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Letter to the Editor: Trans* Issues Oversimplified

Critique of a previously published article and a response from the original author.

By Letters, News

Dear F Newsmagazine Editors,

In the February 2013 issue, F Newsmagazine published the article “The Bathroom Blind Spot,” which discussed from a conceptual perspective why single-stalled, gender-neutral bathrooms at SAIC are potentially problematic in contrast to the number of traditionally gendered bathrooms. We recognize that this article came with the intention of discussing trans* issues and highlighting the shortcomings of the institution’s attempt to accommodate people of all genders. However, we feel that the article failed to recognize the wide array of issues that trans* students are facing in the current climate.

We want to want to acknowledge that we are not the only trans* voices in our community, but as two trans* students who are active members in organizing SAIC’s Queers and Allies group and have participated in the dialogue between students and administration about policy change, we feel we have a unique perspective in regard to these specific issues.

We found quite a few inconsistencies of information within the article that we’d like to address. First and foremost: the article stated that “SAIC’s venture into unisex bathrooms only included single person ‘family rooms’ when in fact there are multiple multi-stall gender neutral bathrooms in the SAIC buildings (second floor of the Columbus Building, Room 235 and tenth floor of the Sharp Building, Room 1002). Also, the first floor MacLean bathrooms were discussed as if they were gender-free when, in fact, they are not. The unisex bathroom in that building is located on the 13th floor (Room 1309).

Secondly, there seemed to be some confusion of vocabulary, particularly in regard to gender identity and sexual orientation. Gender identity refers to the way an individual identifies and represents themselves. A cisgender (cis) person identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth. A transgender (trans*) person does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Transgender is an umbrella term encompassing many genders. The asterisk denotes the multiplicity of identities from binary trans women or trans men to people who identify as genderqueer, agender, and other nonbinary trans* identities. Gender identity is entirely independent of sexual orientation. A person’s sexual identity is determined by who they are attracted to. Both trans* and cis people can be heterosexual, homosexual, asexual, queer, bisexual, pansexual or any other sexual orientation. Although the article implies that straight is the opposite of trans*, “heterosexual” does not mean cisgender. By the same token, issues of LGB rights such as marriage equality and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell are not necessarily issues for the trans* community. In the same way, many gay rights activist organizations do not concern themselves with advocating for trans* rights.

Thirdly, the article stated that “Throughout the history of civil rights in the U.S., desegregation has been used to provide people with equality and fairness.” We want to dispute this notion on several levels. Firstly- trans* people have never been systematically segregated from cis individuals. Trans* people have been discriminated against, ostracized, and been the victim of hate crimes, but never segregated the way people of color, particularly black people, have been throughout U.S. history. Secondly, desegregation did not summarily cease the problem of racism; a step in the right direction does not automatically create a post-racial society. There are many places that are still racially exclusive. Chicago to this day is one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States, and places of education are particularly prone to unequal distribution of resources, especially to communities of color. To conflate the struggle for trans* rights with the Civil Rights movement in this way places the struggle for racial equality in the past tense and ignores the fact that racism is still prevalent in our culture. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that trans* people of color experience simultaneous racism and transphobia (the fear and hatred of trans* individuals). Trans* women of color in particular are most often the victims of hate crimes and violence spawned by transmisogyny (the specific fear and hatred of trans* women) and racism, especially in bathroom settings. The 2011 National Coalition of Anti-Violence Program found that 87% of LGBTQ murder victims were people of color, and 45% of that demographic were trans* women.

While we agree with the article’s point that there should be more gender neutral bathrooms, both at SAIC and in the world at large, the most important feature of gender neutral bathrooms is not the number of stalls they have. On that same note, we also want to make the distinction that we have no desire to remove the existence of gendered bathrooms. Recognizing the fears of many people who have experienced trauma and assault in bathroom spaces is not just a trans* issue, and the importance of everyone’s comfort and safety is paramount. As long as there is an option for gender neutral bathrooms, and gendered bathrooms are inclusive of trans* individuals, male/female bathrooms are not at odds with trans* equality.

The article states that “single person unisex bathrooms force individuals to compromise their identities.” In reality, the absence of unisex bathrooms, of any size, often forces trans* individuals, especially non-binary trans* people, to choose between basic bodily functions and compromising their safety and gender identity. The purpose of gender neutral bathrooms is to provide safety, comfort and the protection of self identification — in that order of importance. While having multi-stalled gender neutral bathrooms symbolically represents equality, in terms of basic functionality, their size is not nearly as important as their existence.
It is ironic that this article both ignores and underlines a basic lack of understanding about what trans* issues are, and how to discuss them. This lack of understanding is not exclusive to this article, and we want to be clear that we are not trying to personally criticize its author but more, attempting to bring to light the underlying issues at large.

This article was an opportunity to discuss trans* perspectives on SAIC’s policies of gender inclusion. It could have discussed the fact that gender neutral bathrooms are difficult to find and not located in easily accessible areas. It could have discussed the difficulty that trans* students face in having their identities recognized and respected by their peers, instructors, and the school administration. It could have discussed the arduous and uphill battle of attempts to change teaching policies and make SAIC a more inclusive learning environment. Instead, the article revealed the problems that come from discussing trans* issues without consulting a trans* perspective. This ultimately leads to more confusion and misinformation, and disrupts the results of trans* students lobbying to have their own voices heard as part of the SAIC community.
The discussion of how to make SAIC a more inclusive space is one that we believe all students should be engaged in, and we would happily consult for further articles, or participate in larger discussions. If, after reading this, anyone wishes to discuss other queer and trans* issues, or approach us to critically examine our own perspective, we hold Queers and Allies meetings every Thursday starting February 14th in room 205-206 of the Neiman Center. Everyone is welcome to participate.

The Writer Responds — More Gender-Neutral Bathrooms Would Be a Positive Step

In my article, “The Bathroom Blind Spot,” I was not only addressing the trans* community at SAIC, but was also addressing the lesbian, bi, gay, heterosexual, male, female, transgender, queer and non-transgender population in general. I would like to point out that my article spoke about the inaccessibility of current unisex bathrooms. It was a call for more accessible unisex bathrooms, and multi-person formations of unisex bathrooms, that would try and get identities recognized and respected by their peers, instructors and the school administration. I feel that the issue of gendered and non-gendered bathrooms concerns each of these communities, and all of the individuals within them, especially because each person has their own gender identity. For example, in Shelia L. Cavanaugh’s book “Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination,” which is based on 100 interviews with LGBT and intersex individuals in major North American cities, a lesbian woman (who identified herself as looking “Butch”) was screamed at by a girl in a woman’s restroom who looked at her and believed she was a man.

I took this into account when creating my argument. Much of the prejudice that exists against individuals who stray from hetronormativity or set gender identities is based around the normativity of the categories male, and female. Normativity is enforced institutionally at the most basic level by distinctions such as male and female bathrooms.

My argument was not borne out of a confusion of terms. I understand the difference between gender identity and sexual identity. Never did I say that this was a finished battle; that discrimination of any kind had ended in the world, or that we live in a post-gender or post-racial society. Those would easily be the most dangerous, facile, and erroneous judgments one could make.

The last thing I would want is to misinform or disrupt the results of trans students working to get conditions changed as it was stated that I did in the letter. I was not trying to state my argument as if it were the opinion of the trans*-community, but I do stand by my belief that creating more multi-person and single person unisex bathrooms may be beneficial for all members of our school and others. It could work towards making individuals of different gender identities more comfortable around each other, and take a step towards reducing instances of prejudice or violence with increased foot traffic in a setting that is otherwise sex-segregated or single-person.

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