On Stalling and Turning: A Wayward Genealogy for a Binary-Abolitionist Public Toilet Project

Susan Stryker considers concepts of transness in relation to spatial configurations, and imagines other arrangements of space, time, and social interaction.




      I have watched brown pelicans gliding serenely over the Pacific Ocean for hours on end. They offer a study in economy of motion: wings fixed, they surf the thermal currents circulating between sea and sky, skimming and soaring to scan subsurface waters for the schooling fish on which they feed. Suddenly, on high with prey in sight below, a bird will tilt its wings to stall, and hang midair for an astonishing instant of utter stillness. It tucks into a turn to fall like a dropped spear and vanish beneath the waves, only to reappear moments later with the pouch beneath its bill filled with the squirming life it swallows. However often I see this act repeated, it never fails to thrill me.



      The following vignettes offer a series of stalls and turns in reference to spatial imaginaries.



      I grew up in an active-duty military family. For three years, 1968–71, between the ages of seven and ten, we were stationed at Eastman Barracks, a small U.S. Army base that occupied much of the former grounds of the first Nazi concentration camp, in Dachau, which served as a template for all the camps that followed. One section of the old camp had become a memorial, and another served as housing for Turkish Gastarbiter, but the U.S. Army simply kept much of it for its own use in the post-war occupation of Europe. The base commander lived in the old Kommandant’s house, and officers lived in spacious two-story duplexes that members of the Waffen-SS had once called home while they trained their peers from throughout the Third Reich in the practical art of operating concentration camps. We lived with other enlisted men’s families in post-war apartment buildings, while single enlisted men lived in a barracks whose exterior still bore a bas relief of the Reichsadler, an eagle perched atop a wreath encircling a swastika. I came to know the base’s physical layout well through my first job, delivering the Stars and Stripes newspaper early every morning. Sometimes I sacked groceries for tips at the commissary. Sometimes I even got to stock the shelves, and loved using the sticker-gun to put prices on the cartons and cans. On such days, I was allowed to enter the cavernous warehouse area behind the retail space, where I could see the pallets of foodstuffs and household goods that had been unloaded at the dock. On other days, I could hop the fence that separated the army base from the memorial to visit the museum there and look at an old photograph of the same building the commissary now occupied. It showed piles of corpses unloaded onto pallets on the same dock where I stickered boxes of breakfast cereal.

      Living as a child on the former camp’s grounds introduced me to more than the blunt reality of the Holocaust’s reduction of living persons to ash and bone, though it did not supply me with names and concepts for what I encountered there. I learned by dwelling in and moving through a built space that had been organised in a particular way that beliefs and worldviews manifest in a spatial dimension, but that the architectonics of a given space are more fundamental than whatever programme activates it. I saw that a certain fungibility could pertain even between seemingly binarised opposites—Allies/Nazis, us/them, persons/things. I would go so far as to say, retroactively, that I recognised a relation between spatial schema and the imaginaries through which subjects and populations cohere—a floorplan, if you will, that obviates programmatic distinctions between liberal and fascist societies and orchestrates the necropolitical project that underlies sexology along with its eugenic and race-science kin.

      I ask myself: was this early capacity to recognise the capacity of any given organisation of space to accommodate a variety of programmes a consequence of my already self-aware sense of being trans?



      I’ve dabbled with a creative practice since the early 1990s: short fiction, spoken word, performance art, autotheory, digital media. My first slapdash and poorly documented wall-work, part of Jordy Jones’s 1995 Art.Crime group show at BUILD Gallery in San Francisco, was Transsexual Bridge City (figs. 1–3). My “crime” was the appropriation of architect Bernard Tschumi’s proposal for the revitalisation of the old industrial core of Lausanne, Switzerland, as published in his book Event-Cities.1 I was inspired not only by Tschumi’s insight into how the organisation of space generates some events and forecloses others, but in his sense of how to repurpose the circulation space of the bridges that characterise the built environment of the city’s uneven topography as spaces of occupation: a “cross-programming” of the functions of moving and dwelling that resonated for me with the phenomenology of transsexual embodiment. I overlaid an aerial view of the city with the schema of sexuality—the manufacturing zone of heterosexual reproduction delimited by the “primary transgender arterial” that sliced through the built environment and exceeded its frame—and suggested, through the appropriation of architectural concepts, transversal connections across scale between city planning and genital surgery.


