The Past Hundred Years Of Gender-Segregated Public Restrooms

Aaron Fernandez / BuzzFeed News

During one of the Democratic debates last December, as a five-minute commercial break came to a close, there was a problem: Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton hadn’t yet returned to the stage. The moderators, forced to abide by the constraints of live television, carried on without her, until, a few minutes later, she resumed her place at the previously empty podium. “Sorry,” she said, with a let’s-just-move-on smile. Almost immediately, Twitter was ablaze with reports that she’d been delayed in the restroom.

To many female viewers, it was a relatable moment. Public women’s bathrooms that are inconveniently located, clogged with long lines, and equipped with only a couple stalls (whose efficiency can’t possibly match that of the three-plus urinals in many respective men’s rooms) are quotidian annoyances for women. But others took Clinton’s mid-debate break as an opportunity to shame her for answering nature’s most basic call. The Monday after the debate, Donald Trump was seemingly repulsed. “I know where she went. It’s disgusting,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about it. No, it’s too disgusting.”

Trump’s antipathy finds itself comfortably at home in a 100-year-plus history of cultural anxieties surrounding the public restroom. Concerns about secretions, disease, and physical threats to the body are vessels through which deeper and more significant anxieties — regarding gender, sex, shame, and power — have been codified into law and reified by social norms over the span of decades.

« Trans people are only the latest marginalized group to be actively denied equal access to public restrooms — and, by extension, to equal participation in public life. »

Now those cultural anxieties have zeroed in on trans people, who are being targeted by anti-LGBT bills ricocheting around state legislatures across the country. The most hotly contested bathroom bill has been North Carolina’s HB2, which prevents trans people from using restrooms that match their gender identity in government-run buildings. The bill, and others like it, is particularly erroneous when considering trans people are far more likely to be the victims of violence in public restrooms than the cis women they purport to protect. Conservatives peddling the narrative that “men in dresses” will prey on little girls in restrooms were instrumental in HB2’s passing; the same narrative thwarted LGBT nondiscrimination pushes in the past, in cities from Fayetteville, Arkansas to Houston, Texas.

Now, both the Department of Justice and the White House have been fighting back. After North Carolina filed a lawsuit against the DOJ for its condemnation of HB2, the DOJ filed its own lawsuit against North Carolina for infringing upon trans residents’ civil rights. Last week began with Attorney General Loretta Lynch delivering one of the most powerful speeches ever given by a government official in the name of trans equality, and ended when, on Friday, the Obama administration sent guidelines to public schools saying trans students must be allowed to use facilities consistent with their gender identity.

Many attribute the dozens of anti-trans bills that have been introduced since late 2015, and the few that have since passed — including North Carolina’s, one in Mississippi, and the newly recalled ordinance in Oxford, Alabama — to staunch anti-LGBT backlash in the wake of marriage equality. But more broadly, this brand of anti-trans panic is bound up in the natural evolution of American public restrooms, which have perpetuated gross inequities since their inception, with racial segregation being the most obvious, and by far the most egregious, example. Whatever civil rights battle is being waged at any given time in history, you can almost guarantee that the bathroom will be a primary battleground: the place where the bogeyman lives. Trans people are only the latest marginalized group to be actively denied equal access to safe, clean, and secure public restrooms — and, by extension, to equal participation in public life.

Most Americans consider bathrooms divided by gender to be a given born out of anatomical differences, rather than a specific set of decisions made by a select few and governed by cultural values. Joel Sanders, a professor of architecture at Yale University and editor of Stud: Architectures of Masculinity, told BuzzFeed News in a recent phone interview that throughout the history of modern design, a governing principle in functionalism has presumed that form follows function. Consequently, many assume that the design of public restrooms has been biologically preordained — a structural inevitability. The truth, Sanders says, is to the contrary: “That kind of mythology — that the shape of bathroom fixtures are linked to and reflect biology — is one of the ways in which we use science, nature, function, anatomy, and architecture to give ostensibly objective basis for what is, in the end, something that’s very culturally contingent.” Functionalism, then, lends credence to the illusion of innate binary gender distinctions.

