Changing The Changing Rooms (or Transphobic Toilet Panic II)

Published November 4, 2012 by Sarah Thomasin

Am I weird? Am I actually transphobic? Do I have internalized homophobia? Am I a massive prude?

What has sparked this cavalcade of doubt? The Jezebel post on the story about the complaints about a trans woman sharing a space with teenage girls.
This blog post came to my attention because of the outrage on Twitter about it. I don’t believe in linking to articles to point out how bad they are – (why send more traffic?) but it’s easily findable if you’re interested. The main criticism was that after calling out other coverage of the story on transphobia, the Jezebel writer repeatedly misgendered the trans woman involved. Accusations of sloppy and inaccurate reporting were also leveled by the twittersphere.
But, correctly or incorrectly, in the Jezebel version of events, the trans woman was walking around the communal changing space naked. She’s pre op, so her penis would have been visible.
I can actually see this being upsetting. As someone with (i hope) a nuanced and sensitive understanding of trans issues, this story raised a primal “someone showing their knob to teenagers aaarghhhhh” response. How much are we expecting of the teenage girls involved?

BUT BUT BUT in my other blog post about this I totally took that argument down: having a penis does not make you a rapist! so what’s going on, brain?

I think part of this stems from feelings about the inherent physical power imbalance at play here. A male assigned at birth adult and cis female teens. I think what bothers people here is that the power is perceived to be with the person with the larger frame and the penis. SHE is making the choice to be in that bathroom, and SHE is choosing her behaviour around those teenagers. Instead of the smaller, younger, vagina having people being in control. This perception is flawed in that a trans woman has far FAR less societal power than a cis man, or a cis woman, or a cis girl, but the physicality thing is a factor. For example, imagine an Assigned Female At Birth trans person asserting his right to change in front of a male sports team. Different vibe.
I believe that the answer to this lies in the education of the general population about trans issues, rather than the restriction and oppression of trans* people’s lives. But we have a long way to go.
Another issue with this story has been that the woman in question prefers women, leading to the horrible assumption that lesbian trans woman = cis straight man saying he’s trans to GET YOUR DAUGHTERS.
This nasty train of thought leads me to the question that if this trans woman’s sexual orientation is relevant in the changing room, why isn’t mine?
I see naked women in the changing room at the gym. It makes me feel uncomfortable and I often change in a cubicle and spend as little time in there as possible. I quite like the idea of being naked around other naked people in a queer friendly space, but in the palaca of heteronormativity that is the gym, it seriously gives me the creeps. Basically, my internal monologue goes “These women might be homophobic. I can see their bodies. If they knew I was queer they might freak out and I’m all naked and vulnerable right now!” add in some school PE changingroom PTSD (seriously, 5 years of twice weekly emotional/physical hell. Still have nightmares) and the one place where public nudity is acceptable becomes the least safe space EVER.
I think it’s this whole thing of “sex segregation = safety” that’s so deeply ingrained in our culture.
Once you question it, the false consciousness that assumes everyone to be straight and cis and assumes that men CAN’T CONTROL THEIR MALE URGES starts to crumble.
And with it, assumptions we didn’t even realise we had about ourselves come to the surface.
Something has to change.

5 comments on “Changing The Changing Rooms (or Transphobic Toilet Panic II)

  • Hmmm. I think you might be over thinking this.

    There’s a naked penis in the women’s changing room. It’s not surprising that people respond with a range of discomfort, fear and anger.

    The other women and girls using the changing room don’t feel safe because of it – not because they think that the owners of penises can’t restrain themselves from raping people but because this owner of a penis is engaging in inappropriate behaviour.

    We can have a discussion about whether people should feel threatened by nakedness (which is really a discussion about whether we should have unisex changing rooms), but putting the onus on a random group of women and girls to be totally relaxed about a stranger’s exposed penis is just unfair on them.

    It’s sad that this person doesn’t have a safe place to change in the same way others do but that does not give them the right to frighten others with their naked penis, even if we think penises shouldn’t really be frightening.

      • I did think about that while writing but ultimately I think there is a significant difference. Segregated buses, water fountains, schools etc had only one basis – discrimination based on an irrelevant difference, the colour of people’s skin.

        This issue is far more complex with intersecting issues and is not simply about one person being denied rights that others can enjoy. There’s certainly an aspect of that, and it is sad that sometimes all of us find ourselves in situations where we can’t do what we want to do – but there are a number of other issues that can’t just be solved by telling people to get over themselves.

        The deeply rooted taboos around nakedness, for example, mean that we’ve created segregated spaces so that women in particular have a safe space to get changed where they don’t need to worry about being harassed or having their children being harassed. In that context it’s clear that someone wondering around with a naked penis is going to create fear and anxiety – and that matters.

        Historically we’ve never been in this situation before where we have pre-op transexuals who understandably want to be identified as women (rightly) but have not yet finished the physical transition. For them they don’t have a safe changing room in either the men’s or the women’s area which, I think, is a consequence of this historically unique situation that our culture has not yet got its head round – but unisex changing rooms isn’t an appropriate solution because people simply wont use them.

        None of that means, to my mind, that we have a right to put the onus on this randomly selected group of women and girls to get changed (and be naked) in a place which no longer feels to them like a safe place to do so, and to write off those concerns feels unrealistic as well as pretty disrespectful.

        This issue is not a simple parallel to discrimination against someone for the colour of their skin.because there are so many other issues surrounding this specific issue including but not limited to people being worried about what would be *seen* as inappropriate sexual behaviour towards them and their children (by which I mean the exposure itself rather than physical abuse).

      • The reason I said that about racial segregation was that, at the time, many white people genuinely feared that black people were a) animalistic and likely to attack. And b) disease carrying and dangerous to be at close quarters with. an example: as recently as 2010 I heard an elderly man “frighten” his wife by telling her there would be a “big buck nigger” waiting for her if she used a men’s toilet that had been temporarily designated gender neutral due to repairs.
        Racism never existed just because people were discriminating arbitrarily. The prejudices were always based on fears and misconception.
        As someone who has been verbally abused and threatened by straight cis females more than ANY other group, I’m here to tell you that the idea that gender segregated spaces are safe IS a myth. A dangerous myth that can be and is exploited by aggressors of all genders.
        You’re absolutely right that this is a completely new area for us as a culture, with very complex issues to deal with, but that’s no reason to stick our heads in the sand.
        Make everything gender neutral with the option of privacy and well policed communal areas seems like the obvious solution to me, but I doubt that will come to pass for a good while yet.

  • I’d need more background info to understand why she was there before coming to a conclusion about who did what wrong. A woman with a penis would be highly unlikely to choose to put herself in this position because of the danger to herself. So she either had no safe alternative space to change, in which case that needs adddressing, as well as the ‘outraged’ teenagers/parent’s ignorance; or she really was being a sexual predator. The whole thing surprises me, because if the former is true, why the hell hadn’t she scoped the place first, where did she find all that courage, and can I have some?

    I do think this is a ‘different body’ situation rather than all about the penis though. You should see the horror on the faces of some cis guys encountering me in the gents – they clearly feel threatened by the different-body too. The black analogy applies more than most people would think.

    I’m not going to read the article, because I don’t think it’s worth my time and I can do without the rage.

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