The Illogic of Separation: Examining Arguments About Gender-Neutral Public Bathrooms
Kopas, Matthew Bryon David
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In the United States, gender separation is the norm for public bathrooms. As one of the few remaining public spaces that are regularly explicitly segregated by gender, bathrooms are often experienced as sites of symbolic and physical exclusion by transgender and gender non-conforming people. For this reason, one focus of transgender activism in the United States and elsewhere has been safe access to public bathrooms - often by advocating for "gender-neutral" configurations. These challenges to the established norm of separation have sometimes provoked strong resistance. However, the problem of resistance to change is perhaps less pressing for activists than the problem of convincing the public, policymakers, and potential allies that bathrooms are worth discussing at all. This study uses focus group methods to understand how people presumably unfamiliar with debates around public bathrooms understand and talk about the possibilities of organizing public bathrooms in a "genderfree" way. Several of the arguments raised against gender-neutral bathrooms, such as those rooted in concerns around women's safety and loss of privacy, were either challenged by other participants as internally inconsistent, or proved to be more complicated than they initially seemed. The only argument that remained unchallenged during the discussions was a religiously-motivated assertion about the naturalness of binary gender separation. I suggest that other participants may have also felt uncomfortable with the notion of ending gender separation, but that they lacked access to the "good reasons" for expressing discomfort that this religious discourse provides. These findings imply that for some, resistance to ending gender separation in public bathrooms is wrapped up with deep-rooted attachments to the continuation of the gender system that may be less vulnerable to reasoned debate than apparently rational concerns about safety or privacy.
- Sociology