3 min

Gender free zone

A series of situations have got me thinking about spaces — overtly sexual or otherwise — that are segregated by gender. What does they say about us as a community? As a society?

Last spring a 21-year-old woman was asked to leave the patio of the Montreal leather bar Le Stud. She filed a human rights complaint, claiming that she’d been discriminated against on the basis of gender. The Quebec human rights commission mediated a settlement and although the details are unknown what’s clear is that, as far as the commission is concerned, it’s okay for a club to cater to men but not to the point where it denies women access.

In 2004 a trans person who presents as a woman was told she couldn’t use the men’s change room at the Central Y in Toronto. She says that regardless of how she looks she knows she’s a man and is more comfortable in the men’s-only areas than in the women’s-only areas. She too filed a human rights complaint on the basis of gender. It’s currently in mediation. (See Complicating Trans Access for more.)

About a month ago I checked out the regular Wednesday men’s porn party at Goodhandy’s with a couple of male friends. It was a fun time (and wow, do I have a newfound respect for male pornstars) but it was also a mite uncomfortable. I had gone expecting to be an outsider and a voyeur; I was ready for that. What I wasn’t ready for was flirtation directed at me by one of the performers. I felt as though I’d been disruptive without meaning to. After all I’d come to observe guys who were into guys, not to distract them.

On a subsequent Wednesday two female patrons stopped by the same party and wound up in the sex booths with one of the performers, causing a bit of a snit among patrons who apparently felt a line had been crossed. Since the incident Goodhandy’s owners say they’ll be instituting a similar policy during men’s sex events that they have when hosting women’s sex parties, letting patrons of the opposite (for lack of a better word) gender know at the door that, although they’re welcome to be there, the focus for the event is on same-gender action and that they’re asked to respect that. Booths will be reserved for same-sex shenanigans at the event.

Gender-segregated sex spaces are nothing new in the queer scene. The bathhouses don’t generally let in women. (I remember being at the open house of Steamworks just before it opened and being told by a staff person that my date and I were among a lucky few females to have set foot in the place and likely the last to ever do so.) Pussy Palace parties don’t let cissexual men in. When police sent in male officers to a women’s bathhouse event in 2000 the liquor-related charges resulting from the raid were tossed when a judge ruled that by sending in male officers the women’s rights had been violated by the investigation; that it amounted to the legal equivalent of a strip search.

I understand why women and trans people are keen to keep men out of spaces where they expect to be vulnerable, be it the bathhouse or one of the many female-only gyms. A large part of it relates to the perceived threat of sexual assault. It’s a powerful fear for many people, regardless of gender. Presumably it’s this threat that leads human rights commissions to defend women-only spaces while dismantling men-only spaces.

But what are the other reasons for gender segregation? What about wanting to revel in similarity? What about wanting to feel comfortable and free to just be ourselves?

What if we could accomplish that just by virtue of the fact that we’re all human?

In the case of the trans person in the change room the point has been made that the Y is a family institution. What if children saw someone with a penis and breasts?! Well, really, what would happen? Adults would have to explain to them that gender isn’t as simple as the world makes it out to be, which would mean admitting it to ourselves.

I’m not advocating for an end to gendered spaces, per se. I think they have a place. But I like to imagine a world where they’re just not that important. What would it mean for queers, or for society at large, if we were more comfortable being naked in front of each other? Or fucking in front of each other? I suspect we’d learn that we have a lot more in common than previously imagined.