Locker Rooms are the New Bathrooms–Bodily privacy and the opposite sex

Locker rooms are the new bathrooms. Officials in Maryland are in court to keep 16-year-old Max Alexander Brennan out of the boys’ locker room. According to the Washington Post, school administrators “have said they must look out for all students, who have a right to ‘bodily privacy’ and should not be forced to undress in front of the opposite biological sex.”

Of course, the idea of “biological sex” is nonsense, and in more than only way. How will these officials define biological sex–as the sex assigned at birth, as a post or “partially” transitioned body, or as gender identity? It’s gender identity that’s the criterion for M/F classification on drivers’ licenses in 32 states, and for US passports. In fact, as I argue in my book, there’s no there there when it comes to deciding who is F and who is M. In the past, what sex is depended on what sex does for a particular institution. More recently, it’s become a particularly charged site for the re-prosecution of the culture wars. During the Obama administration, gender identity became the metric for F or M in a number of departments, from Education to Housing and Urban Development. The Trump/Pence administration is not so enamored of officials interpreting sex to include gender identity. (Neither were our friends at Jacobin: for them, sex means as assigned at birth until legislators decide otherwise). That’s why the Trump/Pence crown has been undoing these regulations wherever they can. At least the feds have zero ability to rollback progressive state policies. (Go states! Yay federalism!)

Still, let’s stipulate that biological sex is just one thing (which it’s not)–defined, say, by the presence or absence of penises, breasts, or vaginas. Even so, those appendages don’t stare at people, people do–1990s SNL skits notwithstanding. Of course, the messiness of a concept like biological sex in no way prevents state actors from using the force of law to clean it up, give it a shave and haircut, and declare that it’s simply common sense. Judges, state agencies, legislatures can and do define who is male and who is female. Much as many of us would like to get states out of the business of telling people whether they are women or men or even gender non-binary, we still have a long way to go. But good luck trying to wrest people’s gender identity from them. In many of the older cases on sex classification, even judges who found that transsexual women were “really” men, and vice versa, would often use the respectful pronoun. In locker rooms, birth certificates aren’t floating around looking for a place to change and a hook for their clothes, people are–with all our complex desires, identifications, and contradictions.

Aside from the nuttiness of worrying about “female” vaginas looking at “male” penises and vice versa, there’s a larger problem here. The idea of bodily privacy is important, in itself and also because it can be the springboard for more substantive rights, such as the right to bodily integrity and autonomy. But why is bodily privacy thought only to mandate protection from the presence of the “opposite sex”? Because…heterosexuality, of course, and because of the gender binary that underwrites it, and–this is where the opposition to trans students come in–because of the assumption that sex is what’s between your legs. In the ideal locker room of the right, everyone is 100 percent straight, everyone’s gender identity matches the sex assigned to them at birth, and no one is looking at anything other than the soap dispenser. (“Keep your eyes to yourself,” the locker room etiquette sign–see  below–admonishes.) Everyone is equally fit, equally able-bodied, and equally beautiful in each others’ eyes. And all the sexualized body parts conform to the Lake Wobegon rule–everyone’s bits are (equally) above average. There’s no judgment, no comparison, definitely no desire to have or to be another body.

That would be unlike every locker room I’ve ever been in. While conservatives are worrying about what’s underneath my towel, I’m fretting about what’s hanging out above it. As someone who is a step or three beyond the dad bod, I’m concentrating on sucking it in on the walk to my locker.

A right to bodily privacy that only cares about hetero/gender normativity, implemented through the blunt instrument of gender segregation–whatever the rule for classifying people as M or F–takes one aspect of our embodiment as its entirety. What about the right to not be seen by people who are fatphobic, by people who think colostomy bag is weird, by people who stare at scars, by people who judge someone for breast pumping, by people revolted by the aging body? Establishing bodily privacy will require much more imagination–and resources–to partially undo the hierarchies of difference established through the architecture of the locker room.

