After a long day wandering Paris, I am always relieved to spot a red and yellow sign defacing a subdued French street. I am not yearning for a Big Mac. Instead, I am looking for a different comfort: available restrooms. That an American fast food restaurant would be the most reliable place to find restrooms in Europe is no coincidence. Restrooms are an essential component of the conveniences promised by such establishments. Like burgers and shakes, restrooms allow us to travel easily across expansive landscapes. Back in the United States, the freedom to move has essentially become a demand that we move or, more accurately, consume. America is synonymous with travel by automobile. Writing about the impact of the Model T on the American psyche in Cannery Row (1945), John Steinbeck explains, “two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford coil than the clitoris.”
We might be more invested in who was born with a clitoris than previous American generations. After North Carolina passed House Bill 2 (HB2) in March 2016 requiring transgender people to use restrooms that match the gender listed on their birth certificate, the Department of Education and the Justice Department issued a letter directing public schools to allow students to use restrooms that accord with their gender identity. They contend that this access was mandated under Title IX. In May 2016, eleven states filed suit in response to this directive, which they deemed an overreach of executive authority.
Recent debates about transgender restroom usage have focused largely on privacy or equality. Though both conservatives and transgender activists alike invoke a right to “access” public restrooms, this right is rarely contextualized within the history of American transit. But American transit culture produced the American restroom and that restroom reflects and shapes our culture. As the designator implies, the American public restroom is already quite public. By cutting transgender people off from public restrooms, we deny them access to an essential component of the American experience, one yoked to conceptualizations of worthy citizens. We also expose concerns about the flip side of American travel, concerns about promiscuity that arise when strangers pass through small towns. As transgender scholar Jack (sometimes Judith) Halberstam explains in Female Masculinity (1998), breaching the gender binary is “inevitably transformed into deviance.” The clean American restroom promises family road trips, cruising along with Mom and Pop in the Winnebago or minivan. It discourages other types of cruising. Gaps between stall doors announce that the restroom is for sanitation purposes: urinating, defecating, and handwashing but certainly not gender-bending or screwing. When transgender activists demand to use public restrooms, they align themselves with an American liberal ideology that values freedoms like driving and consuming, and they attempt to purge themselves of deviant associations. This is understandable: many transgender people simply want to fit in. But with efforts to purify every American space, something is undoubtedly lost—a disruptive potential associated with a different type of American individualism and exemplified by a different sort of transgender politics.
Ironically, given that the same right ensures women access to abortion under Roe v. Wade, conservatives often argue that transgender people should use the restroom that matches the gender on their birth certificate, since “biological females and males” are entitled to privacy under the Fourth Amendment. Conservatives contend that boys and girls should not have to tinkle alongside people who have different birth certificate genders than they do. Mainstream transgender activists respond that transgender people also have a right to privacy, to use a restroom without being exposed to questions or harassment. “Violation of the Right to Privacy” is the second count in a lawsuit challenging HB2. “Just how do the potty police plan to enforce their laws,” these advocates ask, “by checking genitals at the door?” While they expose the absurdity of the conservative position, arguments in favor of transgender privacy elide how public restrooms proliferated in America and the already extensive regulation of these purportedly private places. Americans traveling in Europe know that public restrooms are not a given, even in wealthy countries.
… both conservatives and transgender activists alike invoke a right to “access” public restrooms, this right is rarely contextualized within the history of American transit. But American transit culture produced the American restroom and that restroom reflects and shapes our culture.
Few things are as quintessentially American as the road trip. One category of road trip stories presents these journeys as the purview of families. Comedies like National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), RV (2006), and Little Miss Sunshine (2006) depict drives that bridge divides between generations increasingly separated by television and cellphone screens. But there is another category of road trip, celebrated by authors like Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe and epitomized in films like Easy Rider (1969), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and Thelma and Louise (1991). These road trips feature outsiders (often turned outlaws) drifting through American towns and liberating themselves from various social mores. A subgenre of the friendship movie splits the difference between these categories. Films like Sideways (2004) or Due Date (2010) portray the road trip as a final hurrah before marriage or parenthood, one last opportunity to explore relationships outside the monogamous heterosexual couple. Ultimately, road trip narratives are vehicles for telling ourselves what being an American means: are we the rebel or the nuclear family? Increasingly, the family is winning out.
