November 25, 2013


What's all this palaver about public restrooms? Why do so many people get upset about restrooms and who uses them? For as long as we've had public restrooms for both sexes, we didn't need a bevy of new laws about who can use what restroom. What has changed?

It used to be so very simple. If you were a boy, you used this one and if you were a girl you used that one. If you were under 6 and you went with your mommy, it didn't matter, but the boys often complained if they had to accompany Mom into the wrong restroom.

Did you know that the United States has the fewest public restrooms of any developed nation, per capita? In most countries, public restrooms are provided by the local government because it is a universal need that people have. There is a public health interest in people not peeing and pooping in the streets. Compare Manchester, England and Memphis, Tennessee. Manchester has lots of public facilities. They may not be on every street corner, but they are seldom more than a short walk from wherever you are, downtown at least. Many of Manchester's public facilities are Victorian works of arts - they have public campaigns to preserve them and restore them. In Memphis, in contrast, there are almost no public restrooms. There are restrooms you can use in Memphis, usually in stores or restaurants and most say "not for public use." on the door. I'm trying hard to think of a public park in Europe or Japan without a public restroom. The small town in Washington State I live nearest to has four public parks without any public restrooms. There used to be one, but the homeless people were using it, so it's gone.

Of course, there didn't use to be Women's public restrooms. This is a fairly recent innovation.

And Americans are obsessed with toilet protocol. Where I work, the cleaning staff, in this case a woman, stalks the men's restroom for 10-15 minutes twice a day. She knocks, calls and makes sure in every way that she will not catch some hard of hearing man in the convenience. And then she barricades the door to warn anyone attempting to interrupt her that the facility is OFF LIMITS while being cleaned. She just barges into the women's restroom and apart from an occasional "Wet Floors" warning, she does not restrict ingress or egress from that room's patrons in any way.

When I was in Malaysia, the cleaning staff cleaned both the mens and the women's restroom with no regard for sex or gender - they just walked in: it might be a man or a woman, but they had a right to be there because it was their job to be there. There was no fuss and they were thoroughly ignored, whatever their sex and whatever the designation of the restroom. Most of the world is like this.

Americans are squeamish, I guess. Maybe it was those Puritans. Something else to thank them for.

However, this new fight in the press, in the courts and in the legislature seems way out of proportion to the seriousness of the issue.

On the one side are the transgender activists and their allies who say that if you are presenting female or identify female, regardless of your official legal sex, or how you are perceived by others, you should be entitled to use the women's restroom. And by extension, though this very seldom seems to come up, if you are legally female, but presenting as a man or identify as male, regardless of how you are perceived by others, you should be legally entitled to use the men's restroom.

On the other side are traditionalists and their supporters who cry balderdash! If you are male, go to the men's room and if female go to the women's restroom, period. Many make further claims: that God made you what you are and no doctor or state legislature can make you into anything else. Some also assume that men are a danger to women, especially in a women's restroom, and that women receive an inevitable and persistent harm if a male violates their restroom with his presence. Any woman of good character should be offended and traumatized by a man in her restroom. Men, they say, must protect women from these dangers.

I can respect some parts of both points of view for different reasons. Transgender people have a lot of issues with public restrooms, some of them even make sense. If you look female, people will hassle you if you try to use a men's restroom. If you look male, they will hassle you if you try to use the women's restroom. Other issues do not make sense: it is rather difficult to classify just what sex some people were born, and some trans people want to use the men's restroom on Tuesday and Thursday and the women's restroom on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This is confusing and difficult for everybody else. This has nothing to do with a person's physiology. As a general rule, most transgender individuals try to go through life without hassles like this, some do not.

I feel squeamish going into the "wrong" restroom. I like to think it is because I am averse to offending or upsetting people, but really I was trained that way - and I also have a big incentive to not make people think I am some kind of a pervert. My wife has no problem with going into the men's restroom when necessary, but I doubt that she would be labeled pervert for doing so. There are very few things left in our society that will earn you that label with the general population, but being a man who is somehow fascinated by women's restrooms is almost guaranteed to earn you a reputation you do not want.

Personally, speaking for myself, if someone of either gender goes into any restroom, takes care of their physical requirement, washes their hands neatly and leaves, I don't care. I consider myself mostly well-adjusted, so I am not threatened by other people doing things that do not affect me.

Some people do feel an intense discomfort having people of a different sex in the restroom they use. Other people find it very difficult if not impossible to use any public restroom. I feel sorry for these people. No one likes to use a dirty restroom, of course, and we don't all have the same standard of cleanliness, but in my experience, most of the people who can't use a public restroom are people who can't bear strangers (of either sex) hearing them urinating or defecating. It embarrasses them and I feel sorry that they feel so uncomfortable with a universal and natural act every single human being does. It falls into the same class as people who cannot wash themselves properly in certain areas because they can't bear being touched, even by themselves, on some "dirty" parts of their bodies.

