Tuesday, October 18, 2005

I'm a he 

A job candidate for a position in ethnic studies at a university gets an education:

Earlier that evening, I had met with undergraduates in the humanities program sponsoring the fellowship. My faculty guide led me into a comfortable room in the Multicultural/LGBT Student Center, where about 12 students were gathered around open boxes of pizza and bottles of soda on a coffee table. A few looked up and smiled at me, and my faculty escort called one of them over and introduced her.

"Leslie, this is Dr. Haladay from the University of California. I'll leave her to speak with all of you until around 7:30, then I'll come and take her over to the job talk."

"OK," said Leslie, a pale young woman with short black hair and Buddy Holly glasses. "Nice to meet you, Dr. Haladay. Should we start off by introducing ourselves?"

Leslie asked the students to assemble in a circle and told them what was happening. "OK, we're starting with introductions, everybody, so why don't we all say our name, our year in school, our major, and our pronoun. I'll start."

Emphasis added. The writer -- who is a she -- goes on to describe the bathroom.

After meeting with the students, I had a short break before my job talk. I asked Leslie, "Is there a restroom I might use?" She pointed me around the corner. There was only one door so I knew it had to be the bathroom. But there was no universal icon of a male with two stick legs or a female with a triangle dress demarcating the water closet here. No words announcing "Men," "Women," "Unisex," "Other," or "All of the Above." Nothing as simple, even, as the words "Restroom," "Toilet," "Facilities," or "Loo."

Instead, there was a plaque inscribed with a block of prose in rather small writing explaining the gendered politics of the public toilet. I wish I had written down the exact wording, although that might have looked a little strange. It said something about antiquated iconography, dialectical challenges embedded in the politics of public spaces, and the matrix of gay, lesbian, trans- and cross-gendered, intersex, and otherly abled identities. It also said something about washing your hands thoroughly and limiting your use of paper towels.

And as a he, I'd've simply walked outside and looked for a shrub.