Figure 1: From <i>Transsexual Bridge City</i>, Susan Stryker, 1995.
Figure 1: From Transsexual Bridge City, Susan Stryker, 1995.
Figure 2: From <i>Transsexual Bridge City</i>, Susan Stryker, 1995.
Figure 2: From Transsexual Bridge City, Susan Stryker, 1995.
Figure 3: From <i>Transsexual Bridge City</i>, Susan Stryker, 1995.
Figure 3: From Transsexual Bridge City, Susan Stryker, 1995.


      Later I discover Bernard Cache’s Earth Moves: The Furnishing of Territories, a work of Deleuzian architectural theory that likewise used the topography and built environment of Lausanne to develop a conceptual vocabulary of concrete abstractions for analysing movement and space: the inflection point between structure and ground; the frame of the structure as a selector of movement-images; the vector of moveable objects passing through the space.2 Through it, I grasped underlying similarities between architecture, embodiment, and cinema that enabled my own methodological turn toward film-making as another way of knowing.

      Spatial theory drawn from creative work played a direct role in my research into the subject of my first film, Screaming Queens, about Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of 1966, in which trans women, street queens, gay hustlers, and unsheltered street youth fought back against police oppression in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, at the corner of Turk and Taylor Streets.3 There was scant textual evidence of the event—no newspaper stories or television coverage, no primary documents such as police records—other than one substantive retrospective account published in 1972, and a few scattered and oblique hints in the gay and lesbian community press.

      In the absence of such evidence, I turned away from my training as an historian and turned toward an analysis of the built environment at the level of the city and the neighbourhood to understand how, as suggested by Tschumi, a city-space might generate an event. I came to understand how the Tenderloin became the city’s sex-work ghetto, how trans women facing employment and housing discrimination wound up living there and doing sex work, and how Compton’s Cafeteria functioned as a neighbourhood gathering spot for the trans women living in the SRO hotels clustered in a half-block radius around it. In doing so, I came to understand the structure of the urban environment as enabling of particular kinds of events, a theoretical insight that lent plausibility to the sole uncorroborated print-based account of the riot, and which allowed subsequent verification of it through community-based oral history research.



      How might the recent resurgence of transphobic feminism, which takes special aim at the phantasmatic figure of the trans woman as male sex predator stalking the sex-segregated “lady’s room” or public toilet, be approached as a spatial problem that informs practices of stalling and turning?

      Patricia Elliot and Lawrence Lyons offer an astute psychoanalytic reading of feminist transphobia as symptomatic of a particular structuring of feminine subjectivity.4 Symptoms speak truths that are not consciously or intentionally expressed; they are unconscious forms of knowledge that don’t know themselves as such, and hence are prone to perpetually repeat themselves. Like dreams and other formations of unconscious processes, symptoms “appear with a vividness that goes beyond typical representations of lived experience,” and express what Lacan called a “passion for ignorance” that protects the subject from a trauma that threatens to unmake it. The trans woman in the phobic feminist fantasy functions as a mask that covers a foundational wounding to which the fearful subject remains attached, from which she seeks to detach and heal, and who in failing to accomplish her own self-repair repeats the symptom of self-defensive transphobic attack. Following Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of anti-Semitism as a symptom of an unattainable fantasy of social purity that produces “the Jew” as its uncanny other, Elliot and Lyons read feminist transphobia as the symptom of a similarly unattainable fantasy that generates a caricature of the transwoman as its Golem-like double. They argue that the unmooring of symbolic categories of sex by those who cross its boundaries represents that which must be repressed if certain forms of wounded attachment to feminist womanhood are to be maintained.5

