A decade or two ago, I was a member of the 14th Street Y. Trouble would start as soon as I’d step into the locker room and a couple of little old ladies would be sure to scream, “This is the Women’s.” I’d consider flashing my tits for a moment, but usually just mumbled “Fuck off” under my breath and let them work it out among themselves.
If it wasn’t them, it was the little kids. Mothers would bring all their children into the locker room even if they were practically in grade school, and more than once some creepy little boy would stare at me while I changed. The place was charged with gender and sex.
It was even worse when I went to swim. I could walk to the gym with my swimsuit under my clothes, but if I wanted a shower afterwards so I could change into dry things, I’d have to get naked and deal with those horrible staring lecherous boys who did everything but whack off. Worse were the mothers who let them. And I know they knew because I saw them watching, too.
After a while, I just quit going. And didn’t start swimming again until I moved to France and discovered cheap public swimming pools. In Paris every neighborhood has a couple, and they operate all year round.
The best thing is that everybody goes into the same locker room — men, women, children, dykes. So no screams for the likes of me. Though it would probably still be complicated for some trans or intersex people.
Another perk is that the little boys aren’t usually creepy, because children see plenty of adult bodies from the moment they start going to the pool. If you do get looked at, it’s not aggressive and weird. Most people do it just enough to register who’s standing next to them in the shower, which everybody takes in a common area — in their swimsuits — before they get into the pool.
Which brings me to glory number three of Paris pools. They’re so clean they barely smell. Truly. I’d thought that maybe they used less chlorine, but it turns out that most of the stink of American pools comes from the reaction between your lotion, sweat, and hair gel and the chlorine, which creates a disgusting, eye-reddening soup. Add a little pee to the chlorine and you get the fragrant chloramine.
The great quality of the water in French pools is an unintended consequence of the gender-neutral spaces. Because everybody passes through the same shower area and you have all these eyes on you, you stop and wash. No cheating. It’s peer pressure at its best. The entryways to the pool are also better arranged, so everybody steps in the disinfecting foot bath thing because it is almost impossible not to. Unless you can balance on a two-inch ledge.
Then you get down to it. You swim. Your vertebrae extend themselves. You relax. Become one with the water. When you’re done, you return to bathe in the same common showers. People more or less unselfconsciously reach into their suits to apply soap to intimate areas. Back in the locker room, there are little private stalls if you need to take off your suit and strip down to your skin.
The only drawback is that you have to time things carefully. And avoid lunch time or after-work when you end up as awkward sardines, thwacking your neighbor in the next lane, catching a foot in the face. Weekends are packed, too. During the school year, the pool closes at odd hours for groups of kids who early on learn to swim and get the gender-neutral locker room experience.
What can I say except, it works. The only surprise is that it happens here in France, which has been in the midst of an openly declared gender war since the adoption of a marriage equality law in 2013. There were huge demos against it, mobilizing hundreds of thousands.
The most vociferous opponents weren’t so much against marriage rights per se as horrified by the idea that same-sex unions will lead to the erosion of… gender roles. Their logo looked like the door signs for segregated bathrooms — little men in suits, little skirted figures. I think they were even in blue and pink.
Adoption and birth certificates send them right over the edge. It will be the end of the world if Parent 1 and Parent 2 replace “Mother” and “Father.” Legal changes like that can apparently have a countrywide effect, leading to the shrinking of penises and the unexpected growth or disappearance of tits.
Now they’re screaming about gender in schools and denouncing any curriculum that teaches the kids that little girls can be anything they want. Just like boys.
Bring on the Freudians. We’ve got a severe case of capricious gender anxiety here.
Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” published this year by the University of Minnesota Press.