Sunday, 23 January 2011

This one's taken

For a while in the late nineties, Ally McBeal managed to perfectly capture the zeitgeist for modern career women. OK, so not everyone fantasised about CGI babies and worked over a bar where Sting and Barry White would drop in for a quick sing-song. But like her UK counterpart Bridget Jones, Ally bravely tackled issues of romance, dating and career progression in a frothy, lighthearted way.

Despite the many moral issues that David E Kelley's scripts addressed during its five-season run, one of the most contentious elements of show was the concept of the unisex bathroom. Used primarily as the set-up for several thousand repeats of the same joke (character speaks out of turn about someone else, followed by whip-zoom to reveal them in the bathroom mirror), the idea of a communal toilet inspired heated debate. Would you be happy 'dropping the kids off at the pool' within earshot of colleagues of both sexes?

Male and female bathrooms used to be a no-brainer, but now the world is starting to recognise some of the inherent complexities in the concept. For instance, when faced with two doors, which one should a transsexual choose?

This is an issue that's long been debated in the US, with advocates on both sides of the political spectrum arguing their respective cases. Conservatives have, somewhat predictably, managed to conflate gender-identity with sexual deviance, and built up a series of dubious arguments that a male-female transsexual using the little girls' room might actually put little girls in danger. But if they can't use the women's room, and it would seem odd for them to wander into the men's room, where on Earth are they supposed to go? Is it better for them to just hitch up their skirt and piss in the street?

In Brazil, a leading samba dance school has attempted to tackle this thorny topic by creating a third toilet for gay and transgender dancers, and according to media reports, they're not the first to do so. But even though it sounds like the school was well-intentioned in creating a 'safe space', not everybody is happy about the new arrangement.

Claudio Nascimento, who heads up Rio's state council on LGBT rights, referred to the new facilities as 'carnival apartheid' and suggested that they encourage homophobia. However, some of the transgendered dancers are grateful to have a more convenient convenience, as Karina Kara told news reporters: "There are things that we want to do in a men's room, or female, and don't feel comfortable. A gay bathroom will be wonderful, because we will be able to do what we want." Well, re-beading a headdress or bedazzling a thong does require a little extra elbow room.

Unfortunately, in situations like this, there's really no right or wrong answer. When people refer to the 'struggle for equal rights', we should remember that it's not just the oppressed who are struggling. Sometimes, even a well-meaning gesture can be misinterpreted by a thankless community.

So until we're all grown up enough to take a leaf out of Ally McBeal's book ("Living on 400 Calories A Day") and use a communal bathroom, we're going to have to make some tough choices.

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