      The Lacanian theorist and clinician Oren Gozlan has written insightfully regarding how public discourse on transgender and transsexual issues plays out disproportionately in relation to the space of the gender-segregated public toilet, only to become “stalled on the stall” through the interference of transphobic fantasy.6 This stalled discourse, he contends, “reflects the fact that transsexuality continues to haunt us as a dilemma concerning the universal conundrum of sexual difference and gender identity as constituted through complex negotiations of psychic and sociosymbolic demands essential to our constitution as desiring, embodied subjects.” To the extent that “the presence of the transsexual in the bathroom reminds us that our bodies are not given, transparent,” or intrinsically legible, Gozlan continues, the public toilet becomes a productive space for playing out “phantasies of control and expulsion, abjection, anxiety, relief, anticipation, and hate,” as well as for understanding “the ways in which these unconscious resonances stall our capacity to think.”7

      Elliot and Lyon, as well as Gozlan, frame their understanding of transphobia in the sphere of the public toilet within the architectonic schema of sexual difference—that is, of taking a psychical position in relation to the question of difference posed by the Lacanian phallus—which the “urinary segregation” of the binary-gendered public toilet itself replicates and reproduces in the built environment. Transphobia, in this view, is the fear of confronting the Other that has crossed out of its proper place, and which thereby threatens to undo difference itself and thus unmake the subject. This fear is cathected onto the penis as phallus in a reactive fantasy that imagines penises in places that contradict the logic of sexual difference—on the otherwise feminine appearance of the trans woman, and in the presence of such bodies in the sex-segregated space of the women’s public toilet—which then inform the fear of rape as the ultimate manifestation of a penis-out-of-place. This, in spite of the lack of empirical instances of trans women or cross-dressed men preying on cisgender women and girls in sex-segregated public toilets.8



      The remainder of this article suggests how the transsexual promise of undoing difference might be actualised differently, in a nonphobic register, in ways that potentially decouple it from the schema of biopower that instrumentalises difference to create the hierarchies that maldistribute access to the means of life according to morphological imaginaries of sex and race. It turns in a different direction, and does so precisely by delinking the architectural floorplan of the public toilet from the architectonics of a psychical sex-binary. This is the sociopolitical project spatialised in the Stalled! binary-abolitionist public toilet redesign project.9

      Stalled! had its origin in 2015, when Joel Sanders, an architect in private practice in New York as well as a Professor of Practice at the Yale School of Architecture, reached out to rekindle our lapsed collegial relationship. Years earlier, while working on Screaming Queens and deep into my research on the urban geography of sexuality in San Francisco, we had met through our mutual involvement with the Arcus Endowment for the Study of Sexuality and the Built Environment at the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design. Joel had previously edited the anthology Stud: Architectures of Masculinity, and his architectural practice included designing nonheteronormative domestic spaces; he was as interested in queer, trans, and feminist theory as I was eager for a deeper engagement with architecture and spatial theory.10 We were each looking for ways to harness our personal and professional interests to social justice activisms we both cared about, and decided to collaborate on some project of mutual interest. Contentious and seemingly intractable public debates about “transgender toilets” were then flaring up in Houston, North Carolina, and elsewhere, and we noted how mainstream media coverage and public discourse did not address this issue from an architectural perspective. They focused on who should be allowed in which restroom, rather than on how the floorplan itself could be altered. We co-authored a short academic article for South Atlantic Quarterly and collaborated on an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, both of which proposed some preliminary solutions to the problems caused by sex-segregated public toilets, and we began actively researching even better designs.11 As a more ambitious project began to take shape through our collaboration, we brought on-board Terry Kogan, Professor of Law at University of Utah, for his legal expertise regarding anti-transgender discrimination regarding public toilet access.

