Alex Blaze

Human contact isn't the end of the world

Filed By Alex Blaze | February 21, 2010 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: bathroom issue, brian jones, France, gender studies, paris, subway

During the DADT Senate House hearing, one retired Army officer, Sgt. Maj. Brian Jones, commented: "The only way to keep from freezing at night was to get as close as possible for body heat -- which means skin-to-skin.... There can't be any arousal. There can't be that awkward feeling." Because near-death situations are usually so arousing.

Anyway, I saw it in the video in morning, since I usually wake up and work on the web at 5 am, and then I took the metro to my day job at 7. I'm bored to tears usually in the subway because there isn't enough room to even take out a book. I live on the 13, the always saturated metro line, where sometimes is packed so heavily that you can't even squeeze people any more to get on. According to Wikipedia, there are 20,000 per hour per direction on that metro, over 540,000 per day. The maximum capacity is 4 people per square meter on a metro train (which is packed); the average on the 13 is 4.5.

So after listening to a Senator imply that soldiers would rather die than touch a fag, I'm there touching at least half a dozen other people with no idea what their sexuality is. I don't know the gender, sex, race, religion or ethnicity of the people behind me either, for that matter. While it's a health hazard and definitely annoying, the contrast between the Senator's ideal system of protecting personal space and the reality of many people's daily lives couldn't have been starker.

Then reader AndrewW sent in a link to this post by a gender studies professor on the bathroom issue, which is completely related to the military shower issue:

But what is the answer to urinary segregation? Every year I pose that as a final-exam question in my course on gender. The question is posed in the future: "Twenty years from now you are an architect and have to build a large building. What will you do about the bathrooms?" And every year students come up with ingenious designs for how we'll go in the future.

Generally the students imagine circular rooms with a variety of closed stalls: urinal (which biological females can use thanks to those clever plastic urinary devices like the She-Wee), wheelchair accessible toilets, toilets, toilets with baby changing table, etc. In this way, urinary space becomes about what you need to do rather than gender expression.

What's the answer to gender-based urinary segregation? Complete segregation of everyone! Leave it to us Americans to idealize a situation where everyone gets separated into little rooms and no one has to see or interact with anyone else. (I kid because I love.)

So why get rid of the open urinals in this ideal large building's bathroom? They get people in and out faster, take up less space, and don't block conversations in the same way stalls do. Seriously, there is value in people being next to each other, even if someone of another gender might see them.

I've posted before about the French solution to men's locker room cruising: just make all the locker rooms open to everyone, shared shower areas and all. Sure, the idea's genealogy would more properly be traced back to the French's penchant for surveillance, but it couldn't have happened without a certain amount of "we don't care that much about keeping spaces and life aseptic."

Many medium-sized buildings out here, including elementary school bathrooms, will have two or three stalls around a central area with a sink and a urinal right next to it. Lots of public restrooms have the urinal in plain view of the outside when the door's open. I haven't heard any complaints.

What do all these issues have in common? I'm trying to sort it out myself. But intuitively I can't help but feel that Jones's words are part of a deep cultural anxiety in the US, one not necessarily about homophobia but definitely related, that makes us fetishize distance from our fellow humans. We want our lives to be simple and clean, so we throw huge amounts of money into building two of every bathroom in every building, we fantasize about the day when public restrooms will all be individual stalls in which we'll do what we have to do without being bothered by others, and we pass silly regulations in the military that destroy people's lives so that straight soldiers can touch one another in a life-or-death situation without having to worry about the possibility that someone might be sexually attracted to them. (I'm wondering if Jones gets as riled up when it's women who are the subject of actually humiliating behavior from straight men who just think they're expressing their sexual attraction?)

That's the dream of exurbia, I suppose - make sure no one can get close enough to you to bother you. You don't like the noise in the streets, the property values are lower, and maybe all those minorities scare you, so you go out and buy a big box in the middle of nowhere and hope that no one comes knocking on your door, because interacting with others has no value.

