The Personal Politics of Public Bathrooms

Photo: Jules Frazier/Getty Images

There are a lot of things I’d like the government to monitor more actively. Environmental toxins, workplace discrimination, and police violence, to name just a few. Public bathrooms — how they’re labeled, and who’s walking through which door — don’t even make the list. A right-wing group in California, however, is very concerned about who’s peeing where. They’re collecting signatures to try to get an initiative on the ballot that, according to Equality California, “would prohibit transgender people from using facilities in government buildings and require the government to monitor bathroom use.” 

While attempting to prohibit a group of people from using the bathroom is unusually cruel, the potty-panicked right-wingers are part of a long history. The public restroom has been a flashpoint for just about every social and political issue related to gender. “More than anywhere else in public life, toilets inscribe and reinforce gender difference,” write the authors of Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing. Even the symbols we use to denote “men’s” and “women’s” bathrooms are politicized, distilling traditional ideas about gender into two simple icons. (The recent #ItWasNeverADress campaign suggests that the icon for “woman” isn’t wearing a dress at all, but a superhero cape.) Historically, a lack of bathroom facilities for women has been an excuse for keeping major institutions male-only. Even today, the public bathroom is where our most private behavior takes place in close proximity to strangers — and therefore the personal gets political pretty quickly.

Sex-segregated bathrooms date to the Victorian era, when women’s growing presence in public life “triggered a paternalistic impulse to ‘protect’ women from the full force of the world outside their homes,” writes Ted Trautman in Slate, “which manifested itself architecturally in a bizarre parallel world of spaces for women adjacent to but separate from spaces for men.” Single-stall, gender-neutral bathrooms have recently become the standard in places like West Hollywood, Philadelphia, some college campuses and workplaces, and possibly soon some New York City businesses. But most state and local building codes are still modeled on the Uniform Plumbing Code or International Building Code, which are guidelines describing how facilities should be built. They require buildings to provide separate bathrooms for each sex — often in the name of “potty parity,” to ensure that women have ample facilities even in buildings that were originally designed with only men in mind.

At its best, the gender-segregated public bathroom can be a social space for women, even a refuge. It’s where, from separate stalls, we gossip with our voices slightly raised to be heard over the tinkling sounds (or, if we’ve been drinking pints of beer, the waterfall-style roar). It’s where we dab the ketchup stains off our shirts, where we let each other borrow lipstick, where we give ourselves pep talks in the mirror. It’s where we learn that providing a tampon to a stranger in need is one of life’s low-key pleasures. When we have to cry, we don’t go outside. We go to the ladies’. And even I — a proud feminist, not some shrinking Victorian violet — admit I’m more comfortable letting one rip in the company of other women.

It’s impossible to acknowledge these upsides, though, without also recognizing the rather fucked-up dynamics that bathroom segregation enables. The women’s bathroom is not a safe or easy space for all women — and that is doubly true for the men’s room. Especially for people who are transgender or gender-nonconforming, using a public bathroom isn’t just stressful, it can pose a very serious threat to their safety. (An app called Refuge Restrooms provides a list of public bathrooms that are safe for trans people to use — and it’s telling that safe spaces to pee are the exception, not the rule.) And even for those of us who are yawn-inducingly gender-conforming, it’s not always easy to carry out our private business in a public place. Oprah has talked about her anxiety about peeing in public restrooms. The bathroom is a place where we’re all vulnerable. We are, quite literally, caught with our pants around our ankles.

This last point is not lost on anti-trans activists, who have deliberately made bathrooms a battleground by stoking wholly irrational fears about people who express their gender differently. They have deftly flipped the script, portraying gender-conforming women as the ones who are most at-risk, when in fact the opposite is true. Our biggest problem is usually encountering a dribble on the seat or a dirty pad that’s half-jammed into the trash receptacle — not having our space invaded or fearing for our lives. And yet, ironically, the group putting forth the California ballot initiative, which asks the government to get involved in monitoring how and where its citizens pee, is called “Privacy for All.”

In fact, privacy for all is more achievable with gender-neutral bathrooms, which are usually single-room facilities that people use one at a time. “Single-stall designs that can be used by everyone, such as airplane bathrooms and family/handicapped facilities are the most space and time efficient, and least discriminatory,” writes Soraya Chemaly at Time. “They are also philosophically palatable to a broad spectrum, as they represent not so much a contested segregations or de-gendering of restroom spaces, as much as a rethinking of privacy and the uses of public space.”

Even with widespread support for this idea, converting all public bathrooms to a gender-neutral model would be logistically difficult. (Consider the sheer number of buildings that are built to existing code with sex-segregated, multi-stall bathrooms.) But it doesn’t seem insurmountable to ask building owners and office managers to ensure that for every multi-stall restroom, there’s at least one gender-neutral option. And to ask places that already have single-stall bathrooms to allow people of any gender to use them.

In the meantime, even if someone is perceived to be using the “wrong” bathroom, police have no basis for questioning them or asking for ID, according to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Truly, none of us have a basis for questioning the gender of someone else who’s minding their own business in the stall or at the sink next to us. At least until gender-neutral bathrooms become the norm — which, building codes aside, I hope happens sooner rather than later. I know I’d give up the pleasures and frustrations of the ladies’ room in a heartbeat if we could all be guaranteed a more private — and less stressful — public peeing experience. Nobody should have to hold it.

The Personal Politics of Public Bathrooms