the full text of my thesis is freely available to download in pdf form here.
as one of the few remaining spaces that are explicitly segregated by gender, public bathrooms are often experienced as sites of symbolic and physical exclusion by transgender and gender non-conforming people. for this reason, one focus of transgender activism in the united states and elsewhere has been safe access to public bathrooms – often by advocating for “gender-neutral” configurations. these challenges to the established norm of separation have sometimes provoked strong resistance. however, the problem of resistance to change is perhaps less pressing for activists than the problem of convincing the public, policymakers, and potential allies that bathrooms are worth discussing at all.
my master’s thesis employed focus group methods to understand how people presumably unfamiliar with debates around public bathrooms understand and talk about the possibilities of organizing public bathrooms in a “genderfree” way when these alternatives are explicitly presented to them. the use of focus groups created a liminal space in which participants were able to discuss a topic that is rarely spoken of or thought about. my goal in conducting focus groups was not to generalize my results in a statistical way or to describe the prevalence of particular attitudes about bathrooms. rather, i examined the arguments participants advanced in this semi-public setting and the ways in which these arguments were contested, supported, or complicated by others in the groups.
several of the arguments that participants raised against gender-neutral bathrooms — such as those rooted in concerns around women’s safety and a potential loss of privacy — were either challenged by other participants as internally inconsistent, or proved to be more complicated than they initially seemed. the only argument that remained unchallenged during the discussions was a religiously-motivated assertion about the naturalness of binary gender separation.
i suggest that other participants may have also felt uncomfortable with the notion of ending the practice of gender separation, but that they lacked access to the “good reasons” for expressing discomfort that a religious discourse provides. these findings imply that for some, resistance to ending gender separation in public bathrooms is wrapped up with deep-rooted attachments to the continuation of the gender system that may be less vulnerable to reasoned debate than apparently rational concerns about safety or privacy.
what i learned
looking back to the beginning of the process, it’s amazing to me how broad and undefined the scope of the project was. i wanted to do a kind of historical analysis of bathroom activism that would have required conducting interviews, collecting documents, and probably comparisons with other cases. it took months before i was able to narrow down the scope of my project to something doable as a master’s thesis – and once i had, i faced doubts about whether or not the project was important enough, focusing as it did on a fairly small piece of the topic. going through data collection and analysis disabused me of these concerns, however. i learned that qualitative data collection efforts tend to generate more possible “leads” than one can ever follow up on in one paper. i was forced to select particular threads to follow and to construct a story around.
also difficult was the realization that no matter how long i spent on the analysis stage, i would never arrive at the one true conclusion about the data. depending on one’s purposes, there are certainly better or worse stories one can tell about a set of data, but the view that there is a “true” one which the analyst either succeeds or fails to discover is something that i had to move past in order to finish the project.
since the defense
I substantially revised the thesis for publication and am currently awaiting a response. i am also writing a short summary piece describing common arguments about gender-neutral bathrooms that i hope will be of use to gender activists.
(photo: downtown santa cruz public bathrooms by kevin zamani. used under a cc-by-nd licence.)