Bowl of Contention: Gender Discrimination and the Right to Pee

September 19, 2019
By: 
Karl Castro
A transgender woman was barred by a janitress from using the women’s restroom and toilets suddenly became the center of heated public discussion. It may sound ridiculous at first but toilets, as innocuous as they may seem, have long been a site of struggle. Bathrooms have been the terrain of racial segregation, pay toilets are symptomatic of class segmentation, limiting bathroom breaks during work hours is a labor rights concern, and access to sanitation and running water is a part of larger colonial histories. To pee is political.

Women’s (bowel) movements
 

athroom interior by J. L. Mott Iron Works, 1888. The “Dolphin” toilet shown here was available in plain ivory “or decorated with gold, turquoise or pink lines.” (https://archive.org/stream/CatalogueG00JLMo#page/6/mode/2up)
 
The existence of women’s restrooms is inextricably tied to the struggle for expanding the place of women in society. In the age of imperialist expansion towards the end of the 19th century, cities were designed with a clear distinction: the public sphere was for men and the private for women. Paris, for instance, had installed more than a thousand pissoirs(urinals) to curb urination in public. Yet the design of these pissoirs was for those who peed while standing, thereby reinforcing the idea that the streets—and therefore mobility—were for men. The woman’s place was in the home.
 
The Museum of London describes the situation:

“‘Respectable’ women couldn't relieve themselves in ‘retired streets’ or alleys as men did, and the few toilets available in Victorian London were overwhelmingly built for men. Women who wished to travel into central London or even further for leisure and pleasure had to carefully plan where they could ‘stop off,’ en route to their destination. Thus excursions outside the house were often based on visiting friends and family, where toilet facilities could be guaranteed.

Lack of access to toilets effectively tied women to their homes, putting them on a leash as long as their bladder capacity. Even when London's first public toilets were built for the 1851 Great Exhibition, the prevailing modesty of Victorian society assumed women would be too embarrassed to be seen entering them.”

Women’s movements thus sought change. The first feminist club in the Philippines, the Asosacion Feminista Filipina, was established in 1905. Filipinas finally clinched the right to vote in 1937, seven years before Parisian women did in 1944. Through militant activism, suffragettes all over the world were successful in expanding the rights that women enjoy until today, including the right to vote, be employed, and have women’s toilets in public facilities and establishments (yet even then, the design of “powder rooms” still mimicked the decor and comforts of home; to this day, posh ladies’ rooms feature sitting areas like mini living rooms). After all, how can we expect women to work, drive, and hold public office if these places did not have restrooms?

Transgender man Ice Seguerra, a musician and former chair of the National Youth Commission (NYC), shares that going to the toilet is “one of [his] biggest fears” whenever he goes out. “Kapag mayASEAN events akong dinadaluhan n’ung nagtatrabaho ako sa NYC, hindi ako umiinom ng tubig buong araw kasi natatakot ako magbanyo.

Fear of transgender women: Ignorance or ideology?
 

Julie Lluch, "Susanna and the Elders," cold cast marble and acrylic, 2015. Courtesy of Finale Art File.
 
 
It is ironic that many Filipinas are now speaking out on their unwillingness to share bathrooms with transgender women; just a few generations ago, it was the women who were struggling with the problem of where to pee.

Women’s toilets are a safe space, some argue, and they feel that the presence of transgender women in them threatens their safety. Such fears, though disheartening, are by no means baseless—it is a prevailing climate of misogyny that makes perceived safe spaces like bathrooms so few and therefore invaluable. Under the current regime, President Duterte and his followers normalize rape jokes and the objectification of women. It is not difficult to understand, therefore, why women are up in arms to defend these areas. Outside these bathrooms, they are vulnerable to fetishism and catcalling, domestic violence, and rape.

There is a difference, however, between fear founded upon ignorance and fear that stems from systemic patriarchal violence. We must be able to distinguish between the two.

Patriarchy is the thread that connects various layers of violence in today’s society, from physical to cultural, economic to emotional. It works largely in our unconscious, structuring even the smallest moments of our daily life. For example, why are women expected to wear heels to work? What happens to the saleslady who, as a matter of company policy, is discouraged from sitting down? Why are straight men paid higher or given preferential employment opportunities? Why is it admirable for females to wear pants but ridiculous for males to wear skirts? What happens to transgender women who automatically become vulnerable to ridicule and violence simply by walking down the street? Why is systematized rape an inherent strategy in wars of aggression? And when we tell our children that certain toys are panlalakeor pambabae, what are we really teaching them, and how do these mundane ideas impact their futures?

It is this rigid and bankrupt dichotomy of male/female that prevents people from seeing and understanding a whole spectrum of gender expression and identity, thereby invalidating diverse life experiences for many. Such thinking is often propelled by religious conservatism; Jesus himself, perhaps, would be saddened to see how many Bible quotes have been deployed on social media to justify the unkindest and most uncompassionate behavior toward others. Gender identity is extremely complex yet we have been systematically taught to see only blue and pink.

One need not be a straight man to reinforce patriarchy, so beware. Patriarchal thinking affects people of all genders. It governs and sustains a system based on the belief that men are strong and women weak. It breeds toxic masculinity, shaming men for harboring emotion, expression, and color. It measures women by their ability to rear children, render invisible domestic work, and be desirable objects for the male eye. It is even discernible in the hyperfeminine or hypermasculine expressions that people, transgender or not, work hard to achieve.

