Saturday, 5 May 2012

Homophobia or Heteronormativity?

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As an LGBT advocate I often consume media with a concern for LGBT representation and perception in the back of my mind. When I am watching, reading, and listening to media I’m also looking to see whether it reinforces, challenges, or ignores anti-LGBT stereotypes. So when I first read this article, I immediately viewed it through that lens. To me, it seemed quite obviously and blatantly homophobic.

According to the article, when men use a public restroom there are certain rules they should follow. Some, like #5: Keeping things clean, make sense. The ones I had a problem with were the following: #2: Announce your presence; #3: Ignore my kid; #4 No eye contact, no talking; and #7: Don’t linger. To me, those rules implied a fear that the other men in the restroom were potentially gay, and thus there for something other than urinating. Why would you worry so much about someone talking to you, unless you were concerned that their conversation was actually an attempt to hit on you? Why would it be a problem to see someone linger, unless you’re worried that they’re actually waiting to pick someone up? That’s what I was asking myself as I read it.

The article also seems to take a lot of these rules a bit too far. The idea that you shouldn’t look over at someone while at a urinal makes sense to a certain degree. I would feel strange if someone were watching me while I was urinating. However, the list also continues to say that a man should never make eye contact with another man, even at the sink. That, to me, smacks of homophobia. Washing your hands at the sink is hardly a private activity.


However, seeing as I’m not a man, I realize that my perception of male bathroom etiquette is slightly skewed. I’m left relying on second-hand information. So I asked other LGBT men and women to give me their opinions on the article. Interestingly, the replies I got back were quite diverse. They ranged from someone who couldn’t finish reading it because he found it to be so homophobic, to someone else who actually liked the rules. Instead of paraphrasing all of them, I’ll just provide a few quotes:

It's the same sort of typical backhanded homophobia I see a lot just in everyday life.”

“Personally, the article would make me feel unwelcome at the website (and I'm bisexual).”

“I actually don't think it is out and out homophobic. Just skimming it, the theme seems to be: ‘how to avoid uncomfortable homosocial contact.’”

“One wonders if there is not a whiff of the old homophobic paranoia.”

“Actually it’s more pedantic than anything, hence the perceived homophobia.”

“I like the rules – keeps the bathroom clean and efficient.”

While those rules are actually good for busy toilets in many public places, they're something that does get pushed into men’s heads as a standard way of functioning.”

“I don't think straight guys being uncomfortable with homosexuality is the same as homophobia. If they're so insecure they run into a cubicle instead of using the urinal in the middle, it's their problem.”

And in reply to that:

“Guys being uncomfortable with and wanting to avoid homosexuality is literally homophobia…what's happening here is that the writer is telling men they should feel uncomfortable.

Another aspect to this issue is in comparing it to public restrooms for women. After all, women all use completely enclosed stalls in order to keep from seeing other women urinate, and yet there isn’t any suggestion of homophobic undertones. So what’s the difference? Well for starters, because everyone in the women’s restroom is using private stalls, the sink area is a more public space. So when men are washing their hands they’re still in the same space as people who are urinating. Standing at a sink, talking, could be seen as being as embarrassing as standing outside the open door of a bathroom stall, talking. Plus, if the bathroom is small enough, standing around just makes the space crowded and makes access to the urinals more difficult.


So after thinking about all of this, I guess I would have to agree that it’s not actually, blatantly homophobic. The problem with the article, however, is that it has left itself open to a homophobic interpretation. Perhaps unknowingly, the author has conformed to the “old homophobic paranoia” with these rules. It wasn’t so long ago that it was considered a legitimate response to physically attack a man if you thought he was coming onto you. And while this article certainly doesn’t advocate for physical violence, it does seem to include quite a bit of fear and anger at those who don’t follow the rules he sets down.

Throughout there is a not-so-subtle suggestion that the people who aren’t following these rules are somehow deviant or creepy. The article doesn’t just talk about privacy and keeping the space clean and tidy for its own sake. Instead it insinuates that anyone who loiters, or casts a glance at another man in the mirror, or deigns to talk to another man, is somehow creepy. And though the article never says it outright, it makes it very easy to infer that the author is worried that the men who might do all these things that go against the rules he sets down might be gay.

So yeah, this article falls under the category of heteronormative. It’s also a pretty trivial subject, when you think about it. I mean, bathroom etiquette is hardly on par with world politics or marriage equality. But it’s these little things that affect people’s everyday lives, precisely because they are so mundane.

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