Finally, back to the transgender question–although the right has been scare-mongering about the (non-existent) dangers of transgender people in bathrooms for a few years now, public opinion is moving toward a gender identity standard for bathrooms. But with locker rooms, so-called reasonable people are still very susceptible to the notion that body parts shouldn’t be in mixed company. Almost twenty years ago, Congressional Representative Barney Frank, one of the few gay rights advocates in Congress at the time, told trans advocates that “Transgendered people want a law that mandates a person with a penis be allowed to shower with women. They can’t get that in ENDA [a federal non-discrimination bill].”  That view didn’t disappear with Frank’s retirement. The locker room is the next phase of the right wing’s assault.

locker-room-etiquette-sign-s2-1269

What will happen to trans people now?

Here’s the short answer: trans people who were already especially vulnerable to discrimination and violence before the election–the homeless, the incarcerated, undocumented immigrants, sex workers, among others–are going to be even more vulnerable. For those with (some of) the security that class, whiteness, ability, employment provides, it’s not going to be the apocalypse, but there will be probably be some minor rollbacks and you should definitely get your federal IDs in order. (The National Center for Lesbian Rights has an excellent FAQ on that.) The election shouldn’t change our priorities–just as before, we need to focus our activism on the trans people at the margins.

There is no one who has more experience working with government–courts, agencies, legislatures–on trans policy issues than my very good friend Shannon Price Minter. A reporter asked Shannon, who is the Legal Director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, what he thought trans people should be concerned about now. Here is his answer:

I remain optimistic that we will not see major rollbacks of the gains transgender people have made in the past two decades. Many of those gains are based on federal civil rights statutes and federal court precedent, which cannot be quickly undone. I am also optimistic that the US Supreme Court will affirm that Title IX protects transgender students in the case now pending before them.  Many states have also enacted policies and laws protecting transgender people, and social acceptance has reached a critical mass that will only continue to grow.  There is much for our country to fear from the incoming administration, but there is no immediate reason to believe that transgender people will be a particular target, though certainly we may lose some executive agency protections and will no longer have a strong champion in the White House.

I am most deeply concerned about the impact of heightened deportation on undocumented transgender people, many of whom have fled life-threatening situations.  I am deeply concerned about transgender people on Medicare and Medicaid, and transgender people living with HIV, as proposals to privatize and cut back on these public benefits proliferate in the Republican Party. Many transgender people in this country are living in poverty and hanging by a thread. Any further erosion of our nation’s already paper thin safety net will be devastating for many transgender people who have been pushed to the margins of our society.  There is also reason for concern about an escalation of police violence against transgender people, and particularly transgender women who are engaged in survival sex work and already face so much often race-based profiling and brutality, both from police and others.

It is distressing to see the far right’s elevation of issues around transgender people and restrooms eclipse these broader issues.  Like others in our country, transgender people want to be able to live safely, to be able to work and have access to decent healthcare, and to be able to live with  dignity.  We don’t want to be in the crosshairs of a trumped up culture war.

So, there you have it from someone who knows whereof he speaks.

A final word. It’s only human to put oneself at the center of things–as a victim, as a hero. But let’s try to edit that first draft. If you weren’t especially vulnerable before the election, you’re still not that vulnerable compared to others in our community.  If you’re not in the trans “precariat,” don’t panic,  just act.  Get your own ID ducks in a row, certainly, and then start to organize and be organized.

Understandably, there’s a non-profit money grab going on now. If you can give, give to the organizations that focus on the margins, not on the mainstream.

Touching what you read

I must say, the cover art and production quality of Transgender Studies Quarterly, by Sue Hall, the master of design for Duke University Press Journals, is absolutely gorgeous. If you, like me, think a lot is lost when reading online, if you crave the visceral pleasure of holding in your hands a beautifully designed actual book–which our curated special issues essentially are–consider getting a subscription: $28 for students; $45 for everyone else. (And as always, if you have no digital access to TSQ through a library and you’d like to read an article or an issue, just message me on Facebook or email me at pcurrah@brooklyn.cuny.edu.) Pictured below are the front and back covers of a double issue on Translating Transgender, guest edited by David Gramling and Aniruddha Dutta, which is at the printers now.