      The concept of the gender-neutral public toilet is of course not original to the Stalled! project. The project’s distinctiveness lies in its theoretical motivations and research-driven design practice, in its conviction that innovative architecture can solve social problems, and in the actual spatial solutions being proposed. Moreover, Stalled! was envisioned from the outset as an opportunity for socio-political intervention through the development not just of a practical public toilet redesign, but of educational materials, professional best-practices guidelines, a replicable methodology for inclusive design research, and an activist campaign to remove barriers to gender-neutral public toilets from the International Plumbing Code.12

      In our public presentations at colleges and universities, we disseminated our research findings on the history of gender-segregated public toilets in the West, particularly in the United States.13 We quickly learned that such facilities are of surprisingly recent origin. Before the advent of indoor plumbing, there were chamber pots for use indoors, and privies or outhouses outdoors, neither of which were gender segregated. Privies for family homes were often communal, with different sized holes to accommodate larger or smaller bodies of adults and children. The first commercial building in the United States with indoor plumbing, the Tremont House hotel in Boston, built in 1829, had gender-segregated dining rooms and parlours for single ladies and gentlemen, but its public toilets were non-gender-specific rows of private single-user stalls with a common washing-up area.14 Gender-segregated public toilets were virtually unknown in the United States before the 1880s. Their proliferation at that time was due in part to rising numbers of women in the paid workforce and the need to accommodate the act of eliminating bodily waste without female workers having to leave the workplace. But the perceived desirability of sex/gender segregation was itself a reflection of nineteenth-century ideas among white elites about social progress, evolutionary theory, and the “sciences” of sex and race.15

      Well into the eighteenth century, a “one-sex” model of the human body found numerous adherents in Western European societies, with different genital shapes imagined as expressing greater or lesser degrees of perfection of a single paradigmatic body plan; i.e., the idea that the female was a less perfect version of the default-male human form. That paradigm had shifted markedly by the nineteenth century, when it became more common to think of men and women as practically two distinct kinds of biological creatures. This newly dominant binary model of biological sex merged with evolutionary theories to produce a socially powerful idea: that heightened sexual differentiation was a sign of evolutionary advancement. This discourse narrated a progression from “primitive” organisms that were either asexual or hermaphroditic, through many “lower” animals whose sex was not immediately apparent to untrained human observers, to “higher” forms of life, such as homo sapiens, that tended toward ever clearer and more highly specialised forms of sex-difference. The appearance of the “ladies’ room” in this context, in other words, was not just a way to speed the accumulation of capital through the more efficient exploitation of female industrial labour, nor simply a prudish Victorian strategy for protecting the refined sensibilities of the frailer and gentler sex; it was also thought to represent the progress of civilization and the perfection of the human race.16 The same beliefs about greater biological sex-differentiation being a sign of evolutionary progress that underpinned the emergence of the ladies’ room informed the racist logic underpinning the racial segregation of public toilets: doors marks “Men,” “Women,” and “Colored” displayed the obvious but unstated belief that sex-differentiation was a privilege of whiteness.


"They focused on who should be allowed in which restroom, rather than on how the floorplan itself could be altered."


      The development of sex-segregated public toilets materialised psychically fraught concepts of sexuated subjectivity, as well as deeply held and largely unacknowledged beliefs about the nature of the biological body and the relation of particular kinds of bodies to the collective body politic.17 It is thus no surprise that, as previously marginalised social groups have fought for the ability to take up space in the public sphere, those who feel threatened by or opposed to those groups have expressed their hostility to change by focusing their fears and resentments on the public toilet. In the 1950s and 60s, the abolition of “colored” restrooms was a prominent goal of the black Civil Rights Movement. In the 1970s, resistance to women’s liberation and opposition to passage of the Equal Rights Amendment generated a moral panic about “unisex toilets.” In the 1980s, during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, a similar panic emerged around the fear of infected gay men contaminating innocent heterosexual men by using the same public lavatories. Disability rights activists succeed in passing the American with Disabilities Act in 1990 only to encounter ongoing resistance to actually making public toilets more accessible to people who are not normatively able-bodied. In each instance, the public restroom, by virtue of it being a physical space, transformed an immaterial concern over embodied difference into a tangible peril, and became the setting for nightmarish fantasies of so-called “normal” citizens being compelled to physically interact with others whose mere presence in that space was considered a danger.

