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Monday, June 4, 2007

Washroom police

By now, the story is a familiar one. A youthful woman, marooned in the 905, heads for the door marked "Women." The usual skirted pictogram is missing from the door Of course, this woman bears no resemblance to the pictogram anyway.

"This is the women's room," says the self-appointed washroom monitor who meets her. Perhaps she thinks the woman cannot read.

"I know, that's why I'm here," comes the testy rejoinder.

Really, that should be the end of it, but no. "What do you mean, that's why you're here?"

In the past, I have been flabbergasted by such incidents. Why am I the one who feels uncomfortable, although it is the other person who is being incredibly rude? Later, I have thought of many things to say in return. But this time, I gave her four sweet words: "Mind your own business."

Sure, I could have said worse, much worse. I have been storing up these insults since I was fourteen years old and still not wearing makeup or the right kind of earrings. This was in the American South, and Southern speech, like French, is laced with small courtesies. So I've been called "sir" more times than I can count. But is that rudeness, or just misplaced politeness? I always want to say "Thank you, ma'am" (if it's a man). Many times, however, it's the women who are the rudest ones. (Incidentally, I've never known a French speaker to make this mistake.)

Maybe it's my Southern background, but I think courtesy is undervalued. So it really isn't my natural instinct to be insulting. I'm still surprised, and offended, when grown human beings flout the rules of adult interaction. If you have a problem with the way someone else looks or acts or what s/
he does, at least keep it to yourself!

I have no interest whatsoever in imagining what it is about my appearance that causes someone else to lose all manners. This goes beyond rudeness, though. For lack of a better word, it's really sexist.

Sexism is often reduced to mean discrimination by men against women. I think that definition is itself sexist. What I mean by sexism is anytime one person can't handle another's failure to conform to gender expectations, whatever they may be. Anyone can be sexist, in this sense. And anyone can be the target of sexism.

For the washroom monitor, who clearly doesn't get out much, a baseball cap was enough to send her running for the smelling salts. But other gender expectations can have more serious consequences.

There is a Peggy Seeger song based on the statement "You can't be an engineer because you are a woman." I think this sounds an awful lot like "You can't be her lover because you are a woman." "You can't be his lover because you are a man." "I won't let you go about your business, because I can't decide what I think your gender is (as if you owe me an explanation)."

Homophobia is a particularly virulent form of this, because everyone gets heated up when sexuality is involved. Centuries of history have accustomed people to dictating the sexual behaviour of others, and they get especially offended when their gender expectations in this area aren't met.

But intolerance for any sexual minority is intimately tied up with sexism. The basic problem is making gender an issue in all kinds of areas that are nobody else's business. Is being told that you can't marry the person of your choice because you are a woman fundamentally different from being told that you can't wear skirts because you are a man? In my fantasies, if everyone (including me) could get over their own sexist expectations, homophobia would disappear.

But I am realistic enough to know that prejudice is not just going to disappear. Some attitudes really will change. Ignorance can be overcome, but prejudice remains. If people cannot get comfortable with the existence of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in their world, then the least they can do is shut up about it. This is where courtesy could really make a comeback.

If I have nothing better to do than guess the gender of someone going into a washroom, I'll decide based on which door the person actually goes in. If my guess turns out to have been wrong, it's my mistake.

We want to be out and proud. We want to hold hands, kiss, wear gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered on our T-shirts and be "in your face." We want to say, in the words of the old hymn, "We're here, we're queer, get used to it!" But truly, there are some people out there who are just beyond hope. The best they deserve is a good old-fashioned "Mind your own business!"

Originally published in Xtra!
© 2002 J. E. Knowles

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