M, F, N/A

Wow. Here I was ready to comment on one piece of news, when several more caught my attention. They all revolve around social ideas of gender rôles, and marginalised or disabled people.

This first one struck close to home: Khadijah Farmer was kicked out of women’s toilet of a Manhattan, NY, restaurant because the bouncer thought she looked too masculine.

“I said, ‘I am a woman and I am where I am supposed to be,'” said Farmer, speaking at a a news conference. “I offered to show him some identification. I was told that’s neither here nor there.”

Some people might say that happened “just because” she’s a lesbian (like that’s a valid reason), but I can vouch for the same thing happening to me as well. On the occasion that I wear a skirt or dress, I look “appropriately” female. But since I have a really short hair style, and often wear men’s shoes (because I have wide feet) and men’s shirts (because I have broad shoulders and long arms) and am disinclined toward wearing make-up, I have been frequently mistaken for a guy.

Even my name doesn’t seem to help; just last week someone assumed that “Andrea” is a man, because although it’s the female form of “Andrew” in English-speaking countries, it’s a masculine name in Italy and other countries. So my persona gets transgendered to “Mister Andrea [surname]” or “Mister André [surname] or Mister Andreas [surname]. Or when I am giving my name over the telephone to someone (who is probably working in a call center somewhere in South Asia), I end up both transgendered and ethnically transformed to “Mister Chandra” or other variations. This is mildly amusing until I am standing jetlagged at a hotel reception desk or a passenger ticket counter, blearily trying to guess what new mangled version of my name my reservation is filed under, while the receptionist in turn is trying to make sure that I’m not trying to pull some convoluted scam by presenting them with a valid reservation number but photo identification that doesn’t match the name or sex they expect.

(I will confess that sometimes it helps to travel under the aegis an affable white male who can “present” himself as a harmless business traveller — this is of course assuming that my hard-of-hearing hubby is not also exhausted, and trying to bluff his way through a conversation but failing miserably. We make pretty good travel partners so long as we each retain enough patience with the other.)

I’ve yet to be kicked out of a restaurant or a bathroom due to discrimination by gender (mis)perception, but I have received a wide range of suspicious looks or “helpful” directions toward the door of the men’s toilet. This whole business about bathrooms is really ridiculous. Let’s face it: we all use the bathroom for the same reasons. Of course, women also use the stalls to attend to menstrual hygiene. And guess what — both men and women use restrooms (the loo) to change diapers (nappies) on babies, children, or even themselves or other adults.

In a more reasonable world, we wouldn’t have a Men’s Toilet and a Women’s Toilet. We would simply have Toilets (unisex or all-gender). Just imagine how much easier it will be for daddies to take their girls in, and mommies to take their boys in, when the tykes needed to go potty. No more worrying about translating cutesy signs in restaurants, ” ‘Heifers’ is the Little Girl’s Room,” drawls the waitress helpfully, leaving me wanting to ask where the Big Women’s Room is. (Note to intersteller aliens: a toilet door icon for “human wearing slacks” doesn’t mean I should use that room when I’m wearing slacks, nor does the toilet door icon for “human wearing skirt” mean that a man wearing a kilt should use the other room. Nor does the sign on the shop door, “No shirt, no shoes, no service” mean that you can patronise that business bare-ass nekkid.) Unisex toilets would also mean no more panic over which room your transgendered students should use:

… if Luke entered a women’s bathroom on campus, ”someone might yell, ‘Oh my God, there’s a man here’ and call security,” he said. ”In men’s bathrooms I’d have to fold my arms over my chest and hope that no one would notice.” Now he and several other Brown students are pressing the university to create more single-stall bathrooms, so students who don’t look clearly male or female can avoid harassment.

The next story involves the reinstatement of a South Korean helicopter pilot, Colonel Pi Woo-jin, who was discharged from service following her mastectomy “because army regulations require soldiers who are missing body parts to be discharged.” I was going to make some snarky remark, but just found myself sputtering, as this whole situation is just too stupid beyond words. I hope Colonel Pi gets her full reinstatement and isn’t cheated out of her future retirement benefits, or subjected to additional harassment on her job. (I’m not optimistic about the latter.)

Lastly, there’s the whole dreadful déjà vu of the Ashley X story revisited with the Katie Thorpe news. The parents of the 15-year old English girl with cerebral palsy feel that their daughter’s life is already too “undignified” because she needs personal care, and that she might have painful menstrual periods or would be frightened or confused by her “inconvenient” monthly menses. They also fear that she would be more vulnerable to sexual molestation if she is fertile.

Um, isn’t major surgery fraught with its own complications? Trust me, I understand how painful such “female problems” can be — I took the surgical route to resolve issues related to cysts and endometriosis. I also know that recovering from such an operation is both long and painful in its own right. And while removing ovaries and uterus is one way of preventing some potential medical problems, doing so at the age of 15 introduces others, such as osteoporosis. Likewise, as I pointed out before in my post on Ashley, making a disabled girl sterile doesn’t prevent sexual abuse, but would simply make it easier to hide such, because she wouldn’t unexpectedly miss a menstrual period, nor would she receive regular gynecological checkups.

