Why America can't stop fighting over the politics of public restrooms

Saturday , April 02, 2016 - 1:35 PM9 comments

By MONICA HESSE
The Washington Post

The bathroom is the new battleground. But then again, it has always been, in one way or another.

Throughout the week, citizens and lawmakers have been debating a new North Carolina law that requires transgender individuals to use the public restrooms that correlate with the gender listed on their birth certificate. The state’s own attorney general announced Wednesday that he would not defend it in court. The governor, who had signed the bill into law, then took to YouTube to defend it himself.

“I’m standing up to the president of the United States to prevent federal overreach to take over our North Carolina waters,” Gov. Pat McCrory said. One assumes he was referring to the water that runs through plumbing . “I signed the bill because if I didn’t ... the expectations of privacy of North Carolina citizens would have been violated.”

If LGBT rights can be thought of as a house tour, the country has clearly moved from the bedroom (anti-sodomy laws) to the kitchen (the banal domesticity of same-sex marriage laws) to the toilet. But the question of bathroom politics has never been purely about privacy, or even about public spaces. It’s about the collision of those public spaces with cultural expectations at specific moments in time.

A transgender bathroom bill would not be raised in some rural parts of Africa or Asia, where there aren’t public bathrooms and where outdoor lavatories are part of the norm. A bathroom bill wouldn’t be raised in some parts of Europe, where restrooms are already unisex. But the public bathroom here has regularly been a location of consternation for the puritanical, puri-panic-al United States: an American conundrum resulting from American sensibilities and American history.


It began, as so many things did, with the Industrial Revolution. Until the mid-nineteenth century, all bathroom facilities were outhouses. They were meant for one occupant at a time, so no gender specifications were needed. It wasn’t until the 1870s rise of post-cholera sanitation awareness that the United States began to see widespread indoor plumbing and, thus, the invention of the modern public bathroom.

About the same time, the Industrial Revolution meant that women, who had previously been expected to remain homebound, began to enter public space via the workforce. They toiled in factories and office buildings, and this rattled people - the idea that women were invading what had always been the domain of men.

The solution to this problem was architectural. Building designers developed ladies-only reading rooms in libraries, ladies-only hotel lobbies, train cars, banking lines. And, in 1887, Massachusetts became the first state to enact a statute called “An Act to Secure Proper Sanitary Provisions in Factories and Workshops,” requiring that “water closets used by females be kept separate and apart from those used by males.” Ladies-only bathrooms.

“There was this notion that women were subject to hysteria, that they would decompensate under stress,” says Terry Kogan, a University of Utah professor who studies legal and cultural segregation by sex. Women’s spaces, Kogan says, were a way of “creating a haven in the public world.” Gradually, all of the segregated spaces fell away except for the bathroom.

In some ways these spaces were a feminist triumph, allowing women safe spaces separate from male onlookers. But the language surrounding their invention didn’t come across as liberating so much as it came across as male lawmakers fretting about what women could or could not handle. They could not, it seems, handle being near men.

“We’ve played with these issues for a very long time, the worry over the mixing of people,” says Erika Rappaport, a historian who researches the history of gender. When public bathrooms first came into existence, she says, wealthy people protested them, fearing the unseemly mingling of classes. In the 1980s, there rose a widespread concern that AIDS could be transmitted via toilet seat - an erroneous “public health” concern that was perhaps masking the true phobia: straight people sharing restrooms with gay ones.

And of course, the segregated bathroom was the loathsome hallmark of the Jim Crow South, where restrooms where divided not only by gender but by race, and one of the first deaths of the civil rights movement was Samuel Younge Jr., a black college student shot and killed for the crime of trying to use a whites-only bathroom. America’s greatest shame, played out on porcelain tile.

Each of these separations was couched in terms of public interest: protecting women. Protecting health. Protecting the natural orders of biology and society. In her history of public toilets, sociologist Barbara Penner writes: “The fact that bathroom segregation changes according to the ruling political regime underscores that there’s nothing ‘natural’ about it.”


But here we are, all of us at the hand drier together, thinking about bathrooms again, in a way that underscores that we’ve never really been thinking just about bathrooms. We’ve been thinking about the world changing, as it always has, before many people are ready for it to, as they’ve never been ready for it.

The restroom is a place of deeply vulnerable, deeply personal, deeply private acts, played out in a public space, among strangers. There’s always been an association of seediness to the public restroom - a place that plays out, if only in imagination, as a den of sneaked cigarettes, heroin needles, forbidden lipstick, forbidden liaisons. Some of those fearful associations have been more prevalent than others. When bathroom laws change, we are trying to adjust to new behaviors and evaluate new fears in a location in which we are literally caught with our pants down.

Many social scientists now consider gender to be on a spectrum, with some people identifying as a mixture of both, or neither. But the bathroom remains binary. It forces people into categories. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that people who are fine paying lip service to trans rights in other places are not fine in the bathroom,” says Laura Noren, editor of “Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing.” “The bathroom lays bare all of the fears that people might be able to gloss over with social niceties, like clothing.”

Meanwhile, some citizens were pointing out that the North Carolina bill, in its efforts to protect women and children, might end up having an unexpected consequence.

“It’s now the law for me to share a bathroom with your wife,” wrote James Sheffield in a widely shared and re-posted tweet. Sheffield, a trans man, included a picture of himself. After several years of hormones has a full beard and a traditionally masculine build. He looks like a man. He lives as man. He is a man, except that his birth certificate lists him as a woman, which will legally place him in the ladies room under the North Carolina law.

Sheffield’s personal history with public restrooms is fraught. Before he began his medical transition, there was a nebulous period in which he wasn’t sure which restroom would cause the least upset for others and the least danger for himself. He remembers walking into a female restroom and a woman inside screaming at the sight of him and running out the door.

The current debate, he says, has underscored the turmoil he already feels every day about bathrooms.

Amid all the discussions of privacy and comfort, transgender advocates note that the people whose bathroom experiences are filled with the most tension are often transgender individuals themselves.

What solution would make Sheffield feel the most comfortable: unisex restrooms? Individual stalls in every washroom? Male restrooms that he would be welcomed into?

“If I never had to use a public restroom again, that’s where I would be most comfortable,” he says.

(c) 2016, The Washington Post

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