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We'll Win the Bathroom Battle When the Binary Burns

We'll Win the Bathroom Battle When the Binary Burns

We'll Win Bathroom Battle When Binary Burns

Ending our culture's obsession with what's "male" and what's "female" will be our salvation, writes Riki Wilchins. 

There has been a lot written lately about trans people in bathrooms (mea culpa), mostly courtesy of the right wing's continued obsession with a toxic amalgam of biological essentialism, sexual panic over adolescent innocence, and the just-won't-die meme of genderqueers as potential predators.

Much of the debate has focused on stories like that of 16-year-old trans man Gavin Grimm, who is suing the Gloucester County, Va., school board, and others who are seeking access to the bathroom that matches their gender identity.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Department of Education, the Human Rights Campaign, and others are rightfully lining up to support such students in gaining access to the appropriate (binary) boys or girls room.

Completely overlooked in this debate (except by U.K. newspaper The Guardian) is the more incendiary case of 20-year-old Maria Munir, a student who addressed President Obama during a town hall in London.

Terrified of the reaction that might ensue, but forcing hirself forward, Maria publicly informed the President that they are a non-binary person, who uses gender-neutral pronouns like hir and ze.

Think about that: not as a boi, or one of the girlz, or as transmale or transfemale, but Off the Freakin' Binary.

Maria reported that there has been an unexpected outpouring of support. Which is wonderful. But the challenges posed by hir self-outing have been almost half a century in the making, and this is a sign they are almost here. And they are profound.

These challenges cut to the heart of arguments that trans advocates and their allies have been making for some time, in the face of furious right-wing opposition to trans identity generally and to "boys in the girls' room" specifically.

Regarding the latter, we might simplify the main thrust into two basic points:

First, as a matter of simple human dignity, trans people should be allowed to access the bathroom that fits their gender identity. Full stop.

Second, as a strictly practical matter, if we enforce the strict, birth-certificate-based biological essentialism the right wing demands, we'll end up with masculine-appearing, male-identified people who live as men in the women's room, and feminine-appearing, female-identified people who live as women in the men's room, which is a ridiculous result for public policy.

Maria (and others like hir) are set to completely confound both of these arguments. Gay and transgender rights advocates have been quietly dodging the issue of binary heteronormativity, but that sound you hear is the other shoe finally dropping... hard.

As to the first argument, there is no "appropriate" bathroom which legal advocates might fight for Maria to access, because the entire argument depends on fitting Maria into the dominant, hetero-binary structure of boy vs. girl. It's a deeply ingrained societal dichotomy with which most of us who are profoundly genderqueer have had to struggle since birth.

Simply put, in Maria's case, there is no underlying binary gender identification on which to base the claim. You have to instead critique the heterobinary structure itself.

As to the second argument, almost all the cases with which I'm familiar have been able to refute the right wing's hysterical cry of "boys will invade girls' restrooms!" with individuals who showed at least some degree of consonance between their gender identity and usual notions of masculinity or femininity.

This is why it was unexceptional to hear Donald Trump say that if Caitlyn Jenner visited Trump Tower, she could use any bathroom she wanted, presumably including the women's room. One can scarcely imagine her doing anything else. Which is why the lack of a ring-wing outcry when Jenner used the women's bathroom in Trump Tower this week was the dog that didn't bark.

But what happens when a genderqueer individual, who genuinely looks and sounds profoundly non-binary or masculine, declares in a binary world s/he would be most comfortable accessing the girls restroom? To say the least, the optics will no longer work. Nor will appeals to practicality.

What really needs to be contested here is not just our right to use bathrooms with dignity (which would personally be very welcome), but the entire underlying hetero-binary structuring of the world queers must inhabit.

This is the real struggle, and queer activists have been talking about it at least since the 1970s of Gay Liberation, even as the movement it spawned has continued to nudge it aside.

All of which is to say, transgender advocates and their allies are doing incredible work. But they have finally and perhaps unwittingly opened the gender Pandora's Box, and over the next few years all sorts of unexpected non-binary things, like Maria, are about to come popping out. This is going to be interesting.

RIKI WILCHINS's upcoming book is titled Burn Down the Binary.

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Riki Wilchins