Restrooms and the male gaze

 

Cook & Shanosky Associates, Inc., “Symbol Signs” poster, 1974. Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum collection. (http://cprhw.tt/o/2DGVi/)
 
 
The main reason why segregated spaces like bathrooms, train coaches, and women-only buses feel safe is because they are free from the male gaze. More than the possession of a penis, it is the gaze, the first gesture of violence, that is most feared. Those who are not familiar, then, with the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression (SOGIE)—and there are many, considering how prudish educational institutions are in the teaching of gender and sexuality—are still wont to see transgender women as men, and therefore in possession of that violent male gaze.

British film theorist Laura Mulvey, in her important essay on the male gaze, writes: “Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions ... by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” Patriarchy is the fixation on the penis as central to power. Patriarchal thought defines women in relation to genitalia, that is, as receptacles for the penis, or as those who lack it. This is the exact logic being reproduced by the men and women who argue for the exclusion of transgender women based on their biological anatomy. To insist on defining a person based on their possession of a penis is patriarchal.

The truth is that transgender women are women (and transgender men are men). The gaze of a transgender woman is not male but queer. And what is a “real” woman anyway? Feminine identity is not hinged on the possession of a womb, or on the ability/desire to bear children lest we diminish the dignity of women unable or unwilling to do so. Neither should identity be based on ideal “feminine” anatomy which reduces women to breasts and buttocks, waistlines and curves, and vaginas and “lady parts.” To measure one’s worth based on reproductive ability or sexual desirability is a kind of violence all women should be freed from, for these are the very concepts used to denigrate both transgender women and biological females on a daily basis.

The cruel pitting of women versus LGBTQIA+ in the wake of the Farmers Plaza controversy is the patriarchy in action precisely. It weakens the collective resistance and enlightenment that has been wrought through generations of struggle, all in favor of the male-centric status quo.

Power and the “trono”

Gabriela mobilization calling for justice for Jennifer Laude, 2014. Photo by Noel Celis via Time.
 
The phallocentric system rears its ugly head not in the design of toilets per se but in the lack of access to them. Beyond gender issues, public toilets remain dire in general. Many shopping centers, for instance, still assign free restrooms to less accessible locations, thereby making pay toilets more convenient and preferable. A 2019 report by the World Health Organization, moreover, said that three out of 10 health facilities in the country lack access to clean toilets.

Writing on the public sanitation programs during the American colonial era, Australian doctor and historian Warwick Anderson argued that “the crusade for ‘cleanliness’ sharpened social divisions (and legitimated social categories) in the Philippines.” We have to understand that toilets are terrains for intersectional struggles of gender, class, race, and power. The Farmers Plaza incident involved a transgender woman who works a white-collar job in the BPO industry while the janitress who barred her from entering is a blue-collar contractual employee, “an agency worker not organic to our company” according to Farmers Plaza. The last time transgender women were a subject of major national conversation was when Jennifer Laude was strangled by a United States marine who was in the country for the R.P.-U.S. Balikatan military exercises. She was drowned in a toilet bowl.

Power is an abstract concept that manifests in material culture. It passes through many prisms, gender included. Even science, a field whose perception of objectivity is used for “biological” arguments in favor of discrimination (a better understanding of biological nuance, however, will prove otherwise), has a history that is blatantly sexist, racist, and imperialist. Forged by new knowledge, social movements, and technologies, our scientific and cultural understanding of sex and gender has a concrete impact on how our cities will be designed and how inclusive they will be. Anti-sexist consciousness in Paris, for instance, pushed the replacement of the city’s iconic pissoirs in the 1980s in favor of the sanisette, a unisex toilet; only one original pissoir remains in use. In Metro Manila, meanwhile, the MMDA began installing pink male urinals all over the metropolis in 2003.

A law was passed earlier this year requiring transportation terminals to provide free and clean public restrooms. A welcome development, for sure, yet the law specifies separate restrooms only for “persons with disabilities (PWDs), male, and female passengers.” What, then, of the rights of genders not specified in the letter of the law? Is it sufficient to leave them at the mercy of individual interpretations, especially if these are not grounded in an understanding of SOGIE?

On human rights: Piss or get off the pot
 

Sam Killermann, "Genderbread Person" diagram, 2017. (www.genderbread.org)
 
 
The issue of gender and toilets still lacks clear resolutions. Some women (and men, like Senators Tito Sotto III and Bato de la Rosa) insist on barring transgender women from women’s restrooms. Comedians Vice Ganda and Arnell Ignacio proposed the creation of separate LGBTQIA+ restrooms. The Ateneo de Manila University, to create an “environment of inclusivity,” set up 14 all-gender restrooms last year, even before the Farmers Plaza issue.
We have to recognize that the argument to exclude transgender women from women’s restrooms has no basis in form. The design of today’s toilet bowls and stalls are unisex. The porcelain bowls in women’s restrooms at Farmers Plaza are the same as those in the men’s. Toilet bowls don’t discriminate. People do.

Hindi naman because you grant rights to a marginalized sector of society, you’re taking away rights from the majority,” said Judy Taguiwalo, former DSWD secretary and professor of women’s studies, in an interview about the Anti-Discrimination Bill which has been floundering at the Senate for nearly two decades now. “Hindi bibingka ang rights na paghahatian.”

Let transgender men and women use the gendered facilities they identify with. Create all-gender restrooms in major public establishments. Give future generations the opportunity to understand sexual orientation as well as gender identity and expression by teaching these in schools, and let sectarian institutions bear the burden of explaining to their constituents why their chosen perspectives diverge from the universal, inclusive standard. Pass the SOGIE bill to provide all Filipinos with equal protection from discrimination.

Flush out the patriarchy. Be kind to each other. The fight for equality is not a pissing match.

The views and opinions expressed in this note are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the School of Humanities and/or the Ateneo de Manila University.