Let’s Talk About Toilets.

I cringe as I write that title because yes, you are going to spend the next six minutes reading about toilets. Lucky for you, this is significantly less time than most politicians have spent contemplating toilets these last few years.

A Little History

In the USA, the issue of separating public restrooms by sex wasn’t even addressed until the end of the 19th century. The idea was rooted in the ‘separate spheres ideology,’ whereby people believed that women, so to protect their virtue, needed to stay in the home to take care of the children and maintain the house. This ideology remained predominant for decades.

Over the years the industrial revolution, the great depression and the suffrage movement together created a paradigm that required women to work outside the home. Victorian values that stressed the importance of privacy and modesty (See: Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft) were challenged in factories where women worked side by side with men and typically shared the same single-user washrooms. At this time, North America just wasn’t ready to abandon this notion of separate spheres, so the majority of changes that took women away from the domestic sphere were of great concern to the general public.

In fact, scientists set their sights on reaffirming the ideology of separate spheres by conducting research to prove women were inherently weaker than men. With these ‘statistics’ in hand (which we can now recognize as bogus), legislators began enacting laws to ‘protect the weaker sex.’

Architects and city planners began to cordon off various public spaces for the exclusive use of women. For example, American railroads began designating a “ladies’ car” for the exclusive use of women and their male escorts. Another example, the one that has caused such commotion in the last few years, was that factory restrooms be separated by sex.

And here we are, decades later, arguing about whether folks of all genders can pee side by side.

The Current Conundrum

As the LGBTI rights movement gains traction (you know, like allowing same sex marriage and recognizing the existence of trans folk), legislators in North America have been struggling with a myriad of issues regarding sexual and gender minorities (SGMs). One of those issues that has been in the spotlight is the gender neutral toilet debacle.

We knew in the fall of 2015, after Houston executed a successful campaign to reject a broad anti-discrimination ordinance, that washrooms would be the battlefield upon which today’s gender rights war would be fought. This ordinance, which banned employment and housing based discrimination based on enumerated traits (sex, race, religion, ability, gender identity, etc.) was defeated in a referendum after its conservative opponents painted it as a ‘bathroom ordinance’ that would enable men to enter women’s restrooms.

Debunking The Arguments

The arguments we see today against inclusive restrooms are shockingly similar to the Victorian notions that led to sex segregated restrooms in the first place. The ideology of separate spheres for male and female and the ancient desire to protect women from the ‘dangerous goings on’ of the male dominated world remain alive and well today.

  1. Safety of women/children

Those who oppose gender neutral washrooms have argued that desegregating these spaces will allow for men to prey on women and children. The threat of registered sex offenders has even been brought up as an issue. During the Houston ordinance campaign, multiple ads were aired, illustrating these grievances. One ad showed a young girl being followed into a bathroom by an older man. Another ad emphasized the risk of having registered sex offenders in bathrooms with women and girls. The vulnerability that most people feel in a public restroom, with their trousers pulled down in proximity to others, was easily exploited in connection with sexual assault. Shutting down the ‘bathroom ordinance’ was painted as well meaning legislators doing what they can to protect women and children against sexual assault.

The notion that gender neutral washrooms would put cisgender women and children in harms way is invalid. First, the premise that a sign with a stick figure woman on a restroom door would stop a predator in their tracks has not been proven true. Second, this argument ignores the real threat of violence that trans folk face every day when they enter a washroom.

  1. Privacy for both sexes

Other opponents have argued than men and women deserve privacy when occupying a washroom in public. This argument is simply rooted in a resistance to change and a comfort with the status quo of sex segregated washrooms. People who demand privacy from the opposite sex in public washrooms do so most likely because they (perhaps unknowingly) cherish/take comfort in the separate spheres ideology that has been around for so many years.

In this same vein, some individuals argue that because women need to deal with their ‘lady problems’ (aka menstruation), public washrooms must remain separate for that reason. This idea is also rooted in the patriarchy, which shames women for having periods and makes it a taboo topic to discuss or make public.

Either way, if you can learn to pee beside a dude, you can learn to hear the crinkling of a tampon wrapper.

Why Do We Care?

In the 21st Century, men and women (assumed by society to be heterosexual) are expected to spend hours in the same boardroom together, eat at adjacent seats in restaurants, touch thighs on cramped public transportation, collaborate in study groups, and sometimes engage in religious rituals. The public washroom is the last trace of our legacy of gendered social separation.

Perhaps the point is precisely just that. The public restroom is the only (common) social institution that upholds the norm of gender separation, and undoing that separation would feel like the last shot in the “war on gender” itself.

That’s my guess as to why opponents care. That, or they just are just uncomfortable with pooping in a public facility.

But why do we supporters care? Why does it matter who gets to use which washroom?

Why It Matters

  1. Trans Rights

It has only been in the last number of years that the existence of transgender people has even been acknowledged. This is not surprising, given the unrelenting, horrific persecution this community endures.

Trans people deserve to be able to use a restroom of the gender they identify with, and it is their right to occupy a space in which they are comfortable.

For all of us cis people, using a public washroom isn’t something we ever worry about. This is a privilege not shared with by trans people. For people who don’t conform to gender norms, whose gender doesn’t match what they were assigned at birth, or does not fall under the strict confines of man or women, selecting which washroom to use is a stressful experience and often a lose-lose situation.

In a study conducted from the Williams Institute, 68% of trans people were told they were in the wrong facility, ridiculed, told to leave, gawked at, or verbally threatened. Moreover, 18% of respondents reported they were simply denied access to a restroom. Lastly, 9% of trans people were sexually assaulted or subject to physical violence simply for entering/using a gender segregated bathroom. This discrimination and violence associated with using sex segregated bathrooms can cause such great fear and stress that it limits the participation of trans folks in everyday life.

The need (and right) for transgender people to use washrooms that most closely match their self-identified gender is a fair, modest, and unreasonably denied request.

  1. Gender Equality

While this may come as a shock to many of you, all space influences and is influenced by the patriarchy. Our paradigm dictates who can occupy certain spaces, how spaces are used, who can take up the most space, etc.

Why is it that although women use public washrooms way more than men there is always an equal or lesser number of women’s washrooms? You guessed it, the patriarchy.

I know some of you are shaking your heads right now, but long waiting lines for restrooms stem from a history of society that favours men’s bodies. Not only is this frustrating and uncomfortable, but sometimes it’s pretty humiliating. Furthermore, considering it disproportionately affects women, it’s also a form of discrimination.

Women need to use bathrooms more often and for longer periods of time for a number of reasons. We sit to pee (which takes longer and also urinals double the space of a men’s washroom), we menstruate, we are responsible for reproducing (pregnant women pee more often), we continue to have greater responsibility for children (for whom we change diapers, breastfeed or chaperone visits to the washroom) and we often wear tighter, weirder clothing that requires time to untie/unwrap/unbutton.

This is a classic example of the difference between equality and equity, whereby many public spaces continue to boast equal number of facilities, that inevitably favour men.

If we create gender neutral washrooms, not only do we allow trans folk the ability to use a washroom without discrimination, but we also improve access for women.

In Summation…

Today, North America is dominated by deep rooted and outdated ideology that persists through mundane legal regulations. These Acts inhibit meaningful societal transformations and instead control our public toilets.

Let’s let everyone pee in peace.

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