Sunday, May 8, 2016

Men's, Women's, Boys'/Girls', Transgender, Faculty, Executive … Toilets

            It was the mid-1960s, and I was finishing up my undergraduate work and preparing to move out of the Midwest to the wilds of upstate New York. "You'll have to establish credit," my father said to me. "I know you," he went on, "and I'm sure you pay cash for everything." I did pay cash, in part because my father had been in credit clothing when I was a child, and I had a very strong first impression of buying on credit: avoid it. Also, I was a War baby and not cheap but tight: I had a mild horror of waste —"Children in Europe are starving!!" — and considered it a waste of money to pay interest; unless desperate, one saved up for purchases by putting money in a bank account and received interest; you didn't pay interest and give extra money to strangers just because just wanted something now.
            Now my father used to say, "You never listen to me," which was inexact. I always listened to his advice; I just didn't always choose to do what he advised: that's the difference between "advice" and "orders." Establishing credit was good advice, so I opened an account at a local men's clothing shop in Champaign, Illinois — which I'll call "Schumacher's" — and walked in to buy something, charge it, pay off what I owed, and then repeat the process a few times to show the world I could incur modest debts and pay them.
            I entered Schumacher's wearing a cashmere V-neck sweater-vest I'd received as a present and looked around for a crew-neck long-sleeve sweater. Seeing none, I asked the clerk — a guy about my age — if they had any in stock. He looked down in my direction and said unto me, "We at Schumacher's like to think our patrons are two years ahead of fashion, not two years behind. We do not stock crewnecks …. However, I could get you a V-neck such as you're wearing." To which I replied, "You at Schumacher's do not carry goods of the quality of the sweater I am wearing," and left to charge something elsewhere.
            A few months later, of course, the Great Wheel of Fashion turned and crew-necks were again "in" —there are only so many variations on the theme of "sweater" and the essence of fashion is trivial change — and I probably went and charged a V-neck at Schumacher's.
            Anyway, I am used to being out of sync, and in matters more important than clothing fashions.
            For example, American public bathrooms were part of the desegregation battles of "the long 1950s" into the also-long 1960s, but the toilet issue (and much else) had moved into the background during the early 1970s as racial conflicts became more intense and US military adventures in Vietnam continued into our longest war until Afghanistan.
            Not for the religious right, however: bathrooms were big for them in the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment for women, or "the 'Common Toilet Law,'" as they saw it; and without my looking for this particular windmill to joust at, public toilets became important for me. In 1969-70 (or so), I fought small battles over johns at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and similarly in the early 1970s at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
            At the U of IL, the initial battle was over the few toilets in the massive stacks of the massive main library. The single-toilet, lockable bathrooms in the stacks were gendered "MEN" or "WOMEN," with a single toilet on each level of the stacks, alternating male and female. At the time, there were considerably more male graduate students and faculty than women at the U of I, so toilet-access was more of a problem for men than for women, but finding a relatively close, unoccupied toilet was a unisex hassle that could be easily ameliorated by labeling the toilet unisex, as in "TOILET." The objection from the Lord of the Libraries was that Illini women wanted tampon dispensers in their toilet rooms, and Illini men couldn't handle the presence of tampon dispensers. (Nowadays I'd resolve the issue by having compact dispensers in all unisex TOILETs for [a] tampons and [b] condoms — but that suggestion wouldn't have gone far at ca. 1969.) In today's terms, the library johns raised issues of Gender Politics.
            Later at the University of Illinois, I wanted the remaining Faculty Only bathrooms — most persistently at the Law School it turned out — opened to the general public of women and men, or what in 2016 I'll call the two modal sexual dimorphisms: Most people are "cisgender," identifying socially and culturally with their biological sex (genetically — generally — XX folk and XY, although that can get complicated). The special faculty johns were an enforcer of something like class and definitely a preserver of status in the Great Chain of Academic Being. A U of I professor of law might bring a lawsuit to mandate Black and White together at Old Confederacy urinals, but heaven forfend he — pretty much always he back then — heaven forfend he would have to piss in the company of law students.
            At Miami University, I got into trouble with the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences ("Liberal" was conspicuously absent from the College name) for getting a motion passed at Miami's Student Affairs Council to desegregate Faculty johns, including the Executive Toilets in the Biz School building. In B-School gendering, there were MEN and WOMEN and — at some expense to build and maintain — also FACULTY MEN and FACULTY WOMEN. (I'm not sure B-school administrators urinate or defecate.) I thought the vote of Student Affairs Council relatively minor, but the debate on The Executive Toilet at the B-School made it up to the cabinet of the President of Miami U. The upshot was the signs on the B-school Executive toilets were indeed removed, but the toilets were then locked; the Chosen were issued keys; and the johns were informally re-named "the Erlichs," which I took as a compliment.
            In the building I first worked in at Miami, I later discovered, the toilets were labeled MEN, WOMEN, and, for one toilet, an asexual FACULTY, which I declined to take as a compliment.
            Toilets are serious business with more people than I had thought, and who pisses and shits where and with whom nearby seems almost as important with humans as it is with our furry (and territorial and hierarchical) friends: dogs and cats. Status and power were the crucial things in dealing with faculty johns of the "Executive Toilet" persuasion, and a crucial part of bathrooms (water fountains, swimming pools, schools, jobs, etc.) segregated by race. Something else was going on with racial segregation, however, and that "something else" is a set of fears central to the current argument over which toilets transsexuals should use.
