Transphobia in the bathroom: Sexual difference, alterity and jouissance


The rights of transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice is a matter of much debate, as reflected in multiple legal cases currently being bounced back and forth between the Supreme and lower courts in the U.S. Why does the figure of the trans person elicit anxiety, hatred, and aggression? The author investigates the reasons behind transphobia, or xenophobia against transgendered individuals, by using a Lacanian psychoanalytic approach. Jacques Lacan’s logic of the social bond, mirror stage, conceptions of jouissance, and sexuation formulae are taken up to shed light on transphobia in general and in particular how and why it is elicited at the site of the public bathroom.

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  1. 1.

    Transgender studies seeks to denaturalize and make visible and articulatable gendered norms, including the social roles that go along with gender identity and the link between the sexed body and the gendered body. Although “transgender,” “transsexual,” or “genderqueer” may be the preferred term of a particular trans person to name gender identity, for the purposes of this article I will use the term “transgender” or “trans.” Even though someone can identify as transgender regardless of whether or not s/he has undergone a social or physical transition, since this article is concerned with the xenophobia elicited through observing someone as being trans, when the term “transgender” is used it will refer to someone who has socially or physically transitioned.

  2. 2.

    The assumption of a sexual position is defined in reference to the phallus. In Seminar XX, Lacan (1975/1998a) said that a woman is a subject who is “not-all” in the phallic order; she is mostly defined by phallic jouissance but also has access to Other jouissance. By contrast, a man is someone who is entirely defined by phallic jouissance. In Lacan’s early work, a man is defined by having the phallus, or, more precisely, a man is “not without having it” (1994, p. 153), while a woman is defined by being the phallus. Although the phallus certainly functions as a sexual signifier, there is no signifier for what makes a woman a woman.

  3. 3.

    Lacan (1957/2006e) said that his figure of the bathroom doors (p. 416) not merely “silence[s] the nominalist debate with a low blow, but [also]… show[s] how the signifier in fact enters the signified – namely, in a form which, since it is not immaterial, raises the question of its place in reality” (p. 417). Lacan is referring to the nominalist debate about whether or not abstract ideas stand for entities that objectively exist, and seems to be arguing that this abstract idea of being a gentleman or a lady does not exist somehow in the doors as entities but instead in the juxtaposition of the doors. Lacan comments also that the signifier – of “Gentlemen” or of “Ladies” – is “not immaterial” (p. 417) and has a kind of substance, one which is more substantial than that of the signified.

  4. 4.

    I am referring here, on the one hand, to the aforementioned chapter, “The Sense of Symptoms,” in Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1917/1963), in which Freud highlights that psychological symptoms at first do not seem to make sense. For instance, what is the sense in a young woman feeling compelled each night to remove all the clocks and watches from her room and to move all of the flower pots and vases to her writing table? But in the seeming nonsense of the symptom there is a sense -- an unconscious sense. On the other hand, Lacan similarly makes great use of the word “nonsense,” but he highlights the aspect of the signifier that  is outside of meaning, but which can nevertheless have a great effect on the subject.

  5. 5.

    "There is no Other of the Other" is a much commented on idea of Lacan that dates from 1959. For the purposes of understanding this article, the phrase can be said to mean there is no vantage point outside of the system of language from which a signifier has a fixed meaning. The Other itself is lacking, and so it cannot provide a firm foundation for its own identity.

  6. 6.

    In a tweet on 2 January 2018, Trump said, “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”


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Correspondence to Stephanie Swales.

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Swales, S. Transphobia in the bathroom: Sexual difference, alterity and jouissance. Psychoanal Cult Soc 23, 290–309 (2018).

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  • Lacan
  • jouissance
  • transgender
  • transphobia
  • xenophobia
  • gender identity