Which gets to the heart of the link between these issues - we live in a culture that has difficulty seeing value in anything other than raw security and money. Sure, we may enjoy other things, but they aren't needed. So if we'd feel safer not interacting with others, then interacting with others loses. And if we feel unsafe knowing that gay people might be working with us in close spaces like the military (since even if you don't show it, even thinking something sexual about someone is an attack), then ego-safety for the straight troops outweighs the more abstract needs of LGB people in the military for love, justice, and control over their identity. And every campaign against an LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance that stresses the bathroom issue is saying "Treating others fairly isn't as important as... THIS SCARY SCENARIO!"

And while I'm packed in the metro like a sardine, I don't really care if someone's getting off on that as long as they don't start grabbing other people. I don't think I would have even thought of that if it weren't for a paranoid retired US Army officer who actually worried about that. Instead, I'm more bored than anything else, but not as bored as I would be if I had to spend the same amount of time driving into work alone.

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The fundamental aspect of bathrooms and showers and similar is the concept of modesty -- a rather complex concept that ultimately led tot he segregation of such things whereas once they had been much more communal.

It is modesty that creates that separation, and culturally, it's one of the higher values that Americans have and one that affects a great deal of the debate.

One argument I've used in the past that has caused some change is to point out that the argument against bathroom stuff hinges on the concept that Trans folk have no modesty.

Which is directly opposed to what I know of them.

@Antonia: But modesty is not an innate quality - it's socially constructed and it has a lot to do with how women, in particular, are *supposed* to act, especially in relation to men. Which brings us back to policing gender differences. Women are *supposed* to be shy AND look a certain way - i.e. constantly told to be "shy" about exposing bodily parts to men, even in a culture that drives them to death for not being thin/beautiful/big-breasted enough. I don't know that the issue of accessible bathrooms needs to depend on whether or not trans folk have modesty or not. A trans person may be perfectly immodest, however that's defined - that shouldn't preclude their right to use a restroom without fear of harassment. I don't think you're claiming that it does, but I'd just want us all to be cautious about using arguments with loaded concepts like "modesty."

Thanks for raising these connections, Alex. Much to ponder here. A lot of people suffer from a deep anxiety about using public restrooms because they're continually questioned about their right to be in one that's not for their perceived gender. More often than not, it's genderqueer/androgynous folk who don't care to or just don't "pass" "successfully" who are constantly held up because women, supposedly, fear being harassed by people they see as men.

I think this post highlights the ways in which anxieties around trans/genderqueer bodies and around homo bodies are interlinked in complicated ways. And perhaps, this is making me think, there's a way to keep thinking about how war/the military functions to keep gender anxieties going...and how gender then enables a certain form of military culture...and so on.

I'm curious: Are there any mixed-gender multiple-stall restrooms in France? And any here? I seem to remember that at least one liberals arts college had begun experimenting with them.

And with regard to cruising: I'm reminded of one gay argument against gender-neutral single-stall bathrooms (the kind of closing off you rightly warn us about) - that it would disable a culture of cruising. I used to be sympathetic to that notion until I grasped the difficulties of being trans-identified in a phobic bathroom culture that also polices gender identity quite severely, even and perhaps especially among straights. And when I realised that cruising is a pretty vibrant culture - people of all orientations and gender identities will find a way, no matter what (and that's a good thing!) But yes, then there's also the issue of communality...

My dorm has mixed-gender bathrooms! Not for any progressive reasons though, it's just a coed floor and there is only one communal bathroom. Reactions to this are almost always, "oh, isn't that awkward?" or "are people actually comfortable with that," but after the first week or so no one was bothered by it. More proof that all this bathroom hysteria (be it opposition to gender-neutral bathrooms, trans exclusion from gendered bathrooms, or that old classic OMG FAGZ IN THE SHOWERS!) is just insecure hetero (ok, sometimes homo too) bullshit. Also I believe UC Berkeley has all gender-neutral bathrooms in their dorms, if I remember correctly.

Ah, yes, of course, Berkeley would be among the ones to introduce gender-neutral bathrooms. I wish more places would just go ahead and even just simply change the signs - people get used to the changes quite quickly, as your example points out.

Agreed! Or maybe we should just start changing the signs ourselves? :)

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | February 22, 2010 2:39 AM

Back in the unenlightened 1970's our alma mater Purdue (better thought of as Prude U.) had to reassign previous all male dorms to all female dorms as female students increased in number, but did not alter the bathrooms.

A friend had to take me into her communal bathroom. I wish I had my camera with me at the time. It was a riot of red geraniums and white porcelain urinals.

Purdue was still so retro then that nice girls, encouraged by their parents, majored in Home Economics while awaiting the chance to snag the right fraternity man with a bright future in engineering or finance. Purdue was prime for this activity as the last "all Greek" campus with a two male to one female student ratio. This was interaction FOR "security and money." The women of this 40 year ago time weighted down with marriage expectations, and ten pounds of hairspray, were also out for "love, justice and control of their identity" as Mrs. Joe Fraternity.

Thank God this has changed. Of course, this Sergeant Major is a jerk with the attitudes of this same decade I have just described.

I have to back up Antonia on this one. Somewhere around the age of 7, I picked up my modesty of a level usually attributed to modest women. I was just barely able in high school to shower with the rest of the guys in my gym class, but was extremely uncomfortable and did it because the previous year I flunked gym class partly over it.

The big but was that I could not use a urinal in front of other people and could not poop in front of other people. In the sixty's the mens bathrooms did not have doors on the toilet stalls due to the effort to prevent smoking in the bathrooms. Hence, I was unable to use the boys/mens bathrooms in HS during most of the day. Luckily, I found a custodian closet that you could Jimmy the door open that had a toilet I could use when I really needed to go during school hours.

I thought seriously about joining the Air Force out of college, but the bathroom issue, especially after seeing "No time for Sargents" with Andy Griffith, and seeing the open, no stall toilet bathrooms of the 1950 era bunkhouses. I knew that real life would have more privacy, but at times like war, it would be a severe concern for me, so I didn't enlist.

It is now 40 years later and I am still modest with bathroom stuff, even when it was when needing to go with my 4 year old son in tow. Excessive modesty, yes. Unlike many TG MtFs, I was never able to hypermasculinize myself to hide my TGness. I say many, because many had careers or served in the military with honor and distinction, something I could not do.

So while you may dispute Antonia about modesty as a driver, I believe I am one of those she was referring to. I need to feel safe when using a bathroom, which is why at work I use a bathroom a three minute walk away up four flights of steps instead of the bathroom just across the hall.


I don't see how anything you've written disputes what I've stated (and yes, what you describe goes far beyond a case of "modesty," as you're well aware). And my larger point is that we can't rely on the notion of "modesty" as a positive trait to advocate for changing access to restrooms. We could spend all week here coming up with different personal examples of modesty and just as many could come up withe examples of how uncaring or "immodest" they are. At the end of the day, none of that should matter. People have a right to use restrooms without fear or embarrassment or harassment, regardless of their personal comfort level.

It's much like laws about queers and parenting. We could advocate for better adoption and custody laws on the basis of proving how many of us are exemplary parents. But we shouldn't have to do that, or be put through a litmus test - we deserve the same rights as straights, without each of us being scrutinised for our parenting abilities.

The point is not: Do people have rights to access because they're good or whether or not they posses positive attributes like modesty? The question should simply be: Do they deserve the right to live free of harassment? Asking the second question makes the issue much more value-neutral.

"@Antonia: But modesty is not an innate quality - it's socially constructed and it has a lot to do with how women, in particular, are *supposed* to act, especially in relation to men. Which brings us back to policing gender differences. Women are *supposed* to be shy AND look a certain way - i.e. constantly told to be "shy" about exposing bodily parts to men, even in a culture that drives them to death for not being thin/beautiful/big-breasted enough. I don't know that the issue of accessible bathrooms needs to depend on whether or not trans folk have modesty or not."

I read the above quote to say that you are saying that modesty is a construct that was created for women, to put women in their place so to speak.

You then say "Thanks for raising these connections, Alex. Much to ponder here. A lot of people suffer from a deep anxiety about using public restrooms because they're continually questioned about their right to be in one that's not for their perceived gender. " which I understandto say that the only reason people haveanxiety about using the restroom is because the restroom they are using is different from the restroom that reflects their birth sex.