I do not feel that a woman in a men's restroom endangers the male patrons. I do not feel that a man in a woman's restroom is inherently dangerous. I do not think most men are dangerous to women. Some people would disagree with me. Many of the objectors to transgender people using their restroom of choice think that men are inherently terrifying and wantonly dangerous, at least in women's restrooms. Some object because they assume that predators will use gender identity as a smokescreen to prey on women.

Do you think people are mostly good and try be good to others, or do you think people are basically evil and will take any opportunity to do evil and harm others? If you believe the latter, again, I feel sorry for you. I know there are people like that, the Ted Bundys of the world, but they're the exception to the rule, not the proof of it.

My first presumption, on finding a man in a women's restroom, would be that he was lost. Years ago, I worked in a very confusingly laid out building with lots of twists and turns in its layout. Half the men's restrooms were a sharp left and half were a sharp right. I found myself in the wrong restroom very briefly a couple of times, but it was plainly obvious because the women's restroom was done in Pepto Bismol Pink and the men's in Bright Baby Blue. When my friend at work was hauled down to security for being a man in the women's restroom, his accuser was adamant that she was offended and scandalized and traumatized. She wanted him forever fired and removed from the premises forever. The security guard was gentle. "Ma'am, please be calm. Would it make you feel any better? I mean he IS blind." He was let go with a warning.

So, what do we do about this? The simplest and most straightforward answer to my mind is unisex restrooms. If anyone can use the restroom, then anyone can. We're done. It worked so well in Ally McBeal. Portapotties are all unisex. Many places have only one restroom, for everyone to use. Lots of places have both men's and women's restrooms and at least one small unisex restroom, usually called a family restroom or some similar term, where parents can take their children. I don't see people clamoring in the State Legislature to remove any of these as a public danger and for a very good reason: they aren't one.

But the fact remains that in most public spaces there is an either or choice. What are transgender people expected to do about it? I think that transgender people have a responsibility to be the most well behaved and unobjectionable restroom patrons, regardless of their choice of restroom. It is counterproductive to make any transition harder than it needs to be. If we say it is alright for you to use the X restroom you want to use, because you identify as X, then the best thing that you can do is to be as invisible a patron, and give as little offense, as humanly possible for you. When white-only restrooms were being integrated, 50 years ago, civil rights workers told black people to be scrupulously clean and polite and give no one any reason to object to their using the restroom. That was good advice then and is today. And if those who want to use the "wrong" restroom do this, I think we should all say OK. There is nothing wrong, in my opinion, with anyone quietly, and politely, entering, using a stall, washing themselves and leaving.

Anyone who does other things in a public restroom, who bothers other patrons, who makes it impossible or difficult for them to hygienically relieve themselves in as much privacy as possible, is committing a breach of the peace and should be stopped. I include in this group people who create a public furor because someone they think is X, seeks entry into a restroom labeled Y. It was not a problem until they made it into one.

As to things other than normal biological functions for which restrooms are provided, I think everyone agrees that using restrooms for these other purposes is a bad thing and is glad that we have laws on the books that prohibit these things. However, just the presence of a person being in a restroom labeled for a different sex does not constitute that kind of offense. It used to be in many states that if a man went into a hotel room with a woman and the door was closed, he could be jailed on a charge of rape of adultery, without benefit of any medical evidence that would indicate that sex had occurred. Times change and laws change with them, eventually.

This palaver over restrooms is just such a thing. Let's put in more unisex restrooms. Let's just decide to say that as long as you use a restroom as a restroom and don't bother anyone, it's cool, no harm done. We don't need to find more reasons to put more people in jail for crimes of ideological disagreement. Let little Suzie complain about having to go into the men's restroom with Daddy, but let's agree not to arrest her for it.

When you look the facts squarely in the face, you have to conclude that for most of the organizations engaging in this political frenzy over restrooms, restrooms and who uses them don't really matter. It is really about power, money and influence. Transgender restroom use is a fresh issue of contention about which many people have widely different views, often based upon ideology or religion. Strongly held opinions based on religion or ideology are immune to common sense or reason. There's gold in them thar restroom entitlements!

Almost no one is trying to find any kind of compromise that will suit most folks . . . no, this is a "moral" issue so no holds are barred. Organizations on both sides can milk this one for decades to come - a big fat delusional danger people need to be protected from - just like the "danger" of "gay marriage." It is a natural for groups like National Organization for Marriage. They've been having trouble raising money lately, after losing so many battles over marriage equality. People just aren't buying their political arguments and it is so easy to refute them. This crusade is a real revenue opportunity for them. And what are they doing? They have made public restroom entitlements a major focus of their organization.

Fear Mongering and moralist crusades are so easy, not like actually governing or finding real solutions to the real problems that plague our nation and our communities, and do real harm to real people like us and our children. You know, like unemployment, wealth inequality, disintegrating infrastructure, environmental issues, poor schools, endless wars, stratospheric education and medical costs, . . . by all means, let's devote 95% of our attention and media air time to restrooms, because that is somehow so much more important.

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