The Nation's Pulse

Flushed Out

No restrooms for the weary, at least on college campuses and in major cities.

By 11.29.07

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"I am a woman, and I'm supposed to be here."

Imagine if you had to say that every time you entered a public restroom.

One woman doesn't have to imagine. She says people mistake her for a man on a daily basis. Perhaps understandably, she resents having to explain her gender to strangers.

Khadijah Farmer, a 28-year-old lesbian, filed a lawsuit after having to do just that. At issue is an incident that occurred at a New York City restaurant on June 24. That night, Farmer and two friends decided to grab dinner at Caliente Cab Company, a Mexican restaurant in West Village. After placing her order, Farmer excused herself to go to the (women's) bathroom. It was here that a male bouncer walked in and, believing Farmer to be a man, told her to leave the restroom and the restaurant immediately. Farmer explained that she is a woman, but the bouncer did not budge. Farmer and her friends were forced to pay for their appetizers and buzz off.

Farmer is being represented by the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF), a nonprofit organization "committed to ending discrimination based upon gender identity and expression." The suit, filed at State Supreme Court in Manhattan, accuses the restaurant of gender discrimination by engaging in sex stereotyping -- treating Farmer adversely because she failed to conform to societal norms concerning gender-appropriate behavior.

"If Khadijah were wearing pearls and white gloves, would the bouncer have treated her like that?" asked Michael D. Silverman, executive director and general counsel of TLDEF.

Answer: Probably not. That being said, she would have been safer using the men's room.

Let me explain.

In 2002, New York City passed a law that allows people to use restrooms "consistent with their gender identity or gender expression." According to the "Guidelines Regarding Gender Identity Discrimination," gender identity is "an individual's sense of being either male or female, man or woman, or something other or in-between." Other cities have passed similar regulations. In San Francisco, the "sole proof" of someone's gender identity is "that person's statement or expression of their self identification." In other words, your gender is whatever you say it is -- no questions asked. For the sake of transgender rights, these cities trust but don't verify: You can go into any restroom as long as you say you belong there.

Discriminatory by definition, bathrooms let some people in and exclude others. Anyone looking for segregation will find it in two words: "Ladies" and "Gents." For transgender people, such distinctions don't fit easily in their modus operandi. As a result, they want to overturn the current lavatory system, which they believe unfairly assigns people to one camp or the other.

"Must we label everyone?" asks an editorial in the New York Blade.

According to "Peeing in Peace: A Resource Guide for Transgender Activists and Allies," a document recently published by the Transgender Law Center (TLC), the answer is no. The document, funded in part by George Soros's Open Society Institute, calls for a "bathroom revolution": the elimination of "gender-segregated" restrooms in favor of "gender-neutral" restrooms.

The road to gender-neutral commode is already underway at American colleges and universities. Gender-neutral bathrooms can now be found at Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago, NYU, Ohio State, UCLA, Rice, Williams, Tufts, the University of Vermont, the University of Arizona, and many others. At the University of Arizona, students can use whichever restrooms they want provided their chosen facility matches their gender identity. At the New College of California, you will find only "de-gendered" bathrooms, marked by their lack of urinals and their door signs that read, "Lots of people don't fit neatly into our culture's rigid two-gender system" -- which is another way of saying, "Come in."

The gender-blurring extends to other areas of campus life as well. At Brown University, incoming freshmen fill out a housing questionnaire that includes a "gender-neutral option." At Wesleyan, students are asked to "describe your gender identity history" rather than mark "M" or "F" when visiting the health services clinic. Ohio State has amended its student affairs forms to inquire, "Gender: M, F, self-identify: ______." At the University of Oregon and the University of Utah (!), you can change your gender on your official college record without actually proving that your gender, biologically speaking, has in fact changed.

These are not rare or isolated examples. They're a natural result of trying to accommodate students with "gender identity" issues. And many colleges are trying. Right now, there are 96 colleges and universities that ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity, which is 96 more than there were in 1995.

More and more people believe that "gender identity" deserves legal protection. Currently, non-discrimination laws with explicitly transgender-inclusive provisions exist in 92 cities and counties in addition to 13 states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's latest figures. That's a total of 106 jurisdictions covering approximately 104 million people (37% of the U.S. population). Of those 106 jurisdictions, only 12 (11%) banned gender identity discrimination prior to 1997. This means that 94 (89%) have gotten on board just in the last ten years. That's quite a trend. In addition, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) recently introduced a bill that would make employment discrimination based on gender identity a federal crime.

Despite these developments, very few people want to have this discussion, which means that a bathroom revolution is unlikely to gather much popular support outside of progressive habitats. Most people like the system as it is; they want bathrooms to remain places of one-gender rule, inaccessible to outsiders. The rules are easy to understand: Go where biology leads you.

Not so in gender-neutral bathrooms. There, your inner sense of gender, not your inner sense of nature, has the final call on whether you are at the right place. No need to worry, however. If you're ever confused, there's always one option: Just say, "I am a ______ and I'm supposed to be here."

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About the Author

Windsor Mann is a writer living in Washington, D.C., and the editor of The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism.