The Great Maine Bathroom Case: Contesting Sex Segregation and Gender Regulation in America

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Ruhsam, Jonatha Jeanine
Graduate Program:
American Studies
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
August 09, 2016
Committee Members:
  • John Rogers Haddad, Dissertation Advisor
  • John Rogers Haddad, Committee Chair
  • Charles David Kupfer, Committee Member
  • Anthony Buccitelli, Committee Member
  • Kamini Grahame, Outside Member
  • American Studies
  • gender
  • sex segregation
  • gender crossing
  • transgender
  • liberal democracy
  • third gender
  • L. Frank Baum
  • Matilda Joselyn Gage
  • Alexis de Tocqueville
  • Nicole Maines
  • Wayne Maines
  • bathroom bills
  • gender regulation
  • gender binary
  • heteronormativity
The Great Maine Bathroom case is the fictional name I assigned to a series of lawsuits and appeals that were contested in the state of Maine from 2008 through 2014. They were brought by a young elementary school child who was blocked from using the girl’s bathroom because she was a transgender girl. For all social intents and purposes the plaintiff was a girl, but her pre-pubescent genital anatomy, if examined, was contradictory. When the case reached the state’s Supreme Court it marked the first time that any high court in the nation was asked to decide whether gender, or sex, was to be the determinant for admission to a sex-segregated space. Among the many issues the case opened for interrogation was the long history and practice of sex-segregation in (post-discovery) America and its reflexive function in shaping the nation’s socio-political ideology. I use a narrative of the case to provide intellectual portals into this and other problems related to the ways the sex/gender system operates to provide and maintain hierarchical advantage in America’s liberal democracy. Throughout the dissertation I focus on how those who cross gender—those whom we call “transgender” today—have served to disrupt and destabilize not only the man/woman dualism, but also the gender/sex and mind/body dualisms. Inasmuch as these individuals provoke categorical crises in a Western culture that relies upon such a framework to maintain order, they have been vigorously persecuted. Examining two figures from the 19th century, I argue that the gender-crosser’s subversive existence has also offered a beneficial mode of influence in and through its ability to mediate and transcend seemingly oppositional dichotomies. However, as this accomplishment has been less than welcomed in today’s neo-liberal political ideology, I note the current juridical-medical effort to fit this unruly group into traditional, manageable categories. This is possible because contemporary technology has allowed the sexed body to be transformed to match the gendered brain, potentially offering a resolution to the mind/body conflict. I argue that this solution serves the capitalistic state well, but that it does so by denying the possibility of an equitable, gender-egalitarian society. I show how the current “transgender agenda” to accept and assimilate transgender students—that is so vigorously attacked by social conservatives—actually serves to reify and maintain the traditional sex/gender system. I conclude by positing that the transcendent, mediatory figure of the uncategorizable gender-crosser offers our divided, dogmatic society an ideal deus ex machina.