How many of us have paruresis and don’t like to acknowledge it? That is not really a terrible disease, but quite a common condition, also called ‘pee-shyness’. It is the anxiety, ranging from mild to terrible, about having to ‘go’ in a public bathroom. The toilet in the office, or the theatre, or the shopping mall, is one of those spaces in which the private and the public come into skin-crawling conflict — at least for some. For those afflicted with paruresis, all the associations with an acutely intimate, bodily act are, so to speak, left vulnerable to other people’s sensations — hearing, smell — if not, in exclusively men’s bathrooms, sometimes even to partial view. The public toilet is a particularly sensitive place, and it is no wonder that it is the first example of public architecture that the Supreme Court has mentioned as part of the visible changes that must take place now that the third gender has been legally recognized in India.
There is here, however, an intriguing contradiction between means and ends. The end is to “contain or embrace different gender identities and expressions” that Indian society has hitherto failed to do, which “moral failure” the court aims to set right. Yet the physical token of that containing and embracing is through segregation — the merged or invisible identity can be made visible only by marking it out. That, also, is the only acceptable way from the point of view of human rights, which is the approach that the court has adopted. Only by being given separate spaces — imaginably in hospitals, prisons and similar gender-marked areas as public bathrooms — can people who are “self-identified” as third gender be free from violence and abuse, and can retain their dignity.
There is no flaw here in realistic reasoning. But segregation is a dubious instrument even when used for the best of purposes. The court has given a wide and wise definition of the third gender, using it as an umbrella term for the numerously shaded sexual identities that differ from the hetero-normative. Among these are many that ‘choose’, as the judgment suggests, to be women, or men, even if their biological sex disagrees. Or they just enjoy dressing like the opposite sex. Would a ‘third gender bathroom’ do for all?
Except for bathrooms for differently-abled people, is there a need for separate public toilets for different sexes at all? As far as biological functions are concerned, not really. There are gender-neutral bathrooms in many public places, but these are often not very popular unless they are single-user ones. The reasons are cultural and psychological rather than biological. A lot of women feel vulnerable and scared because a private bodily act has to be executed behind flimsy partitions in the closed-in proximity of strange men. Neither do they feel comfortable using the mirror in such a situation. But there is an even more primal desire for distance between men and women when they have to ‘go’ in a social or public situation. A common bathroom carries the threat of an unwanted physical ‘knowledge’ that is disgusting rather than attractive. To put it politely, it is embarrassing.
So, in spite of gender-neutral bathrooms, it is often segregation that helps create the feeling of confidence, safety and security. The problem is, theoretical anomalies have a tendency to strike from the flank. How far can segregation be logically pushed? It is no longer possible to ignore the elephant in the room. Self-chosen identities cannot be divorced from performance; the judgment advocates freedom of expression in action and behaviour as well dress and words. The numerous varieties of sexual identity would have an equal number of varieties of sexual preference, notwithstanding Section 377: how many bathrooms would we need? Perhaps it would be far smarter — and politically correct — to just be cool and civilized and have gender- neutral bathrooms after all.
The unfortunates with paruresis would suffer anyway.