Are You in the Wrong Bathroom?: Uncanny Androgyny
“Are you in the wrong bathroom?” This is a question I often get when I “androgynously” venture into a public women’s restroom—whether it is spoken aloud (as it was to me just this morning at the campus gym) or implied by an accusatory stare. What are people thinking when they ask this question? Perhaps the speaker assumes I am an adult who can neither read the sign that says “women” nor interpret the person-with-a-dress icon. Perhaps. But, frankly, I am somewhat skeptical of this interpretation given the reaction my presence usually elicits—never a surprised/amused “Oh, sir, you’ve wandered into the wrong bathroom!” or other such comment that stems from a true case of mistaken identity, but always something that suggests confusion mingled with anger, and implies “you don’t look quite right and you should know this.” Under the gaze of the bathroom patron, I am something to be figured out, an undecidable element that has disrupted the comfort of the space. Moreover, I am a thing that can be (deserves to be) stared at—an object that does not have the right to pass without notice through this space.
This last point is what is most disturbing to me about these kinds of run-ins. When people stare, and especially when they don’t stop staring when I look back, they confirm their right over me as an object-to-be-gazed-upon. By failing to acknowledge my return gaze (by noticing themselves being seen seeing and then either speaking or looking away) they confirm that my gaze carries no force, no power. What happens then involves more than an existential crisis. For not only do I now bear the burden of finding some way to assert my personhood, I also know that how I choose to make that assertion can have physical consequences. Countering rudeness with rudeness is a tempting option, but one that also invites an escalation of conflict, perhaps verbal, perhaps physical, perhaps involving intervention from an outside party.
Leaving aside the question of what happens next, I would like to think about the role that undecidability plays in this scenario—for it is precisely this factor that tinges the scene with conflict and possible violence. Freud’s theory of the uncanny perhaps offers something of an explanation of the experience of the other person who looks at me. In his essay on the uncanny, Freud traces the various meanings attached to “uncanny” (unheimlich in German). Freud notes that the word heimlich, which we would expect to be unheimlich’s exact opposite, is in fact “a word the meaning of which develops towards an ambivalence until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich. Unheimlich is, in some way or another, a sub-species of heimlich” (Freud 4). Citing dictionary examples, Freud observes a strange overlap between unheimlich and heimlich, with the definitions of the latter ranging from "free from fear,” "familiar,” "intimate,” "belonging to the house,” to "mystic,” "divine,” "withdrawn from knowledge,” and finally "hidden” (Freud 4). And for Schelling, Freud notes, "'unheimlich' is the name for everything that ought to have remained… hidden and secret and has become visible” (3-4). The uncanny, then, is that which has always been present but has only suddenly surfaced—when it ought to have stayed out of sight.
Freud concludes (by way of interpretation of case studies and works of literature) that the kind of anxiety proper to uncanniness "can be shown to come from something repressed which recurs…. Irrespective of whether it originally aroused dread or some other affect” (13). Furthermore, "we can understand why the usage of speech has extended das Heimliche into its opposite das Unheimliche, for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old—established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression” (Freud 13). The uncanny, to summarize: is familiar because long-established in the mind; initially provoked some sort of affect; has been made strange by a “process of repression;” and recurs.
What is the repressed thing that recurs in the bathroom encounter I described above? I suspect that it is the genderless self—the self seen in the mirror or experienced in the body prior to the complex cultural work of repressing/producing any number of behaviors, attitudes, tastes, etc. associated with man-ness or woman-ness. Regardless of the "affect” this pre-gendered state may have caused in the subject, an androgynous presence in a gendered space causes the return to that state and is thus a source of anxiety, for it calls up a past that has existed for the subject in question. In this scenario, I become a sort of “double” (a figure Freud notes is often associated with uncanniness), a representative of what was once present in the subject, and that has suddenly emerged in her space. I connote a knowledge that had been there all along but had not until now been realized.
While Freud’s explanation of the uncanny is rooted in two somewhat universal notions of return (specifically, the return of a repressed cultural belief in animism and of anxiety associated with the castration-complex), the restroom encounter is rooted in very specific norms around gender performance and the gendered division of space. The encounter would not be so fraught were it not for the current gender norms in place that help us identify what counts as “man” or “woman” and the segregation of “men” and “women” in public restrooms (spaces which operate as one of many social settings that demand that we make those gender identifications). The encounter I have described shows how the repression of a pre-gendered state through the policing of gender and of spaces divided by gender produces a volatile climate. In this climate, a perceived gender transgression doesn’t merely produce a casual recognition of the possibility of difference that lies within oneself (a banal or perhaps even playful recognition of variance and one’s ability to occupy different roles at different times—“look! a biological female with short hair!”). Instead, it produces a terrified encounter within an other who challenges one’s own sense of bodily coherence and safety—an encounter that ends up with me being an object of terror and fascination, possibly threatened with physical violence, when all I wanted to do was wash my hands after touching the sweaty controls on the treadmill.