Far from national borders, thousands of gender borders, diffuse and tentacular; each square meter is segmented around us. Architecture isn’t there to facilitate basic and natural needs (to sleep, to eat, to defecate, to urinate) but, rather, its doors and windows, its walls and openings, regulate access and view; function silently as the most discreet and effective of the “technologies of gender.” Public restrooms, an integral part of bourgeois institutions of 19th century European cities, served primarily as management spaces of human waste in urban areas. It is not by coincidence that the newer technologies of fecal matter disposal used by the growing bourgeoisie at the end of the 19th century brought in the establishment of contemporary conjugal and domestic codes that required the spatial distribution of genders, and was complicit with the normalization of heterosexuality and the pathologization of homosexuality.
In the 20th century, public toilets became genuine public cells of inspection that allowed for the evaluation of each body according to the current codes of masculinity and femininity. On the door of each toilet, a sign, one interpretation of gender: masculine or feminine, ladies or gentleman, sombrero or sunhat, mustache or small flower, as if entering a bathroom necessitates a rehearsal of gender rather than a release of urine and shit.
Why not inquire whether one will urinate or defecate, and if so, is it diarrhea? Nor is anyone interested in the color or the size of the fecal matter. What is most important is the fabrication of gender. If we take, for example, the bathrooms in the Charles-de-Gaulle airport of Paris, a sink of international organic waste in the middle of a circuit of capital globalization flows. We enter the ladies bathroom. An unwritten law authorizes all casual visitors of the toilet to inspect the gender of each new body that decides to cross into the threshold. Women, who in one aspect or another share mirrors and sinks, behave as anonymous inspectors of the production of female gender who control the access of new visitors to various private compartments. Among these interactions, between decorum and filth, lies a toilet. Here, the public control of the feminine heterosexuality is first exercised by the look and, in cases of doubt, by the word. Whatever ambiguities of gender (extremely short hair, lack of makeup, a fuzz that resembles a mustache, a strong stride, etc.) demanded an interrogation for the potential user of the bathroom who will be obligated to justify their selection of toilet: “Hey, you, you’ve got the wrong bathroom, the gentlemen’s is on the right.” A cluster of signs sent by the gender of the other bathroom will inevitably demand the abandonment of the mono-gender space under penalty of verbal or physical punishment. In the end, it is always possible to alert public authorities (often a male representation of state government) to evict the gender queer or trans-body — it’s of little importance whether it was a male or masculine female.
Yes, overcoming this test of gender, we get to one of the stalls, wherein we find a space of 1×1.5 square meters that tries to reproduce in miniature the privacy of a domestic toilet. Femininity is produced precisely by the subtraction of every physiological function for the public eye. However, the cabin provides solely visual privacy. It is in examples such as these that domesticity extends its tentacles and penetrates public space. As noted by Judith Halberstam, “the bathroom is one representation, or a parody, of the domestic order outside of the house, the world at large.”
Each body is enclosed in an evacuating capsule with opaque walls that protect it from exposing their body to nudity, from exposing to the public view the forms and color of its dejections. Nevertheless, every body shares the sound of the golden rain jets and the smell of the shit that slides in the adjacent toilets. Smell and Hearing remain public, while vision is privatized. Free. Occupied. Once closing the door, one white toilet between 40 and 50 centimeters in height, as if it were a perforated ceramic stool that connects our defective body to an invisible universal sewer (in which the waste of ladies and gentlemen is mixed…and where gender is finally trashed), we are invited to sit down to defecate and piss. The feminine toilet meets two functions differentiated by the consistency (solid/liquid) and its anatomic point of evacuation (urinary/anal), under the same posture and one gesture: feminine = sitting. When leaving the stall reserved for excretion, the mirror, a reverberation of the public eye, invites the retouching of the female image under the regulatory gaze of other women.
Let’s cross the hall to the men’s room. Pinned to the wall, at a height of 80 or 90 centimeters from the ground, one or multiple urinals are grouped together in a space, often intended for sinks, and accessible to the public eye. Within this space, one closed piece, separated categorically from the public view by a door with a latch, gives access to a large toilet similar to those furnishing the ladies’ bathrooms. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the only common architectural law in the construction of bathrooms for men is the separation of functions: pee standing up/defecate sitting down in a toilet. This is one of the main gender architecture laws of Western modernity: the effective production of heterosexual masculinity depends upon the imperative separation of genitality and anality, of urine and shit.
We could think that architecture constructs quasi-natural barriers responding to the essential difference of functions between men and women. In fact, architecture works as a gender prosthesis that produces and fixes the differences between such biological functions. The urinal, a perturbing architectural invention that grows out of the wall and adjusts to the body, acts as a prosthesis of masculinity, facilitating the vertical posture to urinate without splashing. Publicly peeing while standing is one of the preferences constitutive of the modern heterosexual masculinity. This way the discrete urinal is not so much an instrument of hygiene but a technology of gender that participates in the production of masculinity in a public space. For this reason, the male urinal is not enclosed in an opaque cabin but, instead, in an open space for collective viewing. Peeing standing up amongst uncles is a cultural activity generating links of sociability, and all those that do so publically are recognized as men. The public male urinal constructs male political representation.
Two opposing logics dominate the bathrooms of women and men. Whereas the bathroom of women is a reproduction of domestic space in the middle of a public space, the men’s bathrooms are a fold of public space intensifying the eyes of visibility, where the erect position reaffirms public space as a masculine space. While the ladies’ bathroom operates as a mini-panopticon in which women collectively monitor their degree of heterosexual femininity in which all sexual advancement results in male aggression; the gentlemen’s bathroom appears as a conductive ground for political empowerment and sexual experimentation.
In our urban landscape, the men’s bathroom is situated with the quasi-archaeological era of mythical masculinism in which the public space was the privilege of men, falling in with the automobile clubs, sports or hunting, and brothels, one of the public redoubts in which men escape to games of sexual complicity under the guise of rituals of masculinity.
Precisely because the bathrooms are normative scenarios of production for masculinity, they are able to function as a theatre of heterosexual anxiety. In this context, the spatial division of genital and anal functions protects against the potential homosexual temptation or, rather, condemns it to the area of privacy. Unlike the urinal, in the men’s baths, the toilet, a symbol of the wretched/seated femininity, protects the moments of defecation of solids (moments of anal opening) from the public gaze. As suggested by Lee Edelman, the masculine opening, a hole that is potentially open to penetration, must be opened only in confined spaces and protected from the eyes of other men: otherwise, it may arouse a homosexual invitation.
Questioning the prescribed regime of gendered public bathrooms challenges the sexual and gender segregation that modern urinary architecture has imposed for the past two centuries: public/private, visible/invisible, decent/obscene, man/woman, penis/vagina, standing up/sitting, occupied/busy.
The aim of public hygiene policies is not only to bring order to our organic wastes, but also and more importantly to bring order to gender. The architecture of the public toilet is a productive economy that transforms organic trash into gender. Let’s not fool ourselves: in the capitalist-heterosexual machine, nothing is wasted. On the contrary, every moment of expulsion of an organic waste serves as an occasion to reproduce gender. The harmless white toilet bowls that eat our shit are intimate, and yet public, normative gender prostheses.
Translation from Spanish by Sarina Vega.