As the Ernest Hemingway short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (1933) and the Edward Hopper painting “Nighthawks” (1942) attest, Americans have long enjoyed spending late nights in clean restaurants sampling the coffee and pie. With the invention of the automobile and growth of American highways came an increase in diners, drive-ins, and, eventually, drive-thrus. Eric Schlosser reveals in Fast Food Nation (2006) that the genius of the McDonald brothers was homogeneity. In 1948, they fired all the carhops from their California drive-in, reduced their menu to burgers and fries, and installed workstations where an employee was responsible for just one aspect of burger assembly. Whereas the carhops were largely women, selling malts and sexuality to teenage boys, these new employees were men, hired to assuage the worries of upstanding American families. As cars drove through the newly remodeled restaurant, patrons were handed burgers with ketchup, mustard, onions, and two pickles (no substitutions). Manifest destiny and the freedom to transverse the rugged American terrain had been reduced to the ability to choose between the hamburger and the cheeseburger. In 1960, there were 250 McDonald’s. By 1973, that number had ballooned to 3,000. Now, there are over 35,000 McDonald’s worldwide, and all are expected to adhere to strict protocols regarding menus, advertising, layout, and employee dress. In the United States, over 8,000 of these establishments have playgrounds. Almost all have restrooms.
Like American highways, American restrooms are highly regulated. Since 1990, any California service station located near a highway has had to provide free restrooms to the public. In most states, restaurants that seat over twenty people are required to offer restrooms to customers. State rest areas began proliferating along American highways beginning in 1956 with the passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which recommended the creation of rest areas for drivers traveling long distances. Shortly thereafter, the American Association of State Highway Officials issued a set of policies for the creation and design of these spaces. One policy determined that approximately thirty minutes was the longest drivers should have to travel between rest opportunities. This policy, which required the creation of rest areas only where other facilities were absent, essentially mandates the patchwork of government rest areas and private service stations and restaurants that we experience today. As with many things American, government policy colludes with consumerism.
Much restroom regulation stems from the efforts of disability advocates. Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, lists requirements and includes diagrams to aid in restroom design. Restroom stalls must be large enough to accommodate a standard wheelchair. There are rules regarding signage, door width, grab bar placement, and toilet type, and height. More recently, over a dozen states have passed bills granting retail customers with medical conditions like Crohn’s disease the right to use employee-only restrooms. When they fought for the passage of ADA, disability advocates seized upon the American travel impetus to advance their claims. They argued that, like other Americans, disabled Americans have the right to travel, and public restrooms should accommodate that right. Arguments against accessible restrooms focus on the inconvenience and expense of creating these restrooms for business owners. Perhaps unfairly, no one worries about disabled people having sex in restrooms. But sex and other perceived perversions are precisely what animates current debates about transgender restroom usage.
Scholars delight in demonstrating how bathrooms reflect social mores and are reservoirs for social anxieties. In History of Shit (1978), Dominique Laporte contends that the proliferation of the toilet marked the creation of modern individualism. Washington University sociologist Laud Humphreys infamously camped out in park restrooms in Saint Louis to document interactions between men seeking anonymous gay sex. He describes in Tearoom Trade (1970) how public restrooms reflect the dominant values of American culture even as they facilitate alternative lifestyles and sexual practices. José Muñoz captures the transgressive and almost magical potential of the American restroom in Cruising Utopia (2009), showing how queer sex in public places enables new types of intimacy and social relations.
Few things are as quintessentially American as the road trip. One category of road trip stories presents these journeys as the purview of families. Comedies like National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), RV (2006), and Little Miss Sunshine (2006) depict drives that bridge divides between generations increasingly separated by television and cellphone screens. … Ultimately, road trip narratives are vehicles for telling ourselves what being an American means: are we the rebel or the nuclear family?
Three films depicting gender-bending Americans, each released ten years after the previous, demonstrate the dichotomy between a politics of restroom conformity and one of revolution. In To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), three drag queens (notably not transgender performers) road-tripping from New York to Hollywood are pulled over by a sheriff who sexually assaults one of them. Shortly thereafter, they stop at a rural rest area, and we see them walking out of a doorway with a large sign reading “WOMEN.” When their car is unable to start, they must stay in the nearby town, where they volunteer to organize the annual Strawberry Social. After the sheriff begins threatening the drag queens, community members defend them. The work the drag queens perform for the Strawberry Social has assured the townsfolk that they honor community traditions and can be safely welcomed. The drag queens are accepted, but only because they are willing to conform.
