I’m still thinking about Laurie Essig’s September 16th blog on urinary segregation. I guess this is a complicated topic, but when I first read the blog, all I could think about was the joy I felt seven years ago when we finally purchased a house with more than one bathroom, which meant that I could impose a policy of urinary segregation in my own home (that is, until we decided to live on a boat, which put us back to a single-toilet environment). I tried hard to train my boys to have good bathroom manners, but after years of sitting on toilet seats and looking at surrounds that were dribbled and splattered with pee, not to mention the middle of the night plunges into the cold water of an unseated toilet bowl, I decided that it was time for the queen of this castle to have her very own (porcelain) throne.
Some will say this is yet another sign that I am a bad mother, but from the looks of apartments and dormitories I have visited during my lifetime, it would appear that there must be many of us in the sisterhood of bad mothers if our sons’ bathrooms are the metric by which our parenting abilities are measured. No, Laurie, I don’t feel the need to police dirt, but I do feel the need to keep my butt away from toilets and my feet away from floors to which I am likely to stick.
My negative feelings toward mixed-gender bathrooms go back to my college days, when I first encountered such a thing. Back in the 1980’s—when co-ed dorms were thought to be the mark of higher education pushing the limits of social norms and mores—I very happily lived in such a place. While officially there were separate bathrooms for men and women, I still remember the first time I looked down and saw that the feet in the stall next to me were pointing in the other direction. It was a bit awkward, to say the least, especially since I had grown up in a household of all women. But what I came to realize by living with 19 women and 20 men (realizing that this is not a statistically significant population, but instead the basis of merely anecdotal evidence) is that they have very different expectations about bathroom cleanliness and about the whole experience of using the toilet. After all, how many women do you see triumphantly tucking the newspaper under their arm as they take a well publicized stroll to the lavy?
During my college years, the men in my dorm were quite proud of themselves when their flatulence was apparent to others, and especially when its expulsion could turn a Bic lighter into a human torch. Much of the men’s rugby team lived in my dorm, and while I liked these guys very much and eventually moved into a group house with several of them, I didn’t really like it when we found ourselves together in the same bathroom at the same time. You see, these relatively harmless men saw all of this as the perfect opportunity to torment the unwitting female in the next stall, if not with sounds and smells, then by the extension of hands and feet (and sometimes heads and eyes) under the stall wall and into the adjoining space. My discomfort wasn’t about the fact that they used the same toilet before or after me, but instead that they were sitting there beside me at times when I wished they were not. You see, asynchronously used transgender bathrooms in the home are not the same thing as large public facilities with a line-up of stalls and urinals.
I feel bad that transgender individuals struggle so deeply each time nature calls, and perhaps new buildings should always be constructed with one room for ladies, one room for gents, and one for either or neither. I think shopping malls use the moniker of family bathroom to announce that users of all genders are welcomed into the one-toilet wonders they have constructed, primarily (but not exclusively) for parents shopping with young children of the opposite gender. In older buildings, perhaps some restrooms can be converted to transgender facilities while others might remain gender labeled.
I’m just not sure that I buy into the idea that gender-labeled bathrooms are part of a larger conspiracy to maintain gender hierarchies or that they are part of the white female purity construct. Instead, I think they grew out of a tradition of modesty that dominated society at the time that plumbing moved indoors.
Regardless of what motivates the separation of ladies from gents, I took offense at Ms. Essig’s comparison of gender-segregated bathrooms to the racially-segregated bathrooms that were the norm in our country prior to the Civil Rights movement. Such a comparison is not only ruthlessly insensitive, but shows a lack of understanding about the stark differences that separated white toilets from “colored” toilets—with the later often times being nothing more than a shack out back—as opposed to the differences between contemporary men’s and women’s bathrooms, which are generally restricted to the presence or absence of urinals and feminine hygiene product dispensers.
Sure, it must be humiliating for a woman with a shaved head and combat boots to be denied access to the women’s restroom, but I could argue that in making a choice of hairstyle or clothing, one has some control over such a denial of access. On the other hand, there were no choices involved for dark-skinned Americans who were denied access to toilets and water fountains reserved for white people.
My grandmother was such a dark-skinned person, and I’ll never forget the time in 1969 (I was 5 eyars old) when the restroom attendant at Hutzler’s department store would not allow her to accompany me into the bathroom. I didn’t understand what was happening when the attendant told my grandmother that she would have to wait outside while I used the toilet. Other little girls seemed to have their mothers with them as they entered the room. I had never seen segregated toilets and weren’t aware that they had ever existed. My grandmother remained silent, probably because she could sense my fear of being separated from her and she didn’t want to make things worse. It wasn’t until years later that I understood what had happened on that horrible day, and that my grandmother’s tears were not the result of her missing me terribly during our five-minute separation. I agree that people can’t help which gender their DNA assigned to them, and that it must be difficult when the body and mind are not in agreement on that issue, but separate ladies’ and men’s rooms are in no way like racially segregated bathrooms of an earlier time.
Laurie mentions that when she discusses multigender bathrooms to her students, white women mention rape. One wonders if Laurie has done representative sampling among women of all races to be sure that only white women are concerned about rape, or if the demographics of Middlebury College somehow disallow her from knowing what non-white women really think. But when Laurie responds to this concern by pointing out that most rape and violence happens in the home, where bathrooms are transgender, I am concerned that she is confusing coincidental relationships with causal ones. One would hope that students in college are being taught to differentiate between the two. Beyond that, in April of this year, Laurie blogged in another publication about the underreporting of sexual violence (typically by men against women) on most college campuses. So which is it? Are men a threat to women on campus or not, and if so, is this threat increased or decreased when men have ready and unquestioned access to a de-panted women sitting in the next stall?
I’m sure the issue of bathroom selection is difficult for many people, and I don’t mean to belittle the uncomfortable struggle some face. But I suspect for large numbers of women and men, the idea of transgender bathrooms is equally uncomfortable. Since there seems to be no end of money for facilities construction at our elite colleges and universities, I guess urinary desegregation is but another reason to build a new building, and raise student tuition in the process. In the meantime, I would bet that most women who have been forced to share bathrooms with men (and visa versa, I am sure) would caution you to be careful about what you wish.
If you want to petition for a third category of non-gender-specific restroom in all buildings, then you have my blessings. Forcing transgender facilities upon everyone, however, is a bit extreme, and probably not the best use of the hard-earned $50,000 that Middlebury parents (or taxpayers) are asked to part with each year.