      In recent years, public restrooms have become the site of another moral panic sparked by the spectre of accommodating transgender and non-binary individuals. Transgender issues have exploded into greater visibility since the 1990s, and they approached a watershed in legal recognition and social acceptance in the United States during the final years of Obama’s presidency. A backlash to these developments began building around 2013, including numerous regressive measures related public toilet access, notably the “No on 1” campaign to repeal HERO, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance in 2015, and North Carolina’s notorious House Bill 2, in 2016. Since 2017, the Trump administration has rescinded Title IX protections for transgender students put forth by the Obama administration that mandated allowing them to use the toilet at their public schools that best matched their gender identity and expression, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the public-school toilet access case on behalf of Virginia high school student Gavin Grimm, which once had promised to settle the question of formal legal equality for transgender citizens. With a fresh wave of “religious liberty” bills, laws seeking to criminalise supportive medical services for transgender youth and bar them from athletic competitions, and regressive policies on bureaucratic name and gender change sweeping the country as of 2020, the future does not look bright for the recognition and accommodation of transgender people as an identifiable minority. All the more reason, then, to advance another strategy for addressing social justice concerns.18



      The so-called “debates” about transgender access to sex-segregated public restrooms are intractable precisely because, as suggested above, they are not rational—rather, they are enmeshed with psychical defenses against confronting sexual difference, which become powerful ideological props for sustaining the racist and sexist inequalities necessary for the accumulation of capital through the exploitation of racially and sexually hierarchised bodies. The Stalled! project attempts to intervene in this situation not by crafting a better argument for equality and access, or by offering psychotherapy to people whose ability to encounter the actually existing diversity of the world is limited by fear of an unreal threat, but by materially reorganising the space of the restroom. It reconfigures the relationship between public and private in ways that can feel less threatening and more engaging, while also abolishing barriers based on binaries that can result in harm not just to transgender bodies but to cisgender women and girls, as well as many kinds of people whose bodies are “noncompliant,” either willfully or unavoidably, with discriminatory social norms.

      The first step of our design process was to examine the most common approach to implementing all-gender restrooms—the single-user solution. It supplements existing sex-segregated restroom with a single-occupancy bathroom labelled gender-neutral. Although a step in the right direction, the single user solution has two drawbacks. It naturalises the gender binary by separating “men” and “women” in two rooms, which reinforces the essentialist notion of gender identity and expression as an effect of biology, and segregates all difference from dominant binary form into a supplemental third-space. In doing so, it subjects those with bodies that do not conform to dominant notions of embodiment—not only trans and gender-nonconforming people but also people with disabilities—to a “separate but equal” logic that is never equal, and which contributes to social isolation and stigma. Although a well-intentioned alternative to sex-segregated multi-user public toilets, the single user restroom is not sufficient to the need.

      Stalled! therefore advocates an alternative multi-user solution that treats the restroom as a single open space, replacing the typical stalls whose revealing gaps compromise privacy with floor-to-ceiling partitions and communal areas for washing and grooming. This solution has the advantage of consolidating a greater number of people in one rather than two rooms, so that users can create a more populated and diverse “commons” that reduces the risk of violence, while ensuring that gender-nonconforming people aren’t stuck between two options that don’t align with their identities. It better meets the needs of trans and non-binary people while also increasing access for a wide range of non-normative bodies traditionally neglected in public restrooms: caregivers of different genders than those they care for, the elderly, people who are nursing, parents with small children of a different gender, religious minorities in need of spaces for ritual cleansing, people needing privacy to self-administer medication or attend to health needs, and people with disabilities or non-typical bodies. Rather than focus on gender alone, Stalled! uses transgender issues, and the concept of “binary abolitionism,” as a point of departure for a much broader reimagining of the public sphere.

