Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination – Sheila Cavanagh (University of Toronto Press, 2010)

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I started
reading Sheila Cavanagh’s Queering Bathrooms while traveling to
Nashville for the Human Rights Campaign’s Summer Institute for LGBTIQ scholars
of religion and theology.  It was
interesting, and just a tad bit unsettling, to read a book focused on the
ideological underpinnings of bathroom architecture while traveling—i.e., while
encountering, entering and using so many public restrooms, in airports,
restaurants, coffee shops, libraries, university buildings.  Cavanagh’s book gave me a new set of eyes and
ears for what happens in the public lavatory.

central claim—that bathrooms are a site where gender and sexuality are
surveilled, performed, regulated, defined and disciplined—will hardly be news
to her queer- and trans-identified readers. 
But the care and complexity of her presentation provides a wealth of
newfound insight.  Cavanagh situates her
analysis of the public bathrooms within a historical narrative beginning in the
Victorian era.  She notes that the public
restroom came into being at a time when epidemiology was first discovering the
relation between human waste and the spread of disease.  She also notes that this was a time when the
threat of contagion was linked to colonized bodies, bodies of color, and
lower-class bodies.  She links the fights
over gender-segregated bathrooms in our time to fights about racially segregated
bathrooms in prior decades.  In other
words, she traces how, since its inception, the public bathroom has been a site
of regulating and disciplining dangerous and chaotic bodies as much as it has
been a space for relieving oneself.  (One
of the most interesting things I learned in reading the book is in the
mid-nineteenth century there were no public restrooms for women.  Women of good breeding were not supposed to
be in public very much at all, and certainly should never take care of their
“needs” in public.  Rather than use a
public restroom, they wore “urinettes”—tube-like apparatuses that were tied
around the waist and hung between the legs so that women could urinate
undetected while standing.)  While this
gesture to the racial, class, ethnic and colonial history of bathrooms and
bathroom architecture could have been developed in more detail, her gesture to
a much broader context for her argument—and its importance—underscores the
value of thinking about the quotidian with care.

Cavanagh also
situates her work in the larger theoretical conversation about gender and
sexuality.  She easily references the
work of Freud and Lacan, Foucault and Butler, Irigaray and Silverman.  For the most important ideas, she offers
brief explanations that will help orient the theoretically uninformed reader.  And for most of the analysis, her close
attention to the details of specific cases or stories will illuminate the
theoretical ideas under discussion.  For
the educated and motivated lay reader, then, the book should be accessible and
will even provide an entry point into the world of theory that undergirds the
book’s analyses.  For the academic
reader, the book will provide a number of provocative insights.  Cavanagh also takes great care to show where
queer theory’s focus on gender and gender norms is not always adequate for
thinking through the very different experiences faced by trans-identified
subjects.  While there is much insight to
be gained from Cavanagh’s theoretical analyses, and even more to be done by extending
and developing her suggestions, she sometimes moves too quickly from one
theorist to another, letting brief slogans stand in for more careful
exposition.  If she had slowed her
expository pace and narrowed her theoretical pluralism a bit, her text may have
been more developed than suggestive. 

The most
interesting aspect of Cavanagh’s study, however, comes from the 100 interviews
she conducted with a wide range of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and queer
individuals who conform and fail to conform to standard gender norms in a
variety of ways.  Through reliance on
this interview material, real people’s experiences and bodies to show up in the
text, allowing Cavanagh to develop an incredibly rich picture of the regulatory
violence performed in the space of the bathroom.  Each chapter of the book is rich with
commentary by Cavanaugh’s interviewees and although she organizes this material
with a deft hand, she lets these subjects speak for themselves.  Sometimes Cavanagh allows interviewees to
speak for others—gay men speak about trans men’s experience, femme lesbians
speak about butch experience—but this is rare. 
Moreover, butch lesbians and trans folk of all stripes appear as their
own spokespeople with great frequency.

central theoretical insight is the notion of “mirroring.”  According to Cavanagh, based on her reliance
on Lacan and Butler, we come to understand our gendered and sexual selves in
part by seeing these selves reflected to us by people and images in the world.  In gender-exclusive spaces, such as
gender-segregated bathrooms, people expect to have themselves mirrored
perfectly.  When a bathroom denizen does
not have this experience, when a person’s gender performance does not conform
to the space—the butch person in the women’s room or the effete person in the
men’s—it can create disorientation, anxiety and confusion for those occupying
that space who identify more closely with the norm.  As Cavanagh demonstrates with her interview
information, reactions to mixing gender in public restrooms rarely stems from a
fear of sexual violence (one of the main justifications for gender-segregated
bathrooms).  In women’s rooms especially,
butch lesbians and trans women are confronted, harassed, threatened and
physically assaulted by cis-gender women. 
These women are clearly not frightened by the “intruders,” but are
experiencing some form of anxiety and threat that expresses itself not in
flight, but in an aggressive stance.  By
thinking carefully about what is happening in the space of the bathroom,
Cavanagh provides critical insight about the anxieties that queer and trans
bodies generate in our culture generally.

Cavanagh also
provides an incredibly rich and wide-ranging account of how the disciplining,
regulatory function of the bathroom finds its way into psyches and bodies.  She thinks about the senses of sight,
hearing, smell and touch as well as the function of desire in the bathroom
space.  Typically, bathrooms are bright,
well-lit spaces where it is easy to examine other people’s bodies, even if the
gaze must sometimes be averted.  There
are sounds that are peculiar to gendered bodies and elimination, its pleasures
and its efforts.  This relates to the
difference in the sound of peeing standing up and sitting down as well as the
famous canard that women talk in the bathroom while men remain silent.  Cavanagh also examines the ways in which men
and women think about the other’s bathrooms as “disgusting,” and the terms that
express that disgust differently.

In addition to
giving me a new perspective on bathrooms and their cultural and political work,
it was interesting to read Cavanagh while attending the Summer Institute
because it is devoted to blurring the line between scholarship and
activism.  Cavanagh demonstrates in Queering
that historically, theoretically, ethnographically sophisticated
scholarship can shed new light on the political dimensions of our everyday
habits and taboos.  A variety of
audiences will find much to appreciate and value in Cavanagh’s study.

Reviewed by Kent Brintnall

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