What Exactly Are You Doing in There?: Sheila Cavanagh’s Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality and the Hygienic Imagination

**Image Caption: Syrus Marcus Ware, Puttin’ on Lipstick, 2010.
Courtesy: Syrus Marcus Ware**

What Exactly Are You Doing in There?: Sheila Cavanagh’s Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality and the Hygienic Imagination

University of Toronto Press, 2010

by Syrus Marcus Ware

Six years ago I began a new job. As a transsexual man who only sometimes “passed” as male, the troubles I had in using the men’s washroom started shortly after I began. One incident stands out as particularly unfortunate. It went something like this: I entered the men’s staff washroom at the same time as another man. Right away things took a terrible turn. As I locked the stall door behind me to go pee, the other man in the bathroom began expressing concern about why I was using the men’s facility.

For 15 minutes, he berated and screamed at me from outside the stall. The other man never identified himself, but he clearly identified his displeasure about me, a transsexual man, sharing his washroom. I huddled silently in the corner of the stall, fearful for my safety, as the man tried to peer inside the stall through the crack and even over the door. Eventually he left the bathroom, but not before yelling that I was “disgusting” and that I was “doing something wrong in there.” Terrified and with any urge to pee completely gone, I cautiously left the bathroom. I vowed never to use the staff washroom again. Over the next three years, I went all the way home during the day to pee (I lived close by). Unfortunately, my experience is in no way unique or rare.

Trans, gender variant and queer people face a lot of hassling when using public toilets. These experiences are the topic of Sheila Cavanagh’s new book, Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality and the Hygienic Imagination (2010). Her research is based on 100 interviews with lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersexed (LGBTI) people across North America. Cavanagh uses information from these interviews to consider the ways that bathroom architecture, rooted in colonialism, heterosexism and sexism, joins forces with rigid social regulation of the use of public space to “other” LGBTI bodies. Cavanagh argues that “bathroom architectures are based upon vertical lines and a wish to straighten things out.[...] Toilet training is about the delineation of the body, its genitals, orifices, and capacities to eject body fluids in time, rhythm, and tempo with a modern capitalist, heteronormative, and cissexist body politic” (208).

Cavanagh is a sociologist and associate professor at York University whose research in gender and sexuality studies focuses on feminist, queer, cultural and psychoanalytic theories and body studies. These interests inform her research into the bodily implications of the public toilet in all of its manifestations and build upon earlier trans scholarship, particularly Viviane Namaste’s concept of trans erasure. Namaste’s seminal text Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People (2000) was one of the first scholarly texts to consider the lives of trans people and the ways in which trans experiences are taken up in popular culture. Namaste’s text is divided into an analysis of theory, culture and research. She argues that trans people are systemically erased or made invisible in each of these areas. Namaste suggests a measurable impact of this erasure on the day-to-day lives of trans people and builds her research upon Judith Butler’s theory of regulated or forced coherence (1993). Butler suggests that some bodies are made readable or understandable through a process of setting what is “normal” or expected. Bodies that do not fall within this limited definition of normal are not expected or anticipated and are thus unintelligible or incoherent. For example, male and female bodies without disabilities are expected, hence the plentiful access to male/female limited access washrooms. Trans or gender variant bodies and disabled bodies are less expected, something that is exemplified in the limited number of single stall or accessible washrooms.

Nowhere is trans erasure more apparent than in the gender space of the bathroom. Trans bodies are not planned for, and as a result, trans and gender variant people become tacit users of public toilets. The construction of male and female segregated facilities and the implementation of policies governing who has a right to use each facility limit LGBTI ability to use the bathroom safely. Cavanagh’s research provides important insight into the way public toilets impact our understanding of sex and gender.

Queering Bathrooms fittingly begins with a historical review of the origins of the public toilet, sharing a wealth of toilet trivia that reveals the sexist and classist origins of public washrooms. For example, when public toilets were first created, they were only for men, as women were not expected to be out of the home for any length of time. 18th-century London saw the creation of (somewhat impractical) portable glass, leather or ceramic “female urinettes” that allowed women to spend longer periods of time outside their homes as they did not have to rush back to use the bathroom. Of course, these urinettes would have been costly, bulky and designed for particular women (racialized women and poor women would have had less leisure time in 1700s London).

Cavanagh chronicles interesting moments in the history of the public toilet, which have shaped our contemporary understandings of public facilities and who gets to use them. Stemming from an 18th-century worry about hygiene, public toilets are connected to a desire to clean away uncleanness and disease. Public toilets are places where bodily functions occur: people pee, people poo, people change their menstrual products in the bathroom. They are also places where people use drugs; they have sex; they experience their bodies in an acute way.

Public bathrooms are places of rigid dichotomies: male/female; clean/unclean; gay/straight and so forth. The gender-segregated bathroom results almost inevitably in gender misreadings, not only of trans and gender variant people, but also any body that is outside of a heteronormative, cissexist presentation. Public facilities essentially work to order some people into existence and render others incoherent. They exaggerate gender difference and they entrench a binary concept of gender through the creation of gender-segregated public facilities.

Cavanagh’s research illustrates the ways in which particular bodies- women’s bodies, disabled bodies, queer bodies and gender variant bodies- are unimagined and unanticipated in bathroom design. When these unexpected interlopers enter a public toilet to pee, have sex or otherwise, we set off alarm bells both metaphorically and in some cases quite literally. Cavanagh’s research helps to clarify why I was perceived to be “doing something wrong” in the bathroom. I brought my trans, queer racialized body into a space that wasn’t intended for me. My presence in the washroom became a signifier of multiple gender and sexual differences in society, and was proof positive that gender is more complicated than male/female.

Bathrooms are an essential part of daily life, yet public toilets have been sorely under researched. There are even fewer examples of research about LGBTI people and public washrooms. One example is Tara Mateik’s film Toilet Training (2004), which offers insight into the troubles facing trans people using public facilities in the United States. The film includes interviews with lawyers, advocates and activists and is produced in collaboration with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, an organization dedicated to ending poverty and gender identity discrimination. The video shares stories of people who have faced harassment or violence for trying to use gender-segregated bathrooms in public space, in schools, and at work. Building on this analysis of the problems related to gendered toilets, Cavanagh’s Queering Bathrooms offers insight into the ways that toilets themselves are part of a larger structural problem in need of remedy. Addressing gaps in earlier trans research that positioned trans experience as one-dimensional and separate, Cavanagh makes links to experiences of class, racialization and disability. Cavanagh’s work fills an important void in trans studies, queer studies and sociology by utilizing interlocking systems of oppression as part of its theoretical framework and by considering the intersections of disability, gender and critical race theories.

To return to my story, I eventually confessed to my boss that I had been going home every day to pee. I was offered the use of a family washroom as a stopgap to prevent any future incidents in the men’s toilet. This was a good first step, but not really a long-term solution. Trans people should be able to use the washroom of their choosing, and every effort should be made to make these spaces user-friendly and harassment free. I kept using the men’s room, but cautiously, and I worried that if any future harassment happened I would be seen as partly to blame because I was self-selecting to use an “unsafe” washroom. Instead of focusing on adapting the behaviour of the users who may be in danger in the bathroom, we need instead to change the way bathrooms are constructed and the way public toilets are understood. In short, bathrooms themselves need to be reconsidered and reimagined.

Cavanagh’s book provides a strong argument for reconsidering the public toilet, making it a must-read for city and urban planners, policy makers, architects and designers. Queering Bathrooms offers important recommendations about the future of bathroom design, suggests areas for future research, and imagines a future in which public toilets are at once luxurious, accessible and welcoming to all human beings. Perhaps the biggest hurdle we face is changing social attitudes towards gender and gender-segregated facilities. The next time you are in a public bathroom, consider bringing Cavanagh’s book as reading. You’ll never look at a public bathroom the same way again.

Syrus Marcus Ware is a visual artist, community activist, researcher and educator. He is the Program Coordinator of the Teens Behind the Scenes program at the Art Gallery of Ontario. He recently co-edited the winter 2009 issue of the Journal of Museum Education entitled Building Diversity in Museums (Left Coast Press, 2009).


  1. Greetings. When I lived in Auckland, my cross-dresser friend Bob/bi and I used to go out to some of the best restaurants in town. After a meal, she would pick up her handbag to go and freshen her lippie, and say “Who should I frighten tonight, the boys or the girls?” and would inevitably head for the “Ladies” as women are generally more tolerant.

    Jody Hanson

  2. @Jody: unfortunately I don’t even know if that’s true given the recent infamous incident where a transwoman was physically assaulted in a McDonalds “Ladies’” restroom.

    People are terrible.

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