March 27, 2017

Signs of Gender

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

You might be seeing new restroom signs popping up in public or private spaces. Single-person bathrooms are getting a makeover in many places with the gender specific labels replaced with gender “neutral” labels. Thus, anyone who has to go, can just go, without concern about using the “right” room.

Here’s a photo I took the other day of a room newly re-labeled. This is a very inclusive sign, as it says “all gender” and even has the accessibility icon:

Br1

The second photo below was taken the same day at a different location. The two signs have the same font, so they look like they come from the “restroom sign store” but the symbols displayed on them are entirely different.

Br2

What’s wrong with this picture?

Sociologically speaking, what issues might we have with the icon on this second sign?

Remember that symbols are important. They signify not only instructions and information, but policies and limitations, values and social norms.

In sociology, we recognize that gender is socially constructed. Our definitions of how many genders and what they signify in society is specific to our culture, time, and location.

In dominant American culture, we have had a dichotomous set of just two genders, defined in opposition to each other. Our expectations are that men are strong leaders, competitors and providers, and that women are nurturing, supportive, motherly. In short, men are dominant and women are subordinate.

We reinforce these ideas of inequality by maintaining that men and women are more different than similar. From birth (and even before), we treat boys and girls differently, thus exaggerating any differences. With confirmation bias, we don’t often see that the genders are more similar than different, as we are more apt to look for differences.

There is more difference within these groupings than between them. Women are more different from each other than they are from men. Men are more different from each other than they are from women.

Slight average differences may be misinterpreted or over interpreted to signify that men and women are from wholly different planets. Note: we are all terrestrial creatures on earth, evolved to adapt to our environment. Men are not from Mars and women are not from Venus.

These two genders are assumed to be biologically determined, yet many other cultures have or had more than two genders. Gender definitions are specific to a culture, in its own time and place.

As a society, we are becoming more accepting of gender and sex as more complex phenomena, thanks to science, with more understanding and increasing normalization of transgender and intersexuality.

The introduction, adoption, and increasing use of the term cisgender is a sign of this as it serves to be a counterpart to transgender, rather than leaving transgender to be alone as a deviant category.

So, what is wrong with this restroom sign?

It says “All Gender” but it depicts only women and men. There is also a line between men and women.

While the text is inclusive, the images do not signify an accurate understanding of gender or gender neutral. The line between the man and woman icons reifies the differences between men and women ad serves as a visual reminder that they are different from one another. Using only those two icons excludes other genders as it does not include agender, gender fluidity or any other conceptions of non-dichotomous gender categories.

There were so many options that would have depicted gender neutral in a more inclusive way. I did a search on “gender neutral icon” and found 1,380,000 results. Some of those that came up could have been more useful than icons reproducing our gender dichotomy. None are perfect, of course, since our society has no clear awareness or acceptance of the complexities of gender. Br3

Why do you think, using your sociological imagination, the second sign didn’t include a more “gender neutral” or more inclusive sign for their new gender neutral restroom?

Is this sign a problem? What’s the big deal? It’s always a good idea to as the “so what?” question.

If one is a man or a woman who has not encountered any challenge to using a restroom, then one might not see what the problems might be. This is how privilege blinds us to seeing what happens without that privilege. Things don’t seem problematic to those who have privilege. People whose outward appearance conforms to the gender norms are not challenged when they enter a restroom.

Those who have been challenged, could say much about the problems they experience because because their outward appearance does not conform to the gender norms,. The emotional and physical violence that can accompany norm violations is real and substantial. I recommend Ivan Coyote’s Ted Talk about “Why We Need Gender Neutral Bathrooms” for more on this subject.

That we have gendered our restrooms and policed their usage says a lot about our society. One could wonder why the outcry about transgender people using a restroom has emerged as an issue now – transgender people have been using the appropriate restroom for their gender for years yet, most of the time, no one knew or was aware or was concerned.

Photos courtesy of the author

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