Article published in The Funambulist 13 (September-October 2017) Queers, Feminists and Interiors. Click here to access the rest of the issue.
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.