Drawing on personal teaching experiences, this pedagogical reflection asks whether a “pedagogy of access” might connect various strands of trans, disability, and critical race teaching methodologies. Such a pedagogical practice centers questions of nonnormative embodiment and histories of inclusion/exclusion from academic spaces within “trans” instructional praxis.
“I mean, I guess a wheelchair could fit in here,” one of my students says to a classmate, swinging open the wide door of the single bathroom, “I don't know. How big are wheelchairs? Aren't we supposed to be talking about wheelchairs?” There is a pause; her classmates fidget but remain silent. It's 5 p.m., right after class on a winter Wednesday, and all eight of the students in my Transgender Politics and Community Activism course are crowded in front of a brand-new gender-inclusive bathroom. We're on the first floor of a mixed-use academic/university housing building, the same building that houses the office from which I had received permission to design and teach this small “engaged-learning” class.1 On this particular evening, which marked the official beginning of their self-designed project to map gender-inclusive bathrooms and assess their accessibility, my students have suddenly discovered that they are unsure how to define “access.”
On one hand, my students are familiar with disability issues; fully half identify themselves as people with disabilities, while only a quarter of my students (and I) identify as trans or gender nonconforming. On the other hand, the logic of bathroom accessibility on the project's gendered axis—is this bathroom marked “men”/“women” or not—seems to have created a false sense that assessing accessibility on an ability axis will likewise be binary: is this bathroom marked with the familiar person-in-wheelchair logo or not? It is this initial encounter with the built environment that creates fissures in this logic; in order to map which gender-inclusive bathrooms are accessible to people with a variety of potential disabilities, my students realize that they need to start asking different questions.
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My students are certainly not the first to experience the complexities of working at the nexus of transgender and disability theories and activism. A glance through the inaugural issue of TSQ (Currah and Stryker 2014) shows a sustained and multifaceted concern with disability: Elisa A. G. Arfini (2014) on “Transability,” micha cárdenas (2014) on “Sick,” Trystan T. Cotton (2014) on “Surgery,” Justus Eisfeld (2014) on “International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems,” and Jasbir K. Puar (2014) on “Disability”; these are just a few of the “key concepts” for transgender studies that specifically concern this intersection. Fully six years before TSQ, Disability Studies Quarterly had already published an article on “the threads of commonality in transgender studies” (Mog 2008). On the issue of bathroom politics alone, both nonacademic pieces such as “Calling All Restroom Revolutionaries” and “Dear Austin Special Needs Bathroom” and academic book chapters by Alison Kafer and Isaac West have discussed how “peeing is political” for both trans people and people with disabilities (Chess et al. 2006; Florez 2010; Kafer 2013; West 2014). Indeed, my students appreciated the rich critical turn toward trans and disability studies. Encountering these texts allowed students to blend the physical labor of trudging from bathroom to bathroom during a record-cold Michigan winter with new theoretical understandings of privacy, medicalization, and embodiment.
Our reading of “Calling All Restroom Revolutionaries,” which includes an expansive checklist for assessing restroom accessibility at the end of the essay, was especially generative. Checklist questions such as “Is [the toilet paper holder] too far from the toilet to reach without losing one's balance?” not only brought up specific metrics of accessibility that my students and I had not yet considered but also productively destabilized students' confidence that they could adequately assess whether a built environment was accessible (Chess et al. 2006: 204). “Whose balance is the standard?” my students wondered: just because we might not lose our balance while testing the toilet paper, that doesn't meant that someone who is shorter-statured, or whose body might shake without warning, wouldn't lose balance. Eventually, student frustration at not being able to clearly determine whether a space was “accessible” or “inaccessible” (as one might determine, based on signage, that a restroom was or was not “gendered”) began to give way to conversations about normative embodiment, bodily diversity, and “compulsory able-bodiedness” (McRuer 2006). As students moved into and within strange bathrooms and asked themselves whether people with different bodies could also perform those movements, they seemed to become more and more convinced that such questioning and guesswork was simultaneously productive and inadequate. In doing so, they gained the ability to “challenge [the] cultural logic … that believes that ‘the physical body is the site of identic intelligibility,’” a challenge that A. Finn Enke (2012: 75), quoting Elaine Ginsberg (1996), defines as central to both disability and trans theories.
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In broader local and national contexts, however, the intellectual and practical struggles around accessibility and bathrooms take on a new valence; what is the role of gender-inclusive restrooms inside academic buildings or local coffee shops when so many people (including, of course, trans and disabled people) are being turned away at the academy's front door? Embedded within the question of physical access is always the question of social access. This is, of course, a key tenet of disability activism and theory, and an idea that my students grappled with directly as they attempted to define “accessibility” for the purposes of their bathroom-mapping project. However, when one situates the project of bathroom mapping within the larger context of the neoliberal university, the scope and the stakes of “accessibility” are inseparable from issues of race and class. Although one subgroup of students did explore and map gender-inclusive and “accessible” bathrooms in various off-campus locations, including those not necessarily primarily patronized by students, most of those locations still cater toward a generally wealthier and whiter demographic than would be present in the rest of Southeast Michigan. Most of the bathroom mapping did indeed take place on campus, whose most recently distributed demographics report the percentage of students whose family income is more than $200,000 per year at 22.4% (University of Michigan Student Affairs Research 2008). Additionally, I taught Transgender Politics and Community Activism during the same term that students of color, Black students in particular, were mobilizing against racist and exclusionary treatment by both university policies and their white classmates (Amron and Bryan 2014). Constant micro- and macroaggressions create barriers for students of color to equitable access to all university and community environments, not just restrooms. Furthermore, as Nirmala Erevelles (2000) has argued, educational systems in the United States have long used “tracking” practices in elementary and secondary schools, which use the language of ability and disability to restrict educational access for poor students and students of color. These are concerns that my course did not—to its detriment—take as its primary object of analysis, although we did discuss the parallel activist movements occurring on campus and the role of the university in the gentrification of its surrounding neighborhoods.
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What questions of embodiment, gender, and ability become salient when critical trans and disability studies pedagogies consider issues of access—both physical access and social access—as central concerns? I can imagine an engaged-learning course of the type that my students and I participated in this past winter, in which students design and implement a community-engagement project related to issues such as gender or ability, but one that is less attached to an identitarian framework than my course (Transgender Politics). As students begin to understand nonnormative bodies as having shifting and complex needs, shapes, abilities, and desires, an instructor might bridge those understandings to structural questions about who benefits from normativity's being the precondition of access itself. Thus the answer to my student's question—doesn't “access” mean we're supposed to be talking about wheelchairs?—is both yes and no. A critical trans/disability pedagogy might invite students to see questions of nonnormative embodiment as coextensive with questions of fundamental educational in/exclusions, to see bathroom politics on campus as part of a pattern of university-enforced hierarchies. A thematic focus on “access” as a critical lens offers a way to explore new forms of resistant pedagogies, while still retaining attention to the specific needs—peeing included—of trans subjects.
My class was designed in collaboration with the local nonprofit organization Transgender Michigan. My students and I later collaborated with the on-campus organization Trans*Form. Thank you to Rachel Crandall and Susan Crocker of Transgender Michigan for guiding the initial phases of the project, a member of Trans*Form for creating the project's primary digital infrastructure, and Denise Galarza Sepúlveda and Matthew Countryman for their pedagogical mentorship. This essay is dedicated to the memory of Tobin Siebers.
1. An “engaged-learning” course at the University of Michigan combines traditional coursework with work involving communities outside the university.