Scarred by the memory of slavery, the United States is attacking all forms of discrimination… including in restrooms!
Americans maintain an open relationship with the body and its functions that we in Europe do not have: We prefer discretion and they, exhibition. During my first visit to the United States in 1962, when Greyhound buses allowed me to crisscross the country, I discovered that the restrooms in the bus stations had no doors. Still today, unlike in Europe, there are not enclosed spaces but half-doors as in a saloon that leave a person open to view. This week I encountered a new manifestation of this transatlantic distinction that illustrates my point. During a recess at New York University, where I sometimes teach, I had the greatest difficulty recognizing the entry to the facilities.
Where once the doors made it possible to separate men and women, the ordinary and universal signs had been replaced by incomprehensible hieroglyphics, of a kind to make one lose one’s gender and one’s way. Sensing my disorientation, a student translated the new language, which is that of the LGBTQ community: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer. The upshot is that every individual is now authorized to choose the door that corresponds, no longer to the sex that nature assigned to him or her, but the gender with which he or she identifies. In New York, no one seems to make much of this new freedom of choice. This is not the case in the South, where the war of the restrooms rages.
In North Carolina there is a law prohibiting the recognition of LGBTQ signs on the doors of public restrooms, an issue that divides the public and provokes contending boycotts and demonstrations. Many politically correct national businesses have pulled out of this state charged with sexist racism, and many cultural events have been canceled. Will the LGBTQ interest groups prevail against the conservatives? We do not yet know. More recently, the battle has moved to Texas. It may well be possible to find an intermediate solution, such as opening a third door where there are now only two, since the number of the concerned population is modest, but the controversy concerns symbolism more than reality. Donald Trump, unsurprisingly, has got involved by announcing that transgender people are barred from serving in the military. It is only since the Clinton presidency that openly gay people have been accepted in the armed forces.
This controversy would amount to nothing more than an exotic anecdote if it were not part of a long American history of discrimination and anti-discrimination. U.S. society is haunted by the memory of slavery, and thus anything that takes the form of exclusion immediately mobilizes defenders of minorities, however small they might be, against conservatives who are considered racist. This battle plays out more on the terrain of moral and legal rights than of politics, given that elected officials prefer not to be caught between equally intransigent parties. Thus, even though Barack Obama hardly favored the legalization of homosexual marriage himself, the Supreme Court affirmed it as a right because its lawyers astutely made it a question of discrimination. In Europe, the decision was made by legislators, not by judges. The Supreme Court, despite its conservative majority, could do nothing in the face of this argument. The same will certainly be true when a case involving LGBTQ rights reaches the court. Once again, the number of those who consider themselves victims of discrimination does not matter; one person is sufficient if he or she can demonstrate victimhood, since absolute equality of status is a constitutional religion in the United States.
We Europeans might smile, but we would no doubt be wrong. The rights of the elderly and people with handicaps were born in the United States before spreading to our continent, and they are still better guaranteed in the U.S.A. than in Europe. In a different but related register, the prohibition of smoking was also born in the United States, because non-smokers were recognized as passive victims of smokers, which amounts to discrimination. The legalization of marijuana, which is prevailing in one state after another in America, is also based on the battle against discrimination: Ethnic minorities who use marijuana are more often arrested by the police than are white people.
There is little risk, then, in betting that LGBTQ hieroglyphs will soon replace the distinctive signs on our restroom doors in Europe. It should be noted that gender historians trace the first separated toilets to a ball in Paris in 1739. On then to the next battle, since there will always be some minority we hadn’t previously thought of who will consider themselves victims of discrimination. In the past we celebrated heroes, but now everyone claims the status of victim. This race to victimization may appear excessive, or even comical, but it has the virtue of harming no one and giving satisfaction to a few.
Op-ed published in the September 2017 issue of France-Amérique.