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unisex bathroom

Much ado about toilets.

Recently, in the United States, there has been a lot of bickering about bathrooms. A few U.S. states enacted laws – which have predictably backfired – dictating that people can only use the bathroom corresponding to their “biological gender”. These laws are clearly aimed at transgendered persons (perhaps more accurately they reflect a stubborn refusal to admit that gender, like almost everything in life, is more complex than a simple binary).

(The “biological gender” bit of course begs the question of where the hell intersex individuals – formerly known as hermaphrodites, for those behind on the lingo – are supposed to take a piss…outside? But I digress.)

Male/female bathrooms are a relatively new phenomenon.

Law professor Terry Kogan points out that gendered bathrooms only started to appear in America in the late 1800s anyway. The question of why they appeared is an interesting one, and having researched the issue, he concluded that these laws were rooted in the so-called “separate spheres ideology”, which I will break down into slightly blunter language: keeping women in their place.

The 1800s saw an expansion in the stifling of female sexuality that we’re still stuck with in so many ways, from misogynistic talk of fathers with shotguns preventing their daughters from getting laid (how creepy…saving them for themselves?), to of course slut-shaming women who want to actually have an enjoyable sex life. Segregated bathrooms were essentially one more way to “protect the virtue of women”, as if women are in the first place possessive of some unique virtue that needs protecting.

There are a lot of things we had in the 1800s that we have safely left behind. Horses and buggies, slavery, genocide against Native Americans, using morphine to shut up crying babies…those are a few of the things that come to mind. Maybe treating women as helpless creatures that need to be wrapped in cotton wool like porcelain dolls, and demonizing them because they want a good shag every now and then, are things we could leave behind as well? Just a thought.

Everybody uses a gender-neutral bathroom regularly anyway.

I wonder how many houses and apartments I’ve visited in my lifetime. If I think of all the friends I had as a kid, growing up in a few different towns, and then as an adult in five different cities, counting all the parties and dinners and hangouts and so forth I’ve attended…it is certainly in the hundreds, and might well be in the thousands. In all those visits to people’s houses, you know what I have not seen, even one time? A gendered bathroom.

If I’ve asked to use the bathroom, they’ve simply pointed me in the direction of the nearest one, or the public one. There was not once a question about my biological identity. No one asked me to drop my pants before determining where I’d take a piss. We are all quite clearly able to use the same toilets, and it is clear that gendered public bathrooms need not exist for any reason other than our own collective “uptight-ness” around the idea of sexuality and gender.

It’s not rocket science, just a bit of work.

The most frustrating thing about debates like this is that the solution is dead simple. Privacy while using the toilet is desirable, and sometimes we may need to change clothes or deal with other personal issues in public. So we need individual spaces. Having this while accommodating intersex and other trans individuals only requires a bit of elbow grease. First, slap up some thin walls around toilets. Nothing fancy, but get rid of those shitty metal “stalls” with glory holes drilled in them, and a foot of open space underneath. Replace them with walls or dividers that stretch from floor to ceiling. Privacy problem solved: you can take your dump in peace, and more importantly no one has to see that you’re playing Candy Crush while you’re doing it.

Opponents bring up safety as an issue, even though statistics show that actually most violence in restrooms is against transgender people, the very people who would benefit from reconfiguration. But let’s address the fake safety issue anyway: once you have created a truly private space around each toilet, you can now remove the door to the bathroom completely. This means that the entryway to the bathroom can be largely visible to the rest of the establishment, meaning if anyone gets cornered, they can call for help and others in the vicinity can see inside, and easily come to their aid. Also, noting as I have in the past that half of millenials don’t see gender as a binary concept, these problems will lessen with time.

With private toilets, we can now put the sinks in a common area. It doesn’t even need to be in a “room” to begin with; it can be out there in the open (there is no need for privacy when you’re washing your hands). I’ve been to plenty of bars and restaurants in my lifetime with this setup, and have not once seen a problem. In practical terms, in most places these changes would mean knocking down a wall, creating a common area between the two former rooms, et voilà! Problem solved. In cases where they already have more than one separated, single person bathroom, all they would have to do is change signs. There is no reason for single person bathrooms to be gendered in the first place. (I wonder why already private bathrooms need to be gendered…maybe this was simply an invention of lazy women who got tired of the toilet seat being up?)

Businesses and other organizations may complain that these reconfigurations would cost money, or more basically, that it’s a pain in the ass. I do not disagree with either of those complaints. But you know what? My answer to that is: oh well. Progress costs money and effort sometimes. Society has made these requests before, for example when installing wheelchair ramps, or retrofitting sidewalks and buses to be wheelchair accessible. Do you think that cost some money and effort? Of course it did, but the end result is that some people who previously couldn’t get from point A to point B now can, and that seems worthwhile.

So instead of looking at this as extra work to create something new, consider the history of how gendered bathrooms came to be in the first place, and look at it instead as correcting an error we collectively made 150 years ago that didn’t need to be made in the first place.

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