      Stalled! has developed a public toilet design that takes existing multi-user approaches a step further by addressing not just the sex/gender binary, but the relationship of public/private, by changing the placement of walls and partitions (fig. 4). Drawing inspiration from pre-nineteenth century historical precedents, we reconceived restrooms as animated communal spaces that promote social interaction between a spectrum of differently embodied people. Our prototype for high-traffic areas such as airports eliminates all walls and partitions except one: the toilet stall. We begin by removing the existing plumbing stack wall, and treat the bathroom as one non-gendered open space. Then we eliminate the corridor wall to make the bathroom a porous extension of the corridor. Farthest from the corridor, we add blocks of fully enclosed stalls of three sizes: standard, ambulatory, and ADA-compliant, as well as caregiving rooms equipped with toilet, sink, and changing tables that allow for caregiving between people of different genders. Those who want privacy can retreat into alcoves for breastfeeding, administering medical procedures such insulin injections, meditation, and prayer. We next add communal grooming and washing areas off the main circulation path. The public restroom thereby becomes an open, agora-like precinct adjacent to the main concourse that is animated by three parallel activity zones, dedicated respectively to grooming, washing, and eliminating.



Figure 4: Stalled! Gender Neural Public Toilet Project, design concept for high-traffic areas such as airports. Image: Courtesy Stalled! Project.
Figure 4: Stalled! Gender Neural Public Toilet Project, design concept for high-traffic areas such as airports. Image: Courtesy Stalled! Project.



      Within this basic spatial layout, we needed to address further design elements. Our challenge was to find a shared lexicon of materials, lighting, and technologies that would allow various user groups to mingle freely in public space, while promoting safety and hygiene. In response, we developed a rubric for implementing a more widely applicable inclusive design research methodology (fig. 5). Three factors guided our design decisions:

1) way-finding: devising systems that use colour, texture, and lighting in lieu of signage alone to help people with physical and sensory disabilities navigate public space.

2) ergonomics: integrating shared elements like counters at different heights that encourage social mixing.

3) culture: making design decisions that enhance physical and psychological well-being to counteract culturally learned feelings of embarrassment and shame that bathrooms can evoke in users.



Figure 5: Stalled! Gender-Neutral Public Toilet Project, Research Methodology. Image: Courtesy Stalled! Project.
Figure 5: Stalled! Gender-Neutral Public Toilet Project, Research Methodology. Image: Courtesy Stalled! Project.



      The outcome of this design process was to propose slip-resistant sheets of diamond plate, tile, and rubber to differentiate the three activity zones for eliminating, washing, and grooming, and to paint each a different shade of the same colour as a guide for the visually impaired. After debating the merits of different colour options, we chose blue based on research that indicates that it is soothing; is associated with water, health, and hygiene; and supplies a complementary background colour for deaf signing because it contrasts with skin tones. Locating the toilet stalls into consolidated rows at the back of the facility offers the greatest possible acoustic and visual privacy for acts of eliminating bodily waste. Each stall has a recessed floor light that turns on when entered and turns off when exited, to allow users to see if stalls are occupied. From inside each stall, users can observe their surroundings by looking through a blue, one-way mirror band located at seated eye-level. Stalls contain low-flush composting toilets that treat human waste through aerobic decomposition, with self-raising seats that mitigate accidental or inconsiderate urination on seating surfaces by users who stand to urinate. Inset floor lights indicate the location of motion-activated faucets in the washing area, where water flows into inclined splash planes placed at different ergonomic heights, which is then collected and cleaned in a bio-remediating planter before being recycled. The scent of plants and the ambient sounds of flowing water helps mask bodily odours and sounds. The overall effect is that, as users circulate from one activity zone to the next, passing from the outermost grooming station to the innermost toilet wall and back again, they experience a multi-sensory gradient that takes them from public to private, open to closed, smooth to coarse, dry to wet, acoustically reverberant to sound absorptive, ambient to spot lighting. By taking transgender embodiment as a point of departure, and binary abolitionism as a principle, our spatial design process culminated in new formal and material possibilities for reimagining and reconfiguring public space in a way that increases the common good.