Even before the late 19th century, when the first law mandating gender separation was enacted in Massachusetts in 1887, public restrooms in the United States have been designed, built, and maintained with one group of people in mind: straight, white, able-bodied cisgender men, who alone in U.S. history have been able to pee in peace. While it might seem like the current uproar over gender and bathrooms is a brand-new social development, state-sanctioned gender separations in public restrooms have adversely affected women, gender-nonconforming people, and trans people for well over a hundred years — the relatively minor annoyance of being delayed in the restroom, à la Clinton, only scratches the surface of the imbalance these sanctions have bred. Men’s and women’s restrooms we largely take for granted today are the direct result of a long history involving the continual reproduction of outmoded concepts of gender difference, which have allowed countless forms of gender inequity to flourish unimpeded.

By 1920, 43 other states had joined Massachusetts in mandating gender separation in public restrooms. Terry S. Kogan, a law professor at the University of Utah, writes in “Sex Separation: The Cure-All For Victorian Social Anxiety” that “policymakers were motivated to enact toilet separation laws aimed at factories as a result of deep social anxieties over women leaving their homes — their appropriate ‘separate sphere’ — to enter the workforce.”

« A collision of Victorian paternalism and junk science birthed the gender-segregated public restroom. »

Though women had been leaving their homes to work in factories for decades, Kogan writes, the end of the 19th century saw a conflation of multiple social anxieties, from cholera panic left over from the Civil War to Victorian preoccupations with modesty and privacy, particularly concerning the body and bodily functions, to the mounting task of « protecting » fragile women in the public sphere. At the same time, burgeoning evolutionary biologists were peddling the theory that women were physically and mentally inferior to men. Thus, a collision of Victorian paternalism and junk science birthed the gender-segregated public restroom.

As women became more active in various aspects of public life, they had to be fitted into the interstitial spaces of a world that had not been built for them. (Male) architects and (male) city planners began to section off areas for them to exist out in the world, but without radically disrupting the precious social fabric of Man’s Land. These male decision-makers created separate spaces for women in everything from railroad cars to department stores to post offices. Public libraries, long since “bastions of male status that often excluded women,” began cordoning off women’s spaces as soon as they were provided any access (since some men were concerned that women would be “disruptive to the concentration of serious readers”). These spaces, decorated like living rooms and stocked with women’s magazines, provided discreet access to separate women’s restrooms, precursors to the fancy ladies’ rooms that can still be found today in high-end hotels and country clubs. Apparently, if a woman needed to venture into the messiness of a man’s world in the late 19th century, she had to be placed within a familiar pocket of domesticity.

More than that, however, her weaker body needed to be protected from the bathroom’s threat of dirt and disease. Kogan points out that many of the first laws mandating gender separation in water closets were actually “adopted by states as amendments to and extensions of earlier protective labor legislation aimed at women workers; these laws were not intended as neutral regulations for the mutual benefit of men and women alike.”

But of course, these comfortable, domestic, and hygienic safe havens were only ever afforded to white women. Decades before the “men in dresses will attack vulnerable ladies” ruse would be used to justify anti-trans bathroom discrimination, insinuations that racially desegregating public restrooms would harm white women proved a formidable barrier to achieving civil rights for black Americans. Today’s bugbear of the queer sexual deviant is directly preceded by the profoundly racist assumption, popularized after World War II, that black men would prey on white women should racial parity be established in public restrooms. As Gillian Frank detailed last November for Slate, the perceived sexual threat of sharing bathrooms with black people was coupled with a sanitary one — white women “emphasized that contact with black women in bathrooms would infect them with venereal diseases.” While separate women’s restrooms were indeed the product of sexist beliefs regarding women’s fragility and (lack of) power, white women were still afforded far more favorable restroom conditions than women of color — conditions they maintained for themselves through racist fearmongering.

