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.

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Paisley Currah

I am a professor of political science and women's & gender studies at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. I'm the co-editor of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly.

3 thoughts on “Locker Rooms are the New Bathrooms–Bodily privacy and the opposite sex”

  1. Brilliant as always, Paisley. I’m particularly struck by your clear-eyed recognition that all SORTS of bodies are potentially troubling in a locker room. Locker rooms were difficult places for me to navigate when I was younger because of my embarrassment about the fairly prominent scars usually hidden by clothes. I’m (mostly) over that but as someone who uses the gym facilities at my school, locker rooms are a no-go space because I think “no nudity” is a reasonable boundary between professors and students.

    Locker room panics are absolutely about heterosexuality and the gender binary. But I think they’re also about the “dangerous” penis. (Schultz and Westbrook have written about this—I’m not claiming unique insight.) We are more socially concerned about penises in “women’s” spaces than we are about vaginas in male spaces, yes?

    1. Absolutely Professor Anderson. I think when we to try to figure out what’s going on with this sort of backlash, we can’t adopt a gender neutral framework. There is this hysteria about the penis. I wrote about it here: https://paisleycurrah.com/2016/03/31/the-new-transgender-panic-men-in-womens-bathrooms/.

      Of course, trans and gender nonconforming people are the victims of violence in the bathroom, not the perpetrators of it. In fact, as Shannon Minter notes, “research shows that gender-nonconforming women experience more discrimination and harassment in shared bathrooms than virtually any other group — they are more likely to be stopped from entering a women’s bathroom, more likely to have their gender questioned, and more likely to be verbally or even physically abused.”

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