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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."