“I’ll keep watch,” a sweet stranger offered, and after a second’s hesitation, I pushed through the swinging door of the men’s room. Desperado.
Man, it was weird in there. The row of urinals looked sinister to me, like something used for some bizarre, coercive sanitary ritual. I missed the overpowering floral scent, the little baskets of moisturizer or wrapped tampons, the full-length mirror to check for wardrobe malfunctions. A hurried pee, and I was out of there.
What would it have felt like if the room had been full of men, urine streaming and splashing from the troughs, satisfied zips? I would never ask someone transgender or nonbinary to go every day to a place that was meant to be a refuge, yet felt so alien. If you are, in every way except the bits, a woman, use the women’s room. The myth of transgender individuals endangering women? Just that. A myth.
What does bother me is the prospect of multi-user, unisex restrooms. Single-use rooms are different; I remember grinning in relief when, squinting at the sign to make sure I was entering The Right Door, I read the words “We Don’t Care.” Illinois bans gender markers from any bathroom designed for only one person at a time, as do many other states and cities. This is practical and kind; it lets people accompany small children or help someone who is frail or has a disability. But the thought of rushing to the loo and finding a bunch of men standing at urinals disconcerts my old-fashioned soul.
For perhaps too long I have thought of the Ladies’ as a sanctuary. A place where you scheme about outwitting chauvinist male colleagues. Where you weep because you just saw an old boyfriend at another table, and he is clearly besotted with his companion. Where other women console you and become indignant on your behalf—or lend you a tampon or an Alleve—or tell you that the back of your skirt is hooked on your underwear and your fanny is exposed.
Screenwriters know. Bathrooms wind up as scenes of threat or shared confidence, illicit sex or some other illicit exchange. They are private places, which makes them automatically interesting, but they are also places you go when you are vulnerable. Maybe you are about to throw up, or you are bleeding so heavily you have soaked your skirt, or you are soaked in sweat after walking at lunch on a hot day, or your head throbs, or you are so furious you are about to quit a job you cannot afford to quit. If someone has kindly provided a settee, you can slip off painful shoes and relax for a minute, gather yourself, unobserved.
Why am I more ready to do that with a stranger of my own gender? My husband was always wonderfully sympathetic when I had cramps, and he takes tender care when I am ill or upset; surely there are other men who would respond to mundane distresses with compassion. Certainly not every woman will. But in the way I was taught that all Catholics were kind and good (not!), I have been taught that women understand women, and