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The Ladies' Room: A Complicated Conversation

by Carolyn Gage

The bathroom has been a site of "gender anxiety" historically, as well as a battlefield, and, although it is tempting to write this off to ignorance about gender and fanatical, knee-jerk policing of the "gender binary," the issue goes deeper than this.

Rapists do choose public bathrooms as sites of sexual predation, and the presence of men in traditionally female spaces is often dangerous. On the other hand, there is a biological and cultural gender continuum among humans, and a gender binary is oppressive and dangerous for people who are not easily identified, or who do not identify, as male or female. Transgender women and masculine women are harassed and humiliated when we attempt to use public facilities. What is the "politically correct" attitude toward gender presentation when the ability to identify a stranger's biological sex in an isolated environment can be a question of life or death What happens when queer theory butts up against the intensely polarized reality of male violence against women

These were the questions on my mind when I wrote The Ladies' Room, a six-minute play about a bathroom confrontation. The play opens in a ladies' room at a shopping mall. A woman has just gone to report to the security guard that there is a man in the bathroom. The "man" is actually Rae, a teenage, lesbian butch. Angry and humiliated in front of her partner, Rae is hurling taunts and insults directed toward the woman complainant. Her teen girlfriend, Nicole, is uncomfortable about the dynamic, and the two begin to argue.

When Nicole expresses concern that public bathrooms are the third most common public site for sexual assault, Rae ridicules her for buying into an urban myth. As Nicole defends herself, it becomes apparent that she has been a victim of a stranger rape in a public space. Rae is emotionally overwhelmed by this information. At this point, her accuser is seen returning with the security guard, and Rae has to make a decision about how to respond.

Responses to the play have been strong and personal, especially by women who experience frequent challenges about their sexual identity. In my play, Rae chooses not to run away at the end, but to go out to meet the security guard and voluntarily offer her gender credentials in the form of her driver's license. Several women took exception to that ending, feeling that Rae was enabling of her own oppression in making that gesture. One of my critics, who has experienced humiliating official pat-downs in airport bathrooms, expressed the belief that the women who challenge her appearance are not concerned about rape, but are just trying to impose their class-based sense of a "gender dress code."

Another masculine woman, who actually lived a passing life as a man for several years, took a different approach. She was a victim of a gang rape, and she told me that when she is confronted in bathrooms, she draws attention to the fact that she has breasts and is a woman, and then she thanks her accuser for her vigilance. This woman identifies as a radical feminist, and, for her, it is a priority not to shame her confronters or in any way, punish them, or make them uncomfortable for their vigilance about the possibility of a man being in a woman's space.

The two actors who performed the play this summer at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival shared their own recent experience with unisex bathrooms. They had attended a large conference for queer-identified youth, and one of the first things the attendees did was to convert all of the bathrooms on their hotel floor to "gender-free." The actors commented that women using these bathrooms were constantly exposed to the sight of men's genitals, as the men were using the urinals and also leaving the doors open to the stalls when they used them. The women reported their feelings of shock and discomfort, noting that it would not have been safe for them to express these responses in the context of the conference, which was focused on the safety of trans youth.

The controversial ending of The Ladies' Room was not intended to represent a solution. In the play, the character makes the gesture as an attempt to remedy her perceived insensitivity to her partner's rape history. The play is designed to initiate dialogue between feminists and genderqueer allies.

August 18, 2009

See a video of "The Ladies Room" at Dartmouth College on August 7, 2009, produced by the Women's and Gender Studies Department as part of the "eMotion Summer Arts Festival."

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Carolyn Gage is a lesbian-feminist playwright, performer, director and activist. She is the author of fifty-five plays and nine books. Her work has been featured in the Washington Post and on National Public Radio, and has been widely published and performed. Information about her touring work and her plays are at her website, The Ladies Room is available in hardcopy and also as a download.

Also see "The Poet's Eye," featuring Julie Enszer, Judith Barrington and Toi Derricotte,and edited by Co-Poetry Editor Judith Arcana in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See "Crossing the Gender Rack" by Joel Vig in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


Ariel Dougherty posted: 2012-11-23 14:55:07

She's Beautiful When She's Angry on Kickstater has 5 days left to raise $30,000 . It's 60% funded. “All or nothing is not for wimps! A stupendous 90 backers came from the feministing post alone”, reports Mary Dore. That is 11.6% of the 775 backers, thus far. Hurrah, for feminist media. Only 3 backer links have come from OTI community. Surely part of this is audience volume, as feministing has a much larger readership. But is something else at work? Facebook action however is critical. So, after becoming a backer via above link, follow though with a link to post the campaign onto FB. “Doing the on-camera was mortifying for both of us! We have fantastic interns helping....donations have come from around the world. There's a lot of great people who care about feminism....we are going all out to get this funded and finished.” exclaimed Dore.

Ariel Dougherty posted: 2012-11-23 14:57:29

On Indiegogo, the Send Our Bodies, Ourselves to Congress campaign has reached mid point doldrums. Almost $9,000 has been raised from 146 supporters, with another remaining 26 days to raise the additional $16,000. “I think the campaign is needed more than ever – especially as I watch events like the Ohio Legislature trying to defund Planned Parenthood and talk about passing personhood amendments. We should continue the campaign for state legislators after we deliver books to members of Congress,” reports OBOS Executive Director Judy Norsigian. “We’re expanding our outreach and hope to garner additional support from more corners.” I'll update this campaign one more time, shortly before the end date of December 18th

Ariel Dougherty posted: 2012-12-14 14:39:53

Five days, and about half the funds still to go for Send Our Bodies, Ourselves to Congress (link above in 2nd paragraph). OBOS has created a snappy new video for the campaign that focuses on what Todd Akins types have said and what people have learned from the book. I know, for sure, my Congressman needs a copy, many of yours do too!

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