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Stalled Out: How Social Bias Is Segregating America's Bathrooms

Public restrooms are sparking moral panic nationwide, and not for the first time. What, exactly, makes shared bathrooms so ripe for controversy? And what can we do about it?

The restroom, the john, the commode, the porcelain throne—never is our penchant to cloak uncomfortable topics in euphemism as practiced as when we're talking about toilets. The only thing rarer than readily accessible public bathrooms are casual conversations about them—and yet public bathrooms have been a constant in the news cycle all year. That's because, in 2016, North Carolina became the first state to pass—and later repeal—a law requiring transgender people to use the restroom that matches the sex on their birth certificate. Facing boycotts from major businesses, including PayPal and the NBA, and a flurry of costly legal challenges—such as a lawsuit brought by the federal government—North Carolina backed down, but this bathroom war is far from over. Sixteen other states have introduced bills that would do the same, and while many of them have failed to make it as far as North Carolina's, legislation is still pending in 10 of them. You might assume that sex-segregated restrooms reflect biological truths, but, historically, bathroom access has been dictated by social biases more than anatomical differences. Here's how public bathrooms became a battleground, and what we can do about it.

Sex-Segregated Bathrooms Are a Recent Invention

In the United States, a "separate but equal" mentality rules public bathrooms: The men's and women's rooms are separate, and usually only need to offer equal square footage. Urinals take up less space than stalls, so equal floor space does not ensure equal opportunities for bladder relief. And yet, this set-up still represents progress toward social equality: Not so long ago, public women's rooms were virtually non-existent—a woman's place was primarily at home, and to build public women's rooms was to welcome them into public life. The female bladder was (and remains) a "leash," as Clara Greed—a professor emerita of the University of the West of England—describes it, limiting where and when women could move around the world. As women increasingly entered the workforce, Victorian values—and inequalities—were preserved in laws and building codes that required the segregation of restroom facilities by sex.

And Took Inspiration From Racial Segregation

A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.

Jim Crow laws segregating bathrooms by race emerged at the same time as those separating facilities by sex. Support for segregation (of bathrooms, buses, and most other public facilities) was often rooted in the idea that black men were sexual predators and white women their prey—a myth spread by newspapers at least as far back as 1892, when an editorial in Memphis' Daily Commercial proclaimed: "There is no longer a restraint upon the brute passion of the Negro ... neither laws nor lynchings can subdue his lusts." It wasn't just paternalism: In the 1940s, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order banning racial discrimination in defense-related federal jobs, white women protested, claiming that sharing facilities with black women would increase their risk of venereal disease.

The Same Arguments Are Coming Up in the Bathroom Bill Debates

Contemporary anti-transgender bathroom bills—cookie-cutter legislation modeled after rules written by the Christian non-profit Alliance Defending Freedom—have borrowed arguments made on behalf of last century's gender- and race-segregation policies. Proponents of these bills argue that they will prevent sexual assault: "He could be there to bring damage to a young girl," one North Carolina pastor told NPR in 2016. (Never mind the fact that trans individuals are significantly more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators.) While the alliterative allure of the phrase "bathroom bill" has made this issue the centerpiece of the discussion about these laws, they're often about more than just restroom rights. These bills draw the battle lines between red states like North Carolina and Texas and the progressive cities they harbor: Key provisions void cities' own anti-discrimination laws.

The Costs of Segregated, Unequal Bathrooms Are Real

Why is integration such a big deal? The stakes are higher than you might think: It's about opportunity as much as convenience. While plenty of sociological research has suggested that our muted, passive interactions with most strangers in restrooms are governed by strict yet unspoken behavior codes, Mary Anne Case, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, has found that a significant amount of active networking takes place in men's rooms. She argues that equality will never be achieved while sex-segregated restrooms persist, citing John Kerry's admission on The Daily Show that a surprising number of men took the opportunity to introduce themselves in the bathroom during his 2004 presidential campaign. California's Bohemian Grove—a members-only retreat known as the epitome of boys' clubs—excluded women in part because their presence would impinge upon the male clientele's "hallowed freedom to pee" when and where they wanted at the facility's campground. It took a lawsuit to set the club straight.

But There Are Ambitious Ideas to Fix These Problems

In 2010, Kathryn Anthony, a professor of architecture at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign, told Congress that bathroom parity is an issue "near and dear to the hearts and bladders" of women across the U.S. She was testifying in favor of proposed federal legislation that would have required an equal number of men's and women's rooms in all new federal buildings. Anthony encouraged Congress to go even further, to include mandatory retrofitting to bring buildings into compliance and to make the construction of better-designed bathrooms part of the next national stimulus package. The bill, however, died in Congress in 2012. Building codes, set by local governments, may be a "more powerful means" than federal legislation to rectify inequalities, according to Anthony. But what sort of bathrooms should those codes specify? Single-user stalls, modeled after airplane or family bathrooms, that are large enough to accommodate individuals with disabilities, may be the most efficient and inclusive design.

A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.