By the 1990s, a full century after the first slew of gender segregation mandates, one would assume that the relics of Victorian paternalism would no longer apply to a modern world. The civil rights movement had already seen the abolishment of bathrooms segregated by race (which, while a clear step forward, by no means ended racial discrimination in public restrooms — trans people of color, for example, report problems using the bathroom at far higher rates than their white counterparts). But public restrooms remained steadfastly segregated by gender, and even the country’s most powerful women were still battling for equal access to physical slices of public life.

As recently as 1992, female U.S. senators did not have their own restroom. Before Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell announced that a new bathroom for women would be built on the Senate floor, there was only a men’s room there, reading “Senators Only” (which assumed, of course, that senators could only ever be — and would only ever be — men). The female senators were forced to walk a long way from the floor to relieve themselves among the tourists. And even when a restroom for female senators was finally completed in 1993, it had only two stalls; 20 years later, by which time there were 20 women in the Senate, long lines were a daily nuisance. In 2013, when a few of the senators spoke up about the inconvenience, two additional stalls were added to their restroom. Meanwhile, in the House, congresswomen also had to schlep to the tourist bathrooms in Statuary Hall until the 76 female members of the House finally got their own restroom in 2011.

« As recently as 1992, female U.S. senators did not have their own restroom. »

But the battle for equal restroom space hasn’t only been waged by and for the politically powerful. Working-class women in particular have suffered as a result of bathroom segregation. In 1979, Eileen Lynch, a carpenter’s apprentice based in Tennessee, worked on a three-acre site with a couple portable toilets designated for women and more than 20 used mostly by men. All of them were typically filthy and lacked toilet paper. After holding her urine on the job and suffering from a urinary tract infection, she occasionally used the clean, well-stocked restrooms in the powerhouse (technically off-limits to construction workers, though she said her male co-workers used it all the time) and was fired for doing so. She filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission; the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that women were placed at a higher risk of contracting infections due to unsanitary portable toilets. In another suit, filed in 2000 under Title VII, Audrey Jo DeClue, the first and only woman employed at the Central Illinois Light Company, complained that her employer did not provide any restroom facilities for her; while working on power lines, linemen are typically far away from any public restrooms, but male electrical workers typically have no problem relieving themselves outside, something DeClue was far more hesitant to do. (The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit decided against her.)

What both Lynch and DeClue’s experiences highlight is that even men’s and women’s restrooms that are similarly clean, similarly accessible, and equipped with the same number of stalls are not necessarily equal. Professor John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University and the self-described “father of potty parity,” says that achieving gender equity in restrooms through lawful means at first involved advocating for an equal number of men’s and women’s rooms in public spaces. “But traditionally, men’s and women’s rooms have been the same physical size,” he added, in a recent phone interview with BuzzFeed News. “Which is not really equal, because women’s [facilities] take up more space.” Combined with the fact that cisgender women take longer to do their business (some studies say up to two times as long as cis men do), pregnant people need to urinate more frequently, and menstruating people need to use the restroom for an entirely different reason, Banzhaf argues that equity can only be achieved if women are given access to more facilities than men are. Separate, in this case, is not equal.

“When I first proposed that the consequence of separate restrooms were that women would have to wait on longer lines — which could violate gender discrimination laws, or even the Constitution — people laughed in my face,” Banzhaf said.

But by now, many states have adopted potty parity laws, which differ from state to state. In New York City, the Restroom Equity Bill, passed in 2005, called for a 2-1 ratio of women’s rooms to men’s rooms in newly constructed public venues, a fairly common standard. Most potty parity laws only apply to the building codes of new structures, however, which has no legal impact upon the countless older buildings that are already fixtures of public life. Neither do most address the host of other issues of convenience, access, and safety that arise from gender-segregated public bathrooms: the mother who is forced to send her young sons into the mall men’s room alone; the elderly wife who can’t accompany her husband with dementia into his stall; the father who can’t change his baby’s diaper because changing tables are still mostly fixtures of women’s rooms; and the gender-nonconforming person who feels profoundly unsafe in either restroom — to name but a few.

“Bathrooms trigger homophobia — trans people are ‘gay people in drag', which is a complete misunderstand-ing of who trans people really are. »

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