Emerson bathroom controversy a waste

by Beacon Staff • September 26, 2007

Our View: Politics outshine the truth.,This summer, with most students home for the break and classes out of session, Emerson quietly renamed a few existing bathrooms on campus. Normally such a mundane event would not warrant coverage of any kind, but because these particular bathrooms, originally designed as handicap bathrooms, had locking doors and were termed "gender neutral," the matter was brought to the attention of the public, in the form of a Boston Globe article.

An anonymous response to the article, which was quoted this week in The Beacon, expressed dismay at what the author saw as the administration's attempt to politicize the bathroom.

"Now where you pee is being used for your political correctness?" the letter reads. "Is there any place where a straight female can get away from your political games?"

Similar messages appeared in online message boards, particularly on freerepublic.com, a conservative Web site. One message described Emersonians as "liberals in pursuit of polyperversity."

The truth is that making these bathrooms gender neutral removes politics from the equation. It unifies the two arbitrary "types" of people who use the bathroom. It removes the choice implicit in male- or female-only restrooms.

This decision is, surely, a major step toward affording transgender people the full rights they deserve, and is entirely in step with Emerson's traditionally progressive political views. But it is also a step toward expedience and convenience for anyone in need of a bathroom.

Let us examine the objective qualities of one of these gender-neutral bathrooms. They are designed for use by a single person. The genders, in fact, never mix. The gender-neutral door locks. Inside, you'll find a gender-neutral toilet with a gender-neutral flush mechanism. Next to that is a gender-neutral sink, with water that will be suited to any healthy human being who cares to use it.

These are essentially apolitical facilities. The fact that they are open to anyone is proof of their success in terms of utility, not sexual or gender politics.

What has thrown a wrench into this discussion is the repeated use of the phrase "gender-neutral bathrooms." With its loaded construction, the term implies a facility that is open only to transgender users, as if a man or woman whose biological and self-identified genders are matched would set off some kind of buzzer at the door.

The trick is not to let labels, message boards or any other kind of buzz cloud the central issue: the college re-designated single-person bathrooms. Students and staff have a sense of privacy, and a bit of anonymity.

Yes, this is victory for transgender Emersonians, and all efforts should be made toward universal gender equality. Part of the beauty of this modern generation is our individual abilities to choose the way in which we represent ourselves to people.

But it is our own heightened sensitivity that turns this issue into a debate on gender politics. Using those bathrooms isn't any more liber or conservative than walking down the street.