Trans-cendental trauma: Public bathrooms as panoptic sites of gender policing, violence, and trauma in trans and gender non-conforming people

What’s in a bathroom? Indeed, who’s in a bathroom? Many politicians, legislators, and members of the general population will tell us that the referential signs on bathroom doors must match the referential signs for gender located in one’s pants. As a result of their gender-nonconforming identities and because of the inherent power structures latent in cisgendered heterosexuality, trans and gender non-conforming people are disproportionately affected by institutional structures and experience interpersonal and collective trauma at rates higher than their cisgender counterparts. This paper will take up how public bathrooms function as panoptic sites that surveil and police trans and gender non-conforming bodies and ultimately act as perpetrators of interpersonal and collective trauma.

Trans bathroom bills

‘Bathroom bill’ is the common name for legislation which defines access to public restrooms by transgender individuals. Bathroom bills affect access to sex-segregated public facilities based on a determination of their sex as defined in some specific way. Most popularly, these bills are used in ways that oppress transfolk by limiting access to these bathrooms based on their assigned sex at birth or the sex listed on their birth certificate. Ideally, transfolk should be able to access these bathrooms based on the gender with which they identify.

One such bill, North Carolina’s Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, has been approved as law, and has been imposing institutional barriers for transfolk to access washroom in the state.1 In North Carolina, transfolk can maintain modified birth certificates with updated gender markers, but only if they have undergone sex reassignment surgery,2 which provides major financial barriers for any trans individual wanting updated gender markers on their identification. This is deeply problematic, primarily due to the fact that many transfolk will never desire or need sex reaffirming surgery in their lifetimes,3 but without undergoing major, life-changing surgery, they are denied the right to access the bathroom for the gender with which they identify. While this bill is one example of the ways in which institutions limit the subjectivity of transfolk, it also serves to illustrate how protective people become over these public spaces.

Peeing under surveillance: bathroom as panopticon

Foucauldian ideas of discipline talk about the institutional concern to regulate bodies and divide space.4 This disciplinary power operates through bathrooms in three ways: first, the division of space allocated for specific functions; second, the panoptic design that facilitates and encourages surveillance; and third, the production of “docile, appropriately gendered bodies.”5 Kyla Bender-Baird extends Foucault’s ideas of docile bodies to gender, suggesting that sex-segregated bathrooms are a technology of disciplinary power, reinforcing the gender binary by forcing people to choose between men’s and women’s washrooms. This results in a lack of safe access to public restrooms for those who fall outside of gender binary norms.

Foucault recognizes bathrooms, like Bentham’s panopticon, to be mechanisms of surveillance. While discussing the construction of school buildings for the purpose of discipline, he includes a description of bathrooms, as well: “latrines had been installed with half-doors, so that the supervisor on duty could see the head and legs of the pupils, and also with side walls sufficiently high that those inside cannot see one another.”6 Surveillance, though, is not limited to institutional officials, but is also internalized and dispersed among members of societies, vigilante-style. Bender-Baird notes: “people do not wait for appointed figureheads to surveil bodies moving about in designated spaces. Instead—and as a function of the panopticon—they start disciplining themselves and policing each other via the surveilling gaze.” 7 People check signs, determine which space is ‘for’ them, and then watch each other, ensuring that the unwritten rules of accessing public bathrooms are being followed. The very architecture of public bathrooms is also panoptic. The enclosed space “clearly demarcated by signage,” stall doors that do not always reach the floor, and mirrors and other reflective surfaces all add to the panoptic feeling of being watched from nowhere and everywhere simultaneously.8 Bender-Baird notes that “part of being docile is being appropriately gendered;”9 to be appropriately gendered, individuals must be identifiable as either a man or a woman.10 Judith Halberstam refers to this as the “cardinal rule of gender”—that one must be readable at a glance.”11 If disciplinary power “divide[s] everything according to a code of the permitted and the forbidden,”12 then sex-segregated bathrooms permit only two genders and forbid all other possible non-conforming gender identities. Many scholars have also suggested that this construction of sex-segregated bathrooms sends a message that those falling outside the cisgender binary system are not normal and have no right to access public facilities—that they are abject.13 This mapping of gender onto public space14 creates what many have termed “the bathroom problem” for trans and gender non-conforming people.15

Violence as punishment

While trans and gender non-conforming people do not necessarily engage in Foucauldian docility, they often face punishment for violating gender norms. Punishment, as Foucault notes, is used to re-establish norms as power passes through individuals.16 Hate violence targeted against transfolk is a form of punishment designed to reaffirm gender binaries as the norm and to secure their position as abject.17 Bathrooms, as sites where these gender binaries and norms are surveilled, also become sites of hate violence against trans and gender non-conforming folk. Richard Juang notes that this might be because in the transphobic imagination, the bathroom becomes “the extension of a genital narcissism.”18 People believe that there must always be a correlation between genitalia and gender presentation—and that the gender segregation of bathrooms is based on genital configuration. In other words, the misconception that sex and gender are inseparable from one another continues to pervade the public consciousness. Due to this supposed inseparability, transfolk are often labelled as “deceptive” and blamed for the violence enacted upon them when the illogicality of this system is unveiled.19 Talia Mae Bettcher notes this intersection in the murders of Gwen Araujo and Brandon Teena. Both trans teens were murdered following the forced exposure of their genitals in a bathroom. In the resulting murder trials, the defendants used the ‘trans panic defense,’ claiming that the trans person had deceived them and the discovery of their genital anatomy had shocked them into a violent reaction. 20