            I'll identify the set with the title of a book by Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge, 1966).
            To paraphrase and oversimplify, and ignore Douglas's revising some of her views later in her career — The idea I'll use here is that early men in patriarchal societies had only recently gotten the world organized and categorized in their minds and felt danger in the transgressing of the boundaries of categories. So along with the Great Commandments of loving your neighbor as yourself, and foreigners as if they were neighbors (Leviticus 19.18, 19.33-34), we get the injunction in the Holiness Code, "You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall there come upon you a garment of cloth made of two kinds of stuff" (Leviticus 19.19, RSV). To keep categories firm and, well, categorical, they must be kept pure.  
            Hence, there is a strong philosophical/psychological motivation for purity of categories, especially when it came to sex and gender issues, where male fears of undermined categories were justified: if you're enjoying male privilege in a world that wasn't all that great even for men, anything that undermines the category "man" is a threat to one's status and advantages.
            And so we get the surprisingly strong injunction in Deuteronomy, "A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God" (Deut. 22.5). And along with forbidding screwing the livestock, we get the prohibition, "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination" (Leviticus 18.22).
            Now prohibitions against male homosexuality make sense in terms of a set of pronatalist injunctions and prohibitions — down to forbidding male masturbation in later misreadings of the Onan story (Genesis 38.8-10) — that encourage reproduction by channeling sex into reproductive sex between people married and therefore probably in a relationship stable enough to raise kids. Still, such prohibitions will be much more effective if public policy considerations like encouraging reproduction are reinforced with a deep fear of transgression, including transgression of category boundaries.
            And before you think that such fears died out a couple centuries back with the Enlightenment, consider the various things that scare people in movies like the Alien(s) series and David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986). Part of the creepiness of the Alien in Alien(s) is his/her/its gender complexity, plus its combination of the organic and mechanical; part of the horror of The Fly is the final combination of human, fly, and machine.
            Some people are more upset than others by boundary transgression, and conservative, orthodox folk in the Abrahamic traditions — e.g., in America, fundamentalist Christians — are likely to be very upset by "trans" people whose mere existence undermines man/woman as an absolute category. Now if an anatomically male XY person enters a bathroom with women, or an anatomically female XX person enters a bathroom with men, that "trans" existence is put into action in the world and is going to be difficult to ignore. Combine that with traditional fears of "the rape of our women" and cultural-feminist prioritizing concerns with rape, and we will see a continuing argument on bathroom signage: what signs go on what toilets regulating use by sex and/or gender.
            Personally, I'd like to see some numbers in the transgender debate, and I'd like to see more common sense. "Man" and "Woman," male and female human, are not absolute types, but the "modal phenotype" for human beings is sexual dimorphic: carefully throw a paper airplane at a crowd of human adults and the people you're likely to hit will be "cisgendered" and either men or women. My guess is that there are relatively few transgendered people, and however significant they are philosophically, theologically, ideologically, politically, and symbolically, as a practical matter their legitimate needs can be met pretty easily.
            In 1979, I attended a conference on "Narrative" at the University of Chicago and stayed with my nephew in a university dorm with unisex group bathrooms of the old-fashioned non-luxury variety. There seemed to be a few simple rules including no nudity in the public areas, and "Guys: Put it away and zip up before turning around at the urinals." There also seemed to be no problems.
            I doubt most American will be able to carry off bathroom mixing of sexes and genders with quite the aplomb of U of Chicago students in 1979. Still, if men can get used to invasive music in bathrooms featuring female vocalists, we can share bathrooms with XX people who experience themselves as men — and can even have tampon dispensers for them, preferably next to ubiquitous condom machines. And if the biggest threat to American genetically female women becomes genetically male people who experience themselves as women, then we've taken a large step toward a crime-free America; anyway, if bathroom attacks by males masquerading as females become a problem, then legislators and other authorities — and the women immediately threatened (vigilante style, if necessary, on occasion) — can deal with it.
            With some sensible actions — starting with more unisex signs on washrooms and common sense and common decency — trans folk can get recognition; women can have shorter lines to get to a toilet; and men can finally get bathrooms a little cleaner and a little fancier, like women get at upscale restaurants.
            And this round of The Great Toilet Debate, those of us in faith traditions can recognize that God gave us, not absolute categories, but evolved populations with variation. Old theologians called it God's "plenitude" and celebrated the variety. We, today, can use categories when they're useful, but try more to think statistically — and accommodate variety in our abstract ideologies and in such mundane activities as "hitting the head."

            And since the Trans Movement will force us to deal with bathrooms anyway, let's pass already the ERA amendment to the US Constitution and at least guarantee on paper or parchment equal rights for women, and, in the classic formulation of the amendment, for everybody.


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