It may seem that the transgender bathroom controversy has been covered from every angle, yet one suggestive angle—an acute angle, to be precise—has received relatively little attention.
This angle juts out from the side, but only one side, of the humanoid figure found on one popular gender-neutral bathroom sign. This half-skirt, half-pants pictogram features a disorienting mix of the familiar and the foreign. It relies on a visual signifier we’ve grown accustomed to seeing and seeking out in public spaces for decades, but it radically modifies that signifier, rendering it perplexing in its novelty. The transgender restroom sign reveals a fundamental tension within the new gender ideology: a tension between deconstructivist and constructivist impulses. With this restroom signage in particular, we find an attempt to deconstruct and yet simultaneously construct a stable sign for gender and sexuality.
It turns out that many friends of the transgender movement have been at a loss to express their hospitality on the restroom doors of their shops and restaurants. A number of forums and message boards exist where the semiotics of “inclusive” bathroom signage have been under negotiation. Keeping up with the ever-expanding lexicon of the LGBT movement is demanding enough; finding reliable visual signifiers beyond rainbow stripes is proving even more challenging. But some designs have emerged as top sellers in the expanding market for transgender restroom signs. The half-skirt, half-pants pictogram is selling well, not only as a literal sign to affix to the restroom but also as the symbol for the ideological movement more generally. The pop star Demi Lovato (about whose existence I have just learned) performed at Sunday’s Billboard Music Awards donning a bedazzled black shirt emblazoned with the transgendered figure, in solidarity with the protest of North Carolina’s HB2 law.
Some members of the LGBT movement have voiced dissatisfaction with this image, however. They recognize quite rightly that it doesn’t have any natural sign value, and that, in the words of one blogger, it “sends the wrong message.” Here we find gender dysphoria extending to the semiotic field.
It should not be surprising that the new gender ideology struggles with structuralism. Where fluidity reigns, it is difficult to create stable signs that unite the signified (the meaning intended) with a signifier (the image itself). For pre-Derridian hermeneutics, textual and visual signs have been understood to communicate something about reality. Smoke really signifies something: the presence of fire. And signs have the power to shape reality. A driver who ignores stop signs will learn this truth promptly, and painfully.
The half-skirt, half-pants mash-up is an empty signifier. It neither corresponds to nor captures lived reality. But this empty signifier is, paradoxically, quite meaningful in another sense: It is an efficacious sign of the inefficacy and incoherence of the gender ideology it is trying to represent. As those within the ideological movement are finding, it is much easier to break down than to build up.
Jordan Zajac, O.P., is a Dominican brother of the Province of St. Joseph and a summer intern at First Things.