When a trans or gender non-conforming person is ‘outed’ in the bathroom, the reaction is not, according to Bender-Baird, to reassess the arbitrary manner in which bathrooms are segregated by sex, but to “violently eject” the person who has just been outed.21 Dru Levasseur explained to a reporter how he was afraid to use the men’s room while he was transitioning and his identity documents still classified him as female—and that he was physically assaulted for using the women’s room at an airport.22 Trans and gender non-conforming people often use various techniques of docility in adjusting their gendered appearance so that they are more easily read as of the ‘proper’ gender before entering public bathrooms: “for instance, those entering the women’s room may adjust their clothing to make their breasts more obvious, borrow a purse from a friend, or ask a feminine-presenting friend to accompany them.”23 In an online article, Syrus Marcus Ware, a visual artist and community activist, shared his experience of being threatened in a coworker in a bathroom and how that changed his daily routine:

As a transsexual man who only sometimes ‘passed’ as male, the troubles I had in using the men’s washroom started shortly after I began [a new job] … I entered the men’s staff washroom the same time as another man … As I locked the stall door behind me to pee, the other man in the bathroom began expressing concern about why I was using the men’s facility … For 15 min, he berated and screamed at me from outside the stall … I huddled silently in the corner of the stall, fearful for my safety, as the man tried to peer inside the stall through the crack and even over the door. Eventually, he left the bathroom, but not before yelling that I was ‘disgusting’ and that I was ‘doing something wrong in there’ … Over the next three years, I went all the way home during the day to pee.24

After experiencing harassment, threats, or violence in public bathrooms, it’s not surprising that some trans and gender non-conforming people change their routines in order to avoid these encounters—and this often means eliminating their presence in public bathrooms altogether. Faced with an environment that denies their existence and facilitates gender policing, trans and gender non-conforming people are often forced to employ various strategies, including avoiding public bathrooms or engaging in situational docility by adjusting their bodies, to comply with gender norms.

Traumatic experience

For transfolk who engage in both social and medical transition at various points throughout their lives, Burnes et al. claim that there may be multiple, intersecting traumatic experiences that can serve as stressors—including sexual and physical abuse, barriers in legal policies, and high rates of hate crimes.25 Other studies have noted that verbal and physical harassment of trans individuals routinely occurs in public bathrooms, changing rooms, and locker rooms.26 Burnes et al. claim that these may be other sites which trigger such trauma.27 Because trans people survive insidious traumas, or constant exposure to transphobia and other forms of oppression, their experiences of ongoing trauma may also have impacts on their identity development depending on the frequency, duration, and magnitude of the ongoing stressors. In their study, Burnes et al. noted that all but one of their fourteen participants had experienced various traumas related to the use of public restrooms, and that “their intrapersonal and interpersonal traumas often stemmed from the possibility of experiencing violence” when using public restrooms.28 The participants described their fears of using public restrooms, citing fears of physical harassment, reflection of transgender friends’ experiences of assault in restrooms, and finding ways of avoiding the restroom—like, for example, not drinking fluid when away from home.29 Bathrooms here function as a source of both insidious and incident-based trauma throughout trans and gender non-conforming people’s lives. Burnes et al. note:

Participants spoke about their own individual experiences of trauma, combined with their experiences of structural and collective trauma, through fear of entering bathrooms, not using bathrooms because … [other] transgender [people] had traumatic experiences, and avoidance of public bathrooms after they had had traumatic experiences relating to their gender identities.30

These findings build on existing calls in psychological literature for healthcare professionals to aid in creating safe restroom access in an effort to decrease the stress and relived trauma associated with trans and gender non-conforming people’s bathroom usage.31

Conclusion

Sex-segregated bathrooms are a technology of disciplinary power—they work to reify the panoptic design that facilitates and encourages surveillance and to produce docile, appropriately gendered (read: binarized) bodies, forcing people to choose between men’s and women’s rooms, and sends a message that those falling outside the cisgender binary system are abject and unwelcome. Trans and gender non-conforming people face verbal, physical, and sexual assault in bathrooms as a result of their, well, non-conformity, and often are forced to subvert or work around the gender binary to ensure their safety, either by altering their gender appearance when entering bathrooms or by avoiding these spaces altogether. These experiences of assault and discrimination are often the triggers for interpersonal, collective, and insidious trauma, which critically and negatively impacts the psychosocial development of trans and gender non-conforming people. Indeed, bathroom bills only exaggerate the frequency with which trans and gender non-conforming people are forced to make impossible decisions regarding their own bodies as a result of legislators’ attempts to police these sites of public space under thinly veiled attempts to other non-normative populations. Unfortunately, unless we dismantle our pervasive norms of gender and sexuality, trans and gender non-conforming people will continue to face trauma and oppression to these degrees—and more. It is up to people like us—academics and activists with the privilege to advocate for those who cannot—to ensure that we educate and dispel misconceptions about gender, and to make bathrooms safer places for our trans and gender non-conforming peers, colleagues, friends, and loved ones.

