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Claire Tierney is a Staff Writer for The Hudsucker, and in her spare time she may be found hiking around Washington, bonding with her cat, or enjoying a fat sandwich. Claire is currently working jobs that utilize her impeccable customer service skills while she works towards achieving her dreams, whatever those may be.

Bashful in the Bathroom: As Gender Identities Become More Fluid, Shouldn’t Our Plumbing?

The media has recently become fixated on transgender transition stories, and society’s perception of gender has begun to shift. With this new perspective, some have begun to question why public restrooms are still separated by gender.

Some colleges and government buildings have even enacted laws that move towards “potty parity,” particularly by targeting single-occupant gendered bathrooms. Washington DC is utilizing social media campaigns like #safebathroomsDC to make the city more comfortable for non gender conformists, one toilet at a time.

Thailand has responded with a third restroom option, the “transexual toilet.” While this effort seeks to establish a safe space for trans people, it continues to invalidate their gender identity; it is simply another form of gender discrimination. And besides, it’s not just trans people that are adversely affected by gendered bathrooms, people with young children struggle with bowel evacuation in public, as do elderly or disabled people with opposite-gender identifying caregivers.

Some cling onto the separation of restrooms for fear of offending the opposite sex with their excretion, I don’t find this compelling. As a queer woman, I have always had to relieve myself in front of people I find attractive. Sometimes it was uncomfortable, but I got over it. So are there other reasons men and women enjoy separate restrooms? Why do they exist in the first place?

Photo via Pixshark

Photo via Pixshark

They haven’t actually been around that long. The first gendered toilets in The United States were legally established in 1887 in Massachusetts. Victorian beliefs about gender combined with a growing consumer culture created these spaces for women. These newly developed urban spaces drove women into the public sphere, and these female-only spaces were created in response. It’s not just bathrooms that became separated by sex; banks, trains, post offices, nearly every public space became gendered.

The strict social barrier between men’s and women’s toilets persists in part due to a clause in the Uniform Plumbing Code (1928), which says, “separate toilet facilities shall be provided for each sex.” The code was created to establish safety and uniformity in public plumbing, and it is updated every three years. The gender values that made their way into the original code continue to exist today.

Historian Katherine O’Bryan suggests that in 19th century rural America, these female-only spaces were actually desired by women as an escape from male-centered public spaces. Here women worked to “regender” public spaces so that they would be more comfortable; we continue to see this today. Women socialize substantially more than men do in public restrooms, and while they also follow a strict bathroom etiquette, women admit they feel comfortable in restrooms. Men, on the other hand, admit to a certain amount of pressure and anxiety in the restroom.

So if society gave up on gendered restrooms, women would certainly be compromising the friendly socialization (and, I am told, some cleanliness); but would that small comfort be worth doing away with? Amnesty International doesn’t think so. In their six step plan to “Stop Violence Against Schoolgirls”, number 2 reads, “ensure that schools have sex-segregated toilets and washrooms.”

LGBT non-profit Lamda Legal disagrees, saying “Gender-segregated bathrooms are no more “safe” for non-transgender women than unisex bathrooms, and there are already laws protecting people from criminal conduct in public restrooms.”

So while restrooms are a safe space for women in that they are more comfortable, they aren’t necessarily physically safer. Though, Amnesty International’s plan for segregated bathrooms may be more effective in places where the laws and culture surrounding women’s safety are not as stringent.

Public bathrooms separated by gender are not going away anytime soon. Even though we have visual barriers between us in the bathroom, there is nothing to protect each other from the sounds and smells we emanate. So ironically, one of the most private of human functions is truly one of the most public. It seems to me that gendering bathrooms heightens that taboo and heightens the lack of understanding about other genders; but it’s also served a protective purpose.

The question is, do we still need protection from the opposite sex? If we find ourselves answering “yes”, let’s address that.

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One Comment on “Bashful in the Bathroom: As Gender Identities Become More Fluid, Shouldn’t Our Plumbing?”

  1. sarah May 29, 2015 at 3:04 pm #

    This is wonderful. You leave us with a very important question that needs to be addressed.

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