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Toilet talk: A rythmanalysis of all-gender inclusion
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Technology, Department of Engineering Sciences, Industrial Engineering & Management.
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Technology, Department of Engineering Sciences, Industrial Engineering & Management. Copenhagen Business School, department of management, politics and philosophy.
2017 (English)Conference paper, Published paper (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

The recent media discussions about all-gender-inclusive toilet signs have brought to light the organizational presence and force of an otherwise neglected but necessary space for our bodily needs. The toilet is normally thought of as servicing what Lefebvre calls ‘secret rhythms’, the physiological, natural rhythms of a sick or healthy body (Lefebvre, 2013:27). Now aware of the toilet as a space that can be signed differently, we can no longer treat it simply as a facility for physiological logistics and ordering. Instead, the toilet is becoming apparent as a space complicit with an everyday, repetitive organisation of the body through what Lefebvre calls ‘public and fictional rhythms’, i.e. social expressions and the imaginary (ibid). In particular, the protracted negotiations and media discussions about toilet signs going on in various states of the US and Europe, has brought gender diversity to the fore by recognizing, and sometimes acknowledging, the existence of transgender and intersex people (also see Edgerton, 1964:1288; Gershenson, 2009). Those happily (or thoughtlessly) categorized within the biological sex provided to them by institutions at birth are simultaneously invited to question the way they have been rhythmically organized into a binary position to perhaps reach beyond it, where the imaginary gender or futuristic genderless awaits.

As Lefebvre suggests, talk of toilets is often uncomfortable, not something typically done, and as such the organising force of such a space goes unacknowledged, not least its capacity to enforce instituted gender ascriptions. As if to enforce and echo this, the toilet is considered architecturally as an inconsequential space, tucked away, visited quickly and thoughtlessly; hardly a space of any serious consequence. Yet quotidian forces are often the most pervasive, and the toilet, we will argue, is no exception to this. Indeed in many ways it provides space for inquiring into very basic conditions of what it is to be organized as a human being, in the company of others similarly organized. Our study is of one such space in Uppsala, Sweden, a renamed ‘hir’ toilet that has been the seat of some controversy upon its inauguration.

Background

A recent governmental study funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK argues that signs for ‘ladies’ and ‘gents’ on toilets in public settings such as workplaces have excluding effects (Robson, 2017). In the US the topic is more contentious since the state of North Carolina enacted a law in 2016 by which people are sex segregated, obliged to visit the public ‘restroom’ (as they call toilets in the US) that holds a sign corresponding to the biological category on their birth certificate (Kogan, 2016). In comparison, in California, single occupancy restrooms in offices and public venues are by March 1:st 2017 to become all-gendered (Steinmetz, 2016), the reasoning being a wish to limit obstacles to public integration for the transgender and intersex minorities. The vociferous debate promoted by these opposing legislative positions has started to make it apparent that toilet talk teases out more identity issues than we first think, something also discussed in the UK governmental study (Robson, 2017). Negotiations about the toilet, and what body fits where, are not only mobilizing discussion of human rights for ‘gender non-conforming’ people (Gershenson, 2010:192), but a more general exposure to gender diversity and LGBTQ+ issues (see Gershenson, 2009). Toilet activism adds to the critique of other everyday spaces as mainly supportive of a heterosexual majority (Adler & Brenner, 1992) where it has been known for long that homofobic work places keep lesbian and gay men away (Bell, 1991). Both ‘conservative’ as well as more ‘liberal’ populations seem to be touched by the new toilet signs and it comes as no surprise that the word ‘cisgender’, i.e. people who gender identify with the biological sex ascribed and determined for them at birth, was included in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015. Segregated toilets that have made what is seen as the ’normal sexedness’ natural (West & Zimmerman, 1987:137) are slowly questioned by expressions of fluid gender categories (e.g. see Hernando, 2016). This suggests that a decoding of the conventional toilet signs will perhaps loosen existing polarized gender categories that have hitherto been supported by a cultural construction of biologized, and thus ‘natural’, heterosexual identities (Butler, 2007).

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2017.
National Category
Engineering and Technology
Research subject
Engineering Science with specialization in industrial engineering and management
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-320730OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-320730DiVA, id: diva2:1090559
Conference
Diverse Organizing/Organizational Diversity - Methodological questions and activist practices. Copenhagen Business School, May 2-3 2017.
Available from: 2017-04-24 Created: 2017-04-24 Last updated: 2017-05-01

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