April 3, 2005

In search of the right bathroom.

Here’s a good letter in response to my post yesterday about the NYC law that may forbid the exclusion of men from women’s bathrooms:
Do I understand [you] … to mean that I should use the men's bathroom, because a woman in the women's bathroom might mistake me for a man and be afraid?…

I am a tall, boyish-looking woman with short hair, who usually wears comfortable, gender-neutral clothes, like jeans and t-shirts. I often am mistaken for a man, even though it's never been my intention to pass as a man; it's sometimes amusing, but usually it's irritating or demeaning. Do you think is it my responsibility to actively try to look like a woman, even though some women might still mistake me for a boy? I'm sorry, but it is your choice to decide what constitutes a threat to your own safety. I know that I am not a dangerous person, and occasionally, just like you, I need to use the restroom when I am away from home. Frankly, I think people should take a closer look at my chest or my face, instead of my height and haircut, or better yet, give me the benefit of the doubt that I'm in the right bathroom and don't mean any harm, before panicking or saying something rude.

I guess the important question to resolve is: when does an individual's actual right to self-expression have to be subjugated to someone else's potential right to feel safe? I would not wear a pink skirt or grow my hair long, just to make other women feel more comfortable in the public restroom. My everyday real freedom to be myself (while not physically harming others) is more important than other's potential freedom from (irrational) fear.

The transgendered issue is more complicated, but not that different in the end. Practically speaking, the best solution is a third, unisex private bathroom of the kind that accommodate wheelchairs, but those are not often available. Maybe the best solution, other than having inspectors at the entrance to the restroom (so as to avoid relying on occupants' perception of others' gender), is for women who are very afraid of being attacked by men in the bathroom to carry mace or some other self-defense tactic. That way, if one is actually threatened with violence (by a apparent male, apparent female, or someone in between), one can defend herself; she would also feel safer in the meantime, and might not feel compelled to stereotype or be rude to innocent people in the restroom, who, like her, just have to go.
Weapons! Would you recommend weapons even for young girls? And what if I’m in an airport or I’ve just traveled through an airport? No weapons allowed there. And as for carrying mace around when traveling by car – it’s illegal in some places. Do you know which places? I happen to know one: Wisconsin. Am I supposed to learn martial arts? Despite some appearances to the contrary, I'm not really up to that sort of thing.

It seems to me that the best self-defense is to keep in touch with one’s own intuitive feelings and to get away from strangers who set off your animal-level flee instinct. I do feel sympathetic to people whose looks set off that instinct incorrectly, but asking women to numb themselves to these feelings to help make the world a kinder, gentler place is asking too much. This is the best defense we have, as I believe people in law enforcement will tell you. Many women have been attacked because they thought they should be nice and ignored that instinct.

Women who happen to look like men do need to use the women’s room. I wrote that I can’t imagine wanting to disturb women by causing fears about a man in the women’s room. So if I knew I were causing a problem like that, I actually would do something to mitigate it. I don’t think you should use the men’s room or have to change the way you dress, but you should also be sensitive to how you make other people feel. You want women who are genuinely and properly concerned about their safety to be sensitive to you and to do nothing to limit your freedom, but isn’t that a two-way street?

I don't like rude people either, but no law will ever wipe out rudeness. Suppose everyone were given a legal right to use whichever bathroom suits their subjective sense of gender identity. Do you think the people in those restrooms will stop saying rude things? They might very well become more abusive, because they would feel more threatened. You assume throughout your letter that this is an irrational fear. I wish you were right about that, but I don't think you are!

No comments: