Of America and its war over bathrooms

Published: 01st June 2016 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 31st May 2016 11:08 PM   |  A+A-

Last week at a wonderful Mass at the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York, I was puzzled when the pastor began his sermon with: “We are a country at war over bathrooms”. This despair, in a church that has been at the forefront of the battle for inclusion of gays into the community and for their treatment with sensitivity and care, baffled me. An altar to Saint Luke, patron saint of doctors, hosts a national memorial to AIDS victims, every dead person’s name noted down.

Days later at a conference in an Amherst college, I saw a bathroom with the notice “All Gender Restroom, Privacy Lock Available”. Others carried the notice ‘Restroom without Urinals’ while still others sported ‘Restrooms with Urinals’. What is the war of bathrooms about, I wondered? Another claim to US exceptionalism? Not quite, I discovered. This has a history and politics specific to the US.

Earlier this year, in a move to reduce discrimination against transgender persons, the Attorney General suggested they be allowed to use the toilet of the gender they identified as. In a swift rejoinder, South Carolina passed a law restricting transgender persons access to toilets. The reasons stated were that this increased the risk of violence against women and children. In other words, transgender persons who identified as women, continued to be men, and predators at that, ignoring that transgender persons are more likely to be the victims, rather than the perpetrators of violence as data shows us.

Nevertheless, as 14 other conservative states geared up to pass similar legislation, President Obama stepped in, offering support to his Attorney General, and thus the transgender population.

The “war over bathrooms” must be located in two phenomena, one new and one old, one peculiar to the US and one not. The new one, not confined to the US is what has been — somewhat snidely — called the war of the genders. This is the overheated argument between a section of transgender persons and of feminists over, crudely, what constitutes being a woman: socialisation or biology. That this led to feminist author Germaine Greer not being allowed to speak at Oxford had the misogynist press salivating. The old one, specific to the US, is that bathrooms and drinking water, were sites of struggle for access: Blacks, segregated, had to fight for access to both, and indeed to all other public spaces.

This perhaps explains why Europe has not seen a war over bathrooms . Or not as yet, as the transgender community, finding its voice, lays legitimate claims to public space. In India of course, we need to fight for toilets for all, and not just mouth the slogan of Swachh Bharat.


Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Email: mohanrao2008@gmail.com

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