  1. David A. Graham, “North Carolina Is Finally Repealing Its Bathroom Bill,” The Atlantic, March 30, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/03/north-carolina-hb2-repeal/521301/. At the time of writing this paper, this legislation was in effect. On March 30, 2017, however, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a bill to repeal the law. Despite this, though, similar pieces of legislation exist in other states and around the world.
  2. Catherine E. Shoichet, “North Carolina Transgender Law: Is It Discriminatory?,” CNN, April 5, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/03/us/north-carolina-gender-bathrooms-law-opposing-views/index.html.
  3.  J. Joris Hage and Refaat B. Karim, “Ought GIDNOS Get Nought? Treatment Options for Nontranssexual Gender Dysphoria,” Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery 105, no. 3 (March 2000): 1225.
  4.  Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977–1978, eds. Michel Senellart et al., trans. Graham Burchell, 1 edition (New York: Picador, 2009).
  5. Kyla Bender-Baird, “Peeing under Surveillance: Bathrooms, Gender Policing, and Hate Violence,” Gender, Place & Culture 23, no. 7 (July 2, 2016): 984, doi:10.1080/0966369X.2015.1073699.
  6.  Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage, 1977), 143.
  7.  Bender-Baird, op. cit., 985.
  8.  Sheila L. Cavanagh, Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination (Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 81–84.
  9.  Bender-Baird, <i”>op. cit., 985.
  10.  Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 1 edition (New York: Routledge, 2006), 22–23.
  11.  Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 23.
  12.  Foucault 2009, op. cit., 46.
  13.  Petra L. Doan, “The Tyranny of Gendered Spaces – Reflections from beyond the Gender Dichotomy,” Gender, Place & Culture 17, no. 5 (October 1, 2010): 635–54, doi:10.1080/0966369X.2010.503121; Terry S. Kogan, “Transsexuals in Public Restrooms: Law, Cultural Geography and Etsitty v. Utah Transit Authority Symposium – Intersections of Transgender Lives and the Law,” Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review 18 (2009 2008): 673–98; Christine Overall, “Public Toilets: Sex Segregation Revisited,” Ethics & the Environment 12, no. 2 (November 15, 2007): 71–91.
  14.  Cavanagh, op. cit., 81–84.
  15.  Kath Browne, “Genderism and the Bathroom Problem: (Re)materialising Sexed Sites, (Re)creating Sexed Bodies,” Gender, Place & Culture 11, no. 3 (September 1, 2004): 331–46, doi:10.1080/0966369042000258668; Doan, op. cit., 643; Halberstam, op. cit., 42.
  16.  Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976, trans. David Macey, Reprint edition (New York: Picador, 2003), 29.
  17. D. Jauk, “Gender Violence Revisited: Lessons from Violent Victimization of Transgender Identified Individuals,” Sexualities 16, no. 7 (October 1, 2013): 807–25, doi:10.1177/1363460713497215; Ami M. Lynch, “Hate Crime as a Tool of the Gender Border Patrol: The Importance of Gender as a Protected Category” (When Women Gain, So Does the World, IWPR’s Eighth International Women’s Policy Research Conference, Washington, D.C., 2005).
  18.  Richard M. Juang, “Transgendering the Politics of Recognition,” in Transgender Rights, eds. Paisley Currah, Richard M. Juang, and Shannon Price Minter, American First edition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 251.
  19.  Talia Mae Bettcher, “Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion,” Hypatia 22, no. 3 (August 1, 2007): 43–65, doi:10.1111/j.1527-2001.2007.tb01090.x; Juang, op. cit., 242–261.
  20. Bettcher, op. cit., 46.
  21.  Bender-Baird, op. cit., 987.
  22. “What’s It Like to Vote as a Transgender Person?,” The Daily Beast, November 2, 2012.
  23.  Bender-Baird, op. cit., 986.
  24.  Syrus Marcus Ware, “What Exactly Are You Doing in There?: Sheila Cavanagh’s Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality and the Hygienic Imagination,” FUSE Magazine, January 11, 2011.
  25.  Theodore R. Burnes et al., “The Experiences of Transgender Survivors of Trauma Who Undergo Social and Medical Transition,” Traumatology 22, no. 1 (March 2016): 75, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/trm0000064.
  26.  Jaime M. Grant et al., Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (National Center for Transgender Equality, 2011).
  27.  Burnes et al., op. cit., 75.
  28. Ibid., 80.
  29.  Ibid., 80.
  30. Burnes et al., op. cit., 81.
  31. Jody L. Herman, “Gendered Restrooms and Minority Stress: The Public Regulation of Gender and Its Impact on Transgender People’s Lives,” Journal of Public Management & Social Policy 19, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 65–80.