My understanding of what Antonia was saying is that seperate bathrooms came about due to "Modesty". I can halfway agree with her, but I also think there is a religious "unclean" for women that added to the need for seperation from the "superior clean" males of society.

But to say that modesty had no part at all in the creation of seperate bathrooms for men and women does do a disservice to societal modesty.

I just want to be clear that you agree that there are many reasons for anxiety about using a particular bathroom, and that modesty is a valid reason for fear of using a bathroom, as my previous comment was about fear of using the bathroom due to modesty.

Hi Yasmin,

In answer to your question, "Are there any mixed-gender multiple-stall restrooms in France? And any here?"

About 18 months ago, I was involved in the Architectural design and construction documents to remodel a testing laboratory company in a nearby suburb. The employee population had changed from mostly male to almost equal males and females.

The restrooms for the original building reflected the male/female population at the time of its construction.

Since the building site could not accommodate an addition, the solution was to remodel one of the male restrooms into a shared restroom, by eliminating the one urinal, adding a 3rd toilet in its place, replacing all the metal stall partitions with drywall, floor to ceiling, and providing a regular lockable door to each toilet compartment. The common area was equipped with two lavatories in one continuous counter, with a mirror above. The overall restroom had a regular door.

The remodeling of the restroom was approved for building permit and was built.

So, yes, at least one exists, in a commercial business, and the employees have adjusted.

It can work, even with municipal approval.

As a Trans Architect, I felt it was a good "leap forward" for the local Human Race.


Hi Jami,

Thanks for the info! That's great news.

Sorry but SGT. MAJ. Jones did not testify at the recent Senate hearing but at the House subcommittee hearing last July. That doesn't make his homophobic objections any more sane, but....

While Jones wasn't a Senator then either, and there was some Senatorial idiocy being displayed by McShame, Sessions, et al., you must have been remembering someone else in another forum when you wrote, "So after listening to a Senator imply that soldiers would rather die than touch a fag..." [tho I don't doubt that some soldiers would].

I don't recall that being implied among their remarks viewable at:

Just a minor correction. A "Sgt Major" is not an officer. They are a high-ranking enlisted person. He would probably tell you, "Don't call me 'sir!' I work for a living!" Yes, he would shout it.

Thanks for catching those, Michael and Monica! I wrote Senate when I should have written House there and I, yeah, I should know better about the ranks in the military!

Not to bring up the old line about he who shreiketh the loudest has the deepest closet, but any army man, officer or otherwise, who would be worried about arousal in close quarters during wartime is probably worried more about his own than anyone else's.

And perhaps his lieutenant should sit him down for a little talking to explain such things, preferably in words on one syllable so the S/M truly understands.

This is probably damning admission, but I feel more comfortable with surreptitious cruising in public restrooms than with the noises accompanying evacuations. Sounds of pleasure are easier to handle than the others.

I wonder if the combination of stress, fear and comfort in the "skin-to-skin" situations doesn't generate more arousals than anybody wants to admit. Their intention isn't sexual, just a response to safety and comfort. Even in the absence of known gay men, how do people process this?

Alex; you posit lots of great questions/reflections in this piece.... Here's a story for ya... Dear pal of mine (athletic type) was on a mountain climbing expedition with all straight men. Of course an unexpected blizzard sets in, and they're all about to freeze to death.
They had to hold tight to each other to survive, and they did that. Things got so desperate, they eventually even had to suck on each other's toes in order to stave off frostbite. My friend reports emphatically, that no one got an erection.
He also reports that it's no thrill to suck on another man's cold, nearly-dead toes. They were eventually rescued, and they all had their toes when they got off that mountain. End of story.


Do you have the name of the tour operator?

I'm confused - does this Sgt. Major truly believe that NONE of the men already in the military (and having to huddle close in cold weather) are gay? The difference would not be in their orientation, but whom else knows of it. A different issue altogether I believe. Or, perhaps still an issue of arousal but whose arousal?