Figure 6: Public Toilet, Helsinki Public Library, 2020. Photo: Susan Stryker.
Figure 6: Public Toilet, Helsinki Public Library, 2020. Photo: Susan Stryker.


      March 17, 2020. As of today, when I complete the first draft of this article, I had left the United States exactly two weeks earlier, on March 3, for a long-planned nine-day trip to Helsinki, Finland; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Tallinn, Estonia, during my spring break at Yale University, where I am a visiting professor team-teaching an architecture seminar on “Non-Compliant Bodies” with my colleague Joel Sanders. At the time of my departure from the U.S., the COVID-19 pandemic seemed like something about which to remain alert, but which still seemed half a world away. During my trip, I spoke to packed lecture halls, returned the hugs and hand-shakes of well-wishers, enjoyed socialising with friends and colleagues, ate out, took public transit, and explored places I hadn’t visited before. It was cosmopolitan life as usual. In Helsinki, I was delighted to patronise the gender-neutral public restroom in the public library, which implements many of the design recommendations that emerged from the Stalled! project (fig. 6). Today, only two weeks later, the sense of “public” itself has radically changed. Social distancing, not social mixing, is most in need of a design solution. The mayor of New York, where I’ve lived this past year, announced earlier this morning that the city should brace for economic conditions on par with those of the Great Depression, while the New York Times is calling for an emergency popular mobilisation on par with the efforts of World War II. The city I call my home, San Francisco, issued a “shelter in place” directive yesterday. And yet, even today, my twitter-feed is being trolled by TERFs and “gender critical” feminists who think it’s dreadfully important to tell me that I am a man.

      On March 16, 2020, London’s Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team, in coordination with the World Health Organization and other expert research units, issued a report suggesting that, if left to run its course unchecked, the pandemic could claim approximately 2.2 million lives in the United States, while with more drastic forms of suppression—the likes and lengths of which would be historically unprecedented—there would still likely be tens or hundreds of thousands of untimely deaths. The report concluded with this sombre statement:

      However, we emphasise that is not at all certain that suppression will succeed long term; no public health intervention with such disruptive effects on society has been previously attempted for such a long duration of time. How populations and societies will respond remains unclear.19

      I had to read it twice to catch the typo—the omission of “it” in the first line between “that” and “is.” After having spent so much time in recent days thinking in a psychoanalytic mode, I couldn’t help but see the uncorrected slip as parapraxis, a telling misperformance with an unconscious root. It: Pronomial stand-in for nothing in particular and everything in general as subject of the verb whose infinitive form is to be. Did the text stall at the word that would refer to this moment of existence, finding it unutterable? Did it remain unwritten because thought had nowhere left to turn?



      My thoughts return to the pelicans hanging over the Pacific Ocean, poised mid-air in preparation for their hungry corkscrew dive, their plunge figuring for me my sense of gender transness: of stalling in relation to the question of sexual difference, of turning not in fear of my own dissolution but rather in anticipation of moving along a different axis to traverse new phases of mattering, transitioning from a social atmosphere in surrender to a liqueous abyss that can hold no stable line and thus become a space of transformation—a necessary yet unbreathable space, hostile to one’s survival, where one might nevertheless retrieve a life that sustains a life even as death passes through it.

