The controversy over who gets to use what public bathroom continues to rage. Many of the arguments by opponents of allowing people to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity rather than to the gender they were assigned at birth have been based of exaggerated fears of perceived risks.
The focus has been almost entirely on fears of men who might take the chance to go into women’s rooms. The argument being made by opponents is that this allows male perverts free rein to casually claim to be women and use the women’s bathroom to expose themselves or molest women or even worse. This is countered by the argument that such things have always been illegal and those determined to do such things are unlikely to be deterred by a mere sign on the bathroom door.
But there has been an interesting aspect to this issue and that is of privacy. People do have a legitimate right to privacy. In general, bathrooms that have private stalls should not cause any problems since people’s privacy is preserved. A trickier question concerns locker rooms and showers where it appears that people change and take showers in view of others.
The oft-repeated claim that adolescent boys in schools may take advantage of the new guidelines to one day declare themselves to be girls and thus gain access to the girls locker room is countered by the fact that the rules, at least as far as schools are concerned, do not allow for such idiosyncratic and temporary gender identification. People have to have shown a consistent gender identity in order to use the bathroom or locker room that corresponds to their gender.
What this situation has brought into question is the assumption that people should not be embarrassed to unclothe themselves in front of others of the same gender. But is that truly the case? There may be many reasons why people might be uncomfortable with undressing in front of anyone else at all, whatever their gender. They may just be shy or they may feel embarrassed by their bodies, especially since there is so much focus on being conventionally attractive and the consequent shaming of those who veer too much from the ideal. What this new controversy has brought to the forefront is the idea that such public changing and shower areas should also make provision for people who do not wish to undress in front of others under any circumstances, quite apart from any transgender issues.
In my own case, for example, the polio that I had as a child caused serious damage to my body. That has not prevented me from engaging in most activities but I do feel uncomfortable changing in front of others and indeed never do. When I wrote above that “it appears that people change and take showers in view of others”, the reason for my uncertainty is that I never use public changing rooms and locker rooms and so have little first-hand knowledge of what those places are like. I avoid any situation that requires me to expose most of my body to others so that I do not, for example, go swimming nor do I ever appear in public wearing shorts or without a shirt. The availability of private areas in locker rooms and showers would actually also benefit someone like me.
One could argue that I should not feel embarrassed by what is after all, not my fault. My body is what it is and I should not fall victim to what is popularly referred to as ‘body shaming’. But people tend to look at what is unusual and I do not wish to be the subject of curious looks or cause discomfort to others. It is not a great hardship to me to avoid public showers or locker rooms and growing up in Sri Lanka, there was no need to ever use them.
But it is not so easy in the US, especially in schools and colleges. The move to allow people to use public facilities that correspond to their gender identity has increased the awareness of the need to also provide private spaces for those who want them for whatever reason, and thus these moves may actually increase privacy rather than decrease it as opponents charge.