Archive for category Individual Liberties
Jodi Jaecks, a breast cancer and double mastectomy survivor, recently won the right to swim topless at Seattle public pools during adult lap swim times. According to media coverage, the general rule about attire at public pools is that all women must wear tops. (I couldn’t find a direct link to actual policy from the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department.) According to a recent press release from Seattle Parks and Recreation, the decision for Jaecks extends only to her, and only for adult lap swim times. At present, any subsequent similar requests will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Of course, additional case-by-case evaluations seem like an inefficient waste of time, money, and other procedural resources. Why should Parks and Recreation require similarly situated people to go through the appeals process to get essentially the same exception to the rule? Maybe they officials realized this problem; additional coverage of the issue suggests that the Parks and Recreation Superintendent is considering a “wholesale” change to the policy governing attire at public pools, and that such a broad spectrum change wouldn’t destroy the “family friendly” pool environment. (Parks and Recreation offered this “family friendly” argument in support of its initial denial of Jaecks’s request.)
Let’s think a bit about what the Superintendent and any committee members should consider when evaluating a wholesale policy change. There has been much chatter in the press about normalizing visions of breast cancer survivors. (Go here and here for a couple of examples.) There’s also the fact that full bathing suits can be quite painful for women living after double mastectomies. But I want to focus on a broader issue that The Stranger touched upon briefly in its early coverage of Jaecks’s story. How does the current policy apply to trans and queer individuals? A post-op trans FTM person might look similar to Jaecks, but would be allowed to swim topless because he’s a he. A pre-op trans FTM also identifies as a he, but has breasts. So Parks and Recreation would force him to wear a bikini top. After all, the current policy requires “gender appropriate swimwear.” And what about a pre-op MTF? In this case, a woman with no breasts… is she forced to go topless to conform to her current gender designation, socially imposed upon her? (Interestingly, that would produce a result directly opposite of that which Jaecks initially received… a woman with no breasts forced to go *with* a top.) How are cross-dressers treated?
In short, what exactly are the officials trying to cover up through the current policy? It seems to reach beyond breasts and nipples. It seems to reach a much broader policy of covering up bodies that do not conform to traditional notions of sex and gender (not to mention bodies that violate conventional ideas of functionality and ability). Especially in a city known nationwide for its queer and trans activism (and apparently one of 2012’s “Gayest Cities”), in a state whose legislature legalized marriage equality, Seattle Parks and Recreation has much to consider here… beyond breasts.
We occupy spaces, and sometimes, those spaces come at a cost. Let me give you three examples that bring this to a head (or a knee, as the case may be), all dealing with air travel.
A friend on Facebook recently posted this status: “I f*cking hate ‘Economy Plus’ concept. I am tall – give me leg room for free, and stop giving it to the 4’11” person who pays $50 extra.” Now, to be fair, this person really is quite tall… several inches above 6 feet. And it’s pretty easy to see his side of the argument; he physically needs the extra space, so the airline should give it to him. Us shorter folks might appreciate the extra space for, say, easier laptop usage, but it’s not quite the same thing. Regardless, the airlines charge more for the extra space. And in the absence of the extra leg room, both the tall person and the person sitting in front of him/her are — well — uncomfortable for the duration of the flight because of knee or back pain.
Now consider another example… people who physically need more space horizontally rather than vertically. I’m talking about fat people who spill over into the adjacent seat(s). These people could probably make a similar argument to the one offered by the tall folks needing more leg room. Think about it: “I am fat – give me tush room for free, and stop giving it to the thin person who [doesn’t need it].” Again, the argument doesn’t fly (or hasn’t yet). The airlines can charge more for an additional seat, and even require it in some cases. And again, in the absence of the extra side space (i.e., an extra seat), both the fat person and the people on either side of him/her are uncomfortable for the duration of the flight.
The third example serves as a pseudo-remedy for half the people involved in the first scenario. Just a few weeks before my friend’s Facebook post appeared on my news feed, the NYT published this article about a new contraption designed to block the person in front of you from reclining his or her seat. It seems the people most likely to use this “Knee Defender” are the tall people, like my Facebook friend, whose knees are already pretty close to (or right up against) the seat in front of them before the passengers in the seats ahead push the recline button. But isn’t it part of the seat’s functionality (for which people pay) to recline? And if the person in 7C is using this Knee Defender contraption, I bet the person in 6C isn’t too happy about it. 6C paid for the seat. The seat is designed to recline. Isn’t it 6C’s choice to recline and use the functionality for which 6C paid?
The law’s answer is no. The FAA says that the Knee Defender, costing $19.95, is legal. The law also says that the airlines can charge $50 extra for additional leg room and require fat people to purchase a second seat (clearly for more than $50). All three are about a person needing more space than standard coach seats allow. The Knee Defender folks claim they are “standing up for the right of the tall guy to sit down.” One could argue that the airlines, by requiring the purchase of an additional seat or extra leg room, are protecting the rights of the folks who fit in the standard seats. Of course, there’s a fourth option: first class. Tough for many air travelers to afford. And if the spaces in coach are enlarged overall, it stands to reason that the cost of coach will come much closer to the cost of first class… prohibitively expensive in several cases, and likely an unpopular choice for the airlines to make. Let’s assume that the spaces will not be enlarged any time soon.
So whose rights are actually protected by the law? Thin people. Short people. Anyone who purchases a Knee Defender. The Knee Defender manufacturer and the airlines, focusing on their profits. Maybe all’s fair in commerce and air travel. Stop and ask, though… is it really fair? And which parts do you think are fair, while other parts perhaps are not? Is it more fair to make fat people purchase additional seat space than it is to make tall people purchase additional knee space? Why? And what about our friends in 6C and 7C? If 7C isn’t in Economy Plus, is it fair for 6C to have to sit with knees in his or her back for several hours? [Tall folks aren’t (yet) required to pay for Economy Plus.] On the flip side, is it fair to allow 7C to take away 6C’s right to recline?
Maybe the law’s answer should be that the rights to protect are those of the person who purchased the use of a particular space, and anyone who interferes with the use of that space is invading. Or maybe the law’s answer should be that the airlines must accommodate now-larger Americans by increasing the spaces purchased. What would be the costs? And what are the costs we incur in the system as it currently exists?