested for being in the “wrong bathroom.” According to Halberstam, the bathroom is a paradigm that “limits gender identification” and by recognizing it as such, “we can measure the distance between binary gender schema and lived multiple gendered experiences” (Halberstam, 12). Halberstam points out that bathroom policing aggressively forces individuals to be either male or female when performing a function that, as human beings, we must all perform. And, by forcing this binary, the bathroom is constructing a gender identity where there needn’t be one. 

Trans activist and author Leslie Feinberg writes in Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue, that the transgendered person’s fear of using the bathroom has physical and psychological repercussions: 

“We have to worry about what bathroom to use when our bladders are aching. We are forced to consider whether we’ll be dragged out of a bathroom and arrested or face a fistfight while our bladders are still aching…“The use of the ‘wrong’ bathroom . . . often results in arrests for crimes such as public lewdness, public obscenity, and public indecency” (Feinberg, 68).

While transgender people may not conform to the gender assigned to their inborn sex organs, in fighting for the right to use a male or female bathroom, they are—in a way—performing a sort of gender conformity. They are males deciding to be females, or females deciding to be males. 

For the intersex person like Aaron Apps, though, gender conformity is not possible. In Contesting Intersex: the Dubious Diagnosis, Georgiann Davis describes an often overlooked biological variation in sex. According to the Intersex Society of North America, Intersex is “a term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn't seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.” For an intersex person, their sexual anatomy is ambiguous. They are not born female and decide to be male and they are not born male and decide to be female. They are simultaneously both male and female and neither male nor female.

But it is important to note that Apps’ bathroom story begins with another action that we must all perform: eating. He vividly describes eating “butterflied pig carcasses” and eating the “strands of meat from the bones” in a very animalistic and ritualistic way (Apps, 3). After eating, he, again, is performing a function we must all perform, filling “the cart with dry goods” and he suddenly feels the pang of needing to defecate (Apps, 4). By placing these functions next to the bathroom, Apps reminds us the bathroom is not the only thing that is gendered. Material from the body, the porcelain, the stuff you eat; he doesn’t separate defecating from eating or shopping. There are all functions that relate to each other.

Apps describes “I”—or identity—as “a mass of yarn trajectories always already caught in the act of intersecting now—a present that is past-becoming future-becoming now. A ripped open temporality spiraling back onto itself” (Apps 27). In using time as a analogy for gender identity, Apps forces us to think about the absurdity of gender as a binary in relation to time as a “trinary.” We often think of time as past, present and future. But time is fluid and in studying stars, we can see that it doesn’t always fit into a neat trinary. In the article “Are the Stars You See in the Sky Already Dead?,” Phil Plait says that “at 300,000 kilometers per second (186,000 miles per second), it takes light more than eight minutes to get from the closest star to Earth.” That means that when you are looking at a star, you’re looking at it as it was eight minutes ago. You’re looking into the past while standing in the present, both times existing at once. In that same vein, as an intersex, Apps is existing as both male and female, causing a disruption in the space gender continuum. 

Apps’ description of time as “a mass yarn” also mirrors string theory, which is a theory in physics that replaces particles with dimensional objects called strings in order to explain the relationship between space and time. String theory explains the possibility of other dimensions, disrupting the very idea of time as a three-part progression, constantly moving forward. In his description of identity, Apps echoes the possibility of there being other dimensions to gender, ones that cannot be explained by the binary of male and female. 

In Jasimir Puar’s article “‘I Would Rather Be a Cyborg Than a Goddess’: Becoming-Intersectional in Assemblage Theory,” she explains a similar theory of assemblages which describes “how the body is materialized rather than what the body signifies” (Puar, 57). She explains the term assemblage as an “awkward translation from the French term agencement,” which means design, organizations, relations—focusing not on what something is, but rather how it works in relation to other things. That, Puar contends, is what gives them their meaning. Therefore, a person’s identity is “a process…an encounter, an event, an accident…identities are multicausal, multidirectional, liminal…”(Puar, 59). And in Apps’ connection of eating and excreting, keeping them closely tied rather than separating the actions, he writes the experience of using the bathroom like an assemblage. 

Resembling Judith Butler’s theory of gender as performance, Puar notes that “identity is a process involving an intensification of habituation” and, quoting Michael Foucalt, she says that “discipline is a mode of individualization of multiplicities rather than something that constructs an edifice of multiple elements…” (Puar, 62). Aaron Apps’ story presents a case that reinforces this notion of identity as habitual discipline. He is born with ambiguous genitals and, through medical procedures and practicing male rights of passage and behaviors, is brought up as a male. Or as he puts it, he was “pushed down a masculine sludge stream” (Apps, 38). He describes doing violent things to water creatures behind his home as “aligning” with masculinity, rendering it a sort of performance. He views this violence towards animals as a masculine right of passage, hoping that by performing masculine violence, he “might come closer to a singular account of the world” (Apps, 38). In other words, he wants to view the world from only a masculine perspective. He wants to be fully male. By doing this, he is constrained to his individualized identity rather than allowed to be his born gender, which is a multiplicity. Assemblage, as a state of how things relate, allows for multiplicity. In that way, assemblages are the only solution to the bathroom problem because they “encompass not only ongoing attempts to destabilize identities and grids,”—in this case, gender binary—“but also the forces that continue to mandate and enforce them”—the bathroom (Puar, 63). 

For Daniella A. Schmidt, it is not just a matter of forcing identity, but also a matter of civil rights. Schmidt wrote in “Bathroom Bias: Making the Case for Trans Rights under Disability Law” that bathrooms are used by businesses as a tool to discriminate against transgender employees, forcing them into a bathroom that declares their gender identity for them.  According to Schmidt, the law states that “an employer may not assign bathroom usage based on race, that equivalent bathrooms for men and women need to be provided, and that bathrooms must be accessible to persons with disabilities,” but “employers may still inquire about and pass judgment upon a trans person’s genitals” (Schmidt, 7). Schmidt likens this judgment to a time when bathroom policing was used to keep African Americans from using Caucasian bathrooms and notes it as an issue of civil liberty because it is “a question of equality, dignity, safety, and respect for all people” (Schmidt, 7). Like Apps, the transgender person’s identity is decided for them. But unlike Apps, they are born with biological signifiers that place them in one category or the other. Though a transgender man may be denied his identity by forcing him back into the women’s room, there is no way to force an intersex person into a bathroom that their genitalia claim for them. Because, like their gender identity, their genitalia is ambiguous. 

Despite whispers of gender progress, the bathroom itself signals a long way to go for gender politics. People who identify as gender queer, transsexual, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual may all be more commonly accepted in American society, but they still have to choose which bathroom door to walk through. Though there may be fear in being misidentified and policed, this is not a hard choice for the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or queer because they have clear biological markers—i.e. genitals—that signal which bathroom to use. For the transexual, who feels that they were born with the wrong genitals, it is a more difficult journey to find the “right” bathroom because of bathroom policing; however, their desire is to be in either a male or female bathroom, whether or not they were born with those particular sex organs. But, the problem for the intersex person is that there is no clear choice. While the trans person, even though they don’t naturally fit the accepted male/female binary, still chooses one or the other. Their choice to change from one sex to the other still places them on the gender spectrum, a somewhat easier place to be than the intersex person. The question intersex people are faced with is that if you are born neither clearly male nor female, which bathroom is yours? By asking this question, the intersex person disrupts the gender spectrum, calling into question the binary categories all together. 

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