A transgender woman named Bree discovers she has a teenage son named Toby in Transamerica (2005). Posing as a Christian missionary, Bree bails Toby out of New York jail, where he is being held for prostitution and drug charges. Without informing him who she is, Bree agrees to drive Toby to California, but she balks as Toby does drugs and solicits people during their journey. When Toby asks her opinion of zoos, Bree responds, “The animals may not be free, but they’re safe.” Bree is deeply invested in disassociating herself with any form of deviancy, and she willingly trades freedom for safety. Ultimately, only her guilt and regard for biological ties compel her to accept her son.
Unlike To Wong Foo, which subverts sexuality for the sake of community, and Transamerica, which asserts the primacy of biological family, Tangerine (2015) centers transgender sex and extra-familial bonds. Tangerine focuses on two transgender prostitutes who support each other emotionally and financially. It opens with a shot of a yellow surface scribbled with words and phone numbers. At the center of the surface is a brown circle. For a few seconds, before the shot retreats to reveal a table in a restaurant booth, the brown circle appears to be a glory hole in a bathroom stall. The restaurant, we soon discover, is a Donut Time in Hollywood, and the film both begins and climaxes here. The structure Donut Time lends the film mirrors the structure it lends to the protagonists, providing them cheap food, a place to convene, and, at least implicitly, restrooms to pee or fuck in. The music for the opening shot, a rendition of “Toyland” (popularized by the 1961 Disney movie Babes in Toyland), ironically celebrates the coming together of table and glory hole, of family dining and sex. It suggests that both are fundamentally American. Tangerine claims that transgender people are entitled to use bathroom facilities, to enter this American space and fully occupy it.
Transience defines the experience of many transgender Americans, making public restroom access even more essential. Faced with housing and employment discrimination, one in five transgender Americans has been homeless. An estimated 20 to 40 percent of homeless youths are transgender or LGBQ. Homelessness contributes to the astounding rates of assault and murder transgender Americans experience. The full force of this violence is realized in the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning and the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry. We learn at the end of Paris Is Burning that the vibrant Venus Xtravaganza was strangled to death in a hotel room. Boys Don’t Cry is based on the story of Brandon Teena, who was forced to leave home when he began identifying as a man and was later raped and murdered. With their emphasis on sanitized and homogenized public space, arguments for restroom equality facilitate the exclusion of the socially impure and marginalized. Far from helping many transgender people, they exacerbate their social vulnerabilities.
Transience defines the experience of many transgender Americans, making public restroom access even more essential. Faced with housing and employment discrimination, one in five transgender Americans has been homeless. An estimated 20 to 40 percent of homeless youths are transgender or LGBQ.
During her remarks about the new guidelines for transgender restroom usage in public schools, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, an African American from North Carolina, addressed transgender bathroom usage in the context of civil rights. She reminded the audience that, not many decades ago, restrooms were also divided by race, and she addressed transgender people directly: “No matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you, and we will do everything we can to protect you.” Lynch clearly intends to make transgender Americans feel safer, yet her statement makes visibility an important precursor to equality. The government eye must reach, read, and understand you for you to count, Lynch implies. Even transgender “passing,” the goal for many transgender people hoping to fully transition, becomes suspect under this political paradigm. Lynch underscores the impossibly public nature of the public restroom debate, even as she assumes that government visibility is an unmitigated good.
As any American who has lavished silent thanks on McDonald’s for providing them a place to piss in Paris knows, a public restroom can be worth celebrating. Yet it comes with its own side of values. When mainstream transgender advocates claim the right to use public restrooms, they are asserting their right to privacy and equality under American law, but they are also claiming a right to authorized and homogenized movement and transport. By policing the American public restroom, putting it under the regulation of not only the American government but also government friends and allies like the fast-food industry, we police the American public. By claiming a right to piss, we forgo other possible value systems, including ones that might value transgressive or illicit behaviors and people outside of orthodox family structures.