If they’re worried about her being frightened or confused about her menses, then she simply needs to be educated about them. The article mentions that she loves to ride horses, and that her family knows that she enjoys doing that. Obviously there is some level of communication going on between Katie and her family; if she can communicate joy, surely she can communicate pain? One thing the article doesn’t mention is whether or not Katie has alternative communication means available to her. As the saying goes, Not being able to speak doesn’t mean not having anything to say.

It’s not that the parents’ concerns are not valid, or that they don’t need supports in her care, it’s that the solutions they are seeking are not the best ones, and that they also set terrible precedents for worse “solutions” regarding disabled people. Penny Richards has been collecting bloggers’ reactions to this news story in her post, “We do know better”.

So trying to sort out all this news and nonsense, it becomes apparent that a lot of discrimination happens when people are uncomfortable or scared of someone who is pushing the boundaries of gender identity or gender rôles. People are uncomfortable with the fact that disabled children can grow up to be disabled, sexual adults. And what happens? People are “punished” for stepping outside of narrow definitions of social rôles. People seek drastic steps to relieve their own discomfort and fears of human sexuality by literally trying to cut them out of the bodies of young girls.

Talk about undignified.


  1. Ettina said,

    17 October 2007 at 19:30

    There’s some stuff about that issue in the book Congratulations, It’s Asperger Syndrome. I think in one of the earlier chapters. She’s discussing identity issues she had, one of which was about her gender identity since her natural way of behaving was not seen as particularly masculine or feminine.

  2. Suzanne said,

    17 October 2007 at 16:03

    Ali… sorry, I don’t know of any links to good info RE gender id and ASD. Simon Baron Cohen wrote The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth about Autism.
    anyway, if you have checked back in on this, I’d hate for you to find absolutely nothing, so here is a good blog post/comments

  3. Ali said,

    15 October 2007 at 14:45

    “Someone suggested to me that many people in the autistic spectrum do not strongly identify with gender roles.”

    I know this is a while ago, but I’d really love links for this. The idea of austism as being “severely male brain,” while a gross oversimplification and a bit silly, to me, does make me wonder about gender roles. The current thinking in the trans community is that being transgendered may have something to do with hormonal balances in the womb–if the brain starts with one chemistry and then the body with the other (working on a binary, there), it might explain why the brains of transgendered people tend to act (on ct scans and such) the same as typical people in the gender they identify as (so a ftm person’s brain looks like a bio-male’s brain). I wonder greatly about the correlation between autism and transgenderism, especially ftm transgenderism. Anyone have any links?

  4. shiva said,

    11 October 2007 at 20:27

    In total agreement with you on all of these issues… good to see someone else has put disability and (trans) gender/(inter)sex issues together…

    I’ve also been collating blog posts on Katie’s case: http://biodiverseresistance.blogspot.com/2007/10/other-bloggers-on-katie-thorpe-case.html

    Have you read any of Emi Koyama’s writings about gender and disability issues? http://eminism.org

  5. Suzanne said,

    11 October 2007 at 14:15

    gaaaah! Gender roles have been vexing me for years. I also do not embrace the expected feminine modifications. No hair products, make-up or heels. I am generally big, but curvy enough that when I wear a pixie haircut, I don’t expect to be called “Sir” . Yet, it happens. Ms Farmer’s treatment is beyond infuriating.
    As a mom of a nine year old boy who needs toileting assistance, I appreciate finding Family and gender-free restrooms.
    Someone suggested to me that many people in the autistic spectrum do not strongly identify with gender roles. (with or without the caret).
    and finally, a hub blogger who has commented here and has many oft-viewed YouTube vids is often seen as masculine, and I don’t get it! She looks pretty obviously female to me.
    Then people start in with the… well, if you did A, B and C, we wouldn’t be so confused. I refuse to waste my time presenting myself according to their rules.
    I can’t think about this any more right now either. makes me too angry with the World.

  6. Zaecus said,

    11 October 2007 at 8:34

    I thought I’d heard there were a growing number of unisex, or gender free (as appears to be the more popular term these days), bathrooms, and went looking for some info.

    I found safe2pee.org, a directory of such facilities, among other things.

    It doesn’t, by any means, handle the cause of these problems, but it’s a step toward preventing some of them.

  7. qw88nb88 said,

    10 October 2007 at 22:30

    Oh, like being surgically sterile makes rape SO much better! GAH!

    I can’t think about this for a while; gotta make dinner or something…

  8. 10 October 2007 at 22:10

    a friend just put it perfectly:
    they wanted to take away the “burden” of being a woman because she already had the “burden” of being disabled..
    i don’t get how society rationalizes this and how so many people can think that this is a good thing.

  9. Amanda M said,

    10 October 2007 at 18:48

    I’ve heard the mother of an institutionalized girl with cp say that it was better that she was “fixed” because everyone knows sexual abuse/rape goes on in institutions and at least she wont get pregnant!!!!

  10. amanda said,

    10 October 2007 at 13:42

    Argh. The rôle thing is driving me nuts. It switches my brain to French, and then I can’t read the English around it without consciously switching back.

  11. Susan said,

    10 October 2007 at 5:46

    The University of Oregon just installed a small locker room and shower for transgendered or other people who want to avoid gender labels and/or staring when they simply want to change clothes and clean up. I think it is a great idea. Also not bad for the simply painfully shy.

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