      Transness as a concept makes sense only in relation to a spatial configuration upon which the logic of the term depends: it requires difference and separation as a precondition of its transversal operations, even as it demonstrates how other arrangements—other floorplans, not just of sex and gender but of space and time and sociality—are possible. To figure new bodies and patterns of movement, to craft space in ways that transform relations with others, is a technical problem of design and engineering; to unleash desire for a collective life that might carry us across the fear of our own undoing is by far the harder challenge, but it is the challenge of our times.




The author wishes to thank Jeanne Vaccaro and Joan Lubin for the initial invitation to present a version of this paper at The Sexological Floorplan symposium, University of California-Davis, April 25, 2018. Thanks as well to the two anonymous peer reviewers whose comments helped strengthen connections between the different vignettes. Finally and especially, thanks to my colleagues on the Stalled! Project Joel Sanders, Terry Kogan, and Seb Choe, for the snippets of collaboratively authored text revised and incorporated into portions of this article.


Susan Stryker is Professor Emerita of Gender and Women’s Studies. Since retiring from University of Arizona, she has been Presidential Fellow and Visiting Professor of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University (2019–20), Barbara Lee Distinguished Chair in Women’s Leadership, Mills College (2020–22), and Marta Sutton Weeks External Faculty Fellow, Stanford University Humanities Institute (2022–23). She continues to serve as executive editor of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, and as co-editor of the Duke University Press book series ASTERISK: gender, trans-, and all that comes after. She is the author of Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution (2008, 2017), co-editor of the two-volume Transgender Studies Reader (2006, 2013) and The Transgender Studies Reader Remix (2022), as well as co-director of the Emmy-winning documentary film Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (2005). She is currently working to complete her book manuscript, Changing Gender (under contract to Farrar Straus Giroux), and developing a variety of film and television projects.




1. Bernard Tschumi, Event-Cities.

2. Bernard Cache, Earth Moves.

3. Screaming Queens (dir. Victor Silverman and Susan Stryker, 2005).

4. Patricia Elliot and Lawrence Lyons, “Transphobia as Symptom.”

5. All quotes from Elliot and Lyons, 359–60.

6. Oren Gozlan, “Stalled on the Stall.”

7. All quotes from Gozlan, “Stalled on the Stall,” 452–53.

8. Katy Steinmetz, “Bathroom ‘Predators.’”


10. Joel Sanders, Stud.

11. Susan Stryker, “Everybody Poops;” Sanders and Stryker, “Stalled: Gender Neutral Public Toilets.”

12. Much of the text that follows on the Stalled! project is adapted from the project website,, collaboratively written and produced by Joel Sanders, Susan Stryker, Terry Kogan, and Seb Choe.

13. Stalled,

14. Elizabeth Yuko, “The Glamorous, Sexist History of the Women’s Restroom Lounge.”

15. Terry S. Kogan, Sex-Separation in Public Restrooms.

16. Kyla Schuller, Biopolitics of Feeling.

17. See Sheila Cavanagh, Queering Bathrooms.

18. Susan Stryker, “Bathroom Politics,” on

19. Neil Ferguson, et al., “Impact.”



Cache, Bernard. Earth Moves: The Furnishing of Territories. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.

Cavanagh, Sheila L. Queering Bathrooms. Toronto, CA: University of Toronto Press, 2010.

Elliot, Patricia and Lawrence Lyons. “Transphobia as Symptom: Fear of the ‘Unwoman.’” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017.

Ferguson, Neil M., et al. “Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID-19 mortality and healthcare demand.” Imperial College Covid-19 Response Team. London, March 16 2020,

Gozlan, Oren. “Stalled on the Stall: Reflections on a Strained Discourse.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017.

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A version of this essay previously appeared as Susan Stryker, “On Stalling and Turning: A Wayward Genealogy for a Binary-Abolitionist Public Toilet Project” in Social Text vol. 39, no. 3, pp. 37–54. Copyright 2021, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder, and the Publisher.




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