There has been another uproar concerning gender and comfort rooms, thanks to an incident where one who was not born female (i.e. sex; physiological), who redefined their identity as a transwoman (i.e. gender; social construction and reconstruction), decided to use the women’s comfort room in a mall. The politicized image was that of transwoman being handcuffed and paraded out — somehow reminiscent of a scene in Game of Thrones where Cersei was paraded naked in public, with a monotone but powerful word “Shame!” echoing behind the “accused.”
Online, there have been hashtags — #realwomen, #tunaynababae — presumably arguing that transwomen are not women versus hastags of #righttopee, #iihilangpo presumptuously claiming that all that there is to this is for whichever person to enter a comfort room to simply urinate (or defecate). Then one will come across posts about sexual assault of girls and women in comfort rooms by transwomen (or those pretending to be trans) as if all transgender people are sexual predators, thus hastags #women’s safespace and #whataboutus.
What’s the big deal anyway? Well, the kubeta is not really an innocent nor non-political space.
Several years ago, in an effective teaching seminar demonstration activity at the Ateneo de Manila University, I decided to lecture on the “politics of spaces.” In the 15 minutes that I had to do the demo, I brought the males to the female comfort room and the females to the male one.
Thereafter, we went back to classroom and I asked: “what did you observe?” For the males, they observed the female comfort room “did not smell bad” and was “clean;” for the females, they said the male comfort room was stinky and even if “visually clean,” it was somehow “still dirty.” Simply put, they were all about opposites.
Then I asked, “what did you feel?” Both male and female had the same answer — it was “uncomfortable” being in a space that they were not supposed to be inside of and in having people who were not supposed to be there in your space. There seemed to be a force field pushing you out from a space where you were socially programmed not to enter. It was about territoriality, “our space” — needless to say, it was about “othering.” And that was how I introduced the “politics of spaces.”
Comfort rooms are indeed political spaces. I could just imagine caucuses, continuation of board room conversations, realignment of loyalties, negotiations, story-telling, unleashing of rage and sadness, and so much more, happening in comfort rooms. “Comfort” comes from more than just urinating (or defecating) — it is a space to relieve oneself, literally, and to come out of it not the same as you went in. That is quite political in itself.
Then you have communal comfort rooms — to be used by everyone, regardless of sex, gender, ethnicity, class, religion. Supposedly, these spaces are where people are held equal. Sure. But try to observe where the toilet bowl and urinal are — don’t you feel powerless against the urinal in front of you (as in directly facing you), imposing itself in your face? Yes, it is about power.
Sexual violence is about power, an act using sex to achieve the physical satisfaction of opportunism, of attacking, of controlling, of defeating. Sexual predators prey on the vulnerable — those who are not able to fight back, those who are too shocked to react to being attacked by those they trust, those who have the highest tendency to self-blame and thus, suffer in silence.
Sexual predators exist and they are potentially everywhere. All-female transport service (e.g. train coach, taxis) and spaces (e.g. comfort rooms, women-and-children friendly spaces in internally displaced peoples camps) are pockets of safety. From a gender perspective, this discourse highlights the victimhood discourse of women and the perpetrator narrative of men. And a transwoman, according to some, is “still” a man and therefore, not to be allowed in women’s comfort room. In this regard the transwoman has been “othered” and all of those in her “tribe” are nothing more that sexual predators. To this I say, #mali!
Look at the issue of sexual predation where I say that no single gender has a monopoly when it comes to being a perpetrator of sexual violence. The logic of segregation and sexual assault is simply a band-aid solution that does not think of the structure of the violence after all. Without undermining victimization of sexual assault and the perceived safety of gender-specific spaces for women, the truth of the matter is simple: sexual predators can attack you wherever you are… learn to identify them and not stereotype transwomen in comfort rooms as the only gender that does and will sexually assault you. This is purely discrimination.
We are not equal and this is why we have segregated spaces.
Segregation serves the purpose of “othering” — that you shall have your own space because you need to be protected, because you need a safe place, because you are not the same as the rest.
The protection argument (from the preventive lens of the “protector”) and the safe space logic (from the vulnerability view of a possible “victim”) go hand in hand and are inextricably linked with the issue of sexual assault. However, to assign a singular gender to be the perpetrators of sexual violence undermines the point that it is not about gender but about sexual predation. Anyone, whatever your gender, is a possible perpetrator and potential victim.
Discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, physicality is the enabler of segregation and a sure shot way to polarize — us and them — neatly and conveniently nestled in dichotomies and dualities. This is how cosmopolitan society seems to be evolving. Hate speech and texts target the others and dehumanize them in a way that it is okay to marginalize and disenfranchise them.
Transwomen deserve to feel safe in spaces too, including comfort rooms. Whether it is just about urinating and defecating or putting out a political statement on gender and combating transphobia, the point of “relieving oneself,” whether literally or figuratively, do matter.
Who would have known that the humble kubeta would be a place of gender nazism? Well, that is the politics of space.
Ma. Lourdes Veneracion-Rallonza, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University.