On August 3, 2017, Dallas News reporter Lauren McGaughy tweeted a set of images captioned: “About 100-150 ppl gathered at Texas Capitol to support the bathroom bill that would restrict #transgender access to bathrooms. #txlege #lgbt”
The 4 photos attached portray:
- protestors with their heads bowed and arms raised in a posture of prayer;
- men holding a banner that cites Genesis, “…male and female He created them,” along with “#daughtersoverdollars” and an exhortation to “PROTECT THE PRIVACY OF WOMEN AND CHILDREN!”;
- a supporter whose face is obscured by the sign he holds reading “protect our daughters / pass the bill”;
- most strikingly, a white woman holding a toilet seat lid bearing the words: “Rosa Parks did not give up her seat for a man … NEITHER WILL I!!!”
This last image in particular crystallizes the conjunction of a number of powerful ideologies in the current US discourse about toilets, and I think it’s worth teasing out some of what it represents regarding race and gender. This toilet-seat protest displays the inextricable entwinement of white supremacy and cis supremacy, taking its place in the long pedigree of toilet-centered fears and bigotry.
The sign-holder is making a literal claim that transgender women are men, and further that they are predatory men who want to take over the place rightfully held by “real” women. She’s also making a symbolic claim of alignment with the Black civil rights movement, but in a way that co-opts, colonizes, and erases Blackness in order to further an agenda of white cis supremacy.
First, Rosa Parks is decontextualized and defanged, as she so often is for white people. Race is obliquely invoked while explicitly disavowed – this is the white deflection strategy that has given us what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “racism without racists.” Naming Rosa Parks evokes civil rights, but race is never named. The target of her protest is twisted from whites’ oppression of black people to (supposed) men’s oppression of women.
This twisting serves a double purpose: (1) it positions the sign-holder in Rosa Parks’s social location as the oppressed. This works in part because the sign-holder is an older woman, which coheres with the unthreatening myth of Parks as a tired old lady who just wanted to rest her feet. This erases, however, the reality of Rosa Parks’ Blackness and years of activism in the struggle against white supremacy. Moreover, it implies that white women have a history of solidarity with people of color, when in reality an investment in whiteness tends to trump any other allegiance (witness the 53% of white women who voted for Donald Trump). (2) It positions trans people as the holders of social power, particularly trans women as “men” who want to demarcate, police, and invade women’s space in society. This inverts the actual power structure, in which cis people (often cis women) are the ones demarcating, policing, and invading trans women’s space and even their ability to exist in public.
This project of surveilling, classifying, and policing others, while at the same time disavowing these tactics, is constitutive of both cis supremacy and white supremacy. Colonialism, chattel slavery, Jim Crow, anti-miscegenation laws, and the prison industrial complex are all manifestations of the white supremacist practice of classifying people into discrete groups whose distinctions must be made visible to the white gaze. These practices are also and inherently projects of cis supremacy, in which anyone who is not white is already failing to live up to cis ideals of masculinity and femininity. Gender transgression and racial transgression are interrelated modes of defying the boundaries erected by white cis supremacy – both the conceptual boundaries of racial and gender classifications, and the physical boundaries of bathrooms.
The portrayal of trans women as a threat to white cis femininity is merely the latest in a long line of toilet-centered fears. Gender-divided public restrooms were first legally mandated in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century in response to Victorian anxieties about social changes, especially women leaving their “appropriate sphere” in the home and joining the workforce.
The creators of race-segregated restrooms invoked “contamination” as a symbol of the sexual threat that black bodies were supposed to pose toward white women by their very presence. Opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s employed the same racialized rhetoric of implied sexual threat, asking, “Do you want the sexes fully integrated like the races?” Toilets, it seems, bear some ill-defined yet inescapable connection to sexual predation, and as such are heavily invested with gendered and raced concerns over the degeneracy of improper “mixing.”
This fear of sexual predation and degeneracy is heavily implied by the other signs at the protest, which mobilize a paternalistic discourse of protection. “Protect women and children,” “daughters over dollars,” “protect our daughters”: the slogans use women, children, and daughters interchangeably, as if there is no distinction. This is of course an old story, in which women are constructed as vulnerable, dependent, and in need of male protection – but this is a construction of white women.
In the white imaginary, women of color are loud, fierce, strong, sexualized from an early age, inherently transgressors of gender. Trans women and women of color are excluded from the definition of “daughters,” the childlike women who need protection of their privacy. And privacy, apparently, means the absence of trans people, whose mere existence in the gendered space of the public bathroom is construed as an invasion of (white) women’s privacy and an implicitly sexual threat.
Finally, I want to note that the compulsory gender-normativity and cis supremacy espoused by these protestors is given a biblical etiology – “male and female He created them.” Those who fear racial contamination, gender mixing, and the transgression of strict social boundaries find theological justification for their insistence that we should all “know our place.” We need to counter this theological argument in the same register, offering a more liberating alternative. We need a theological anthropology that will dismantle white supremacy and cis supremacy at the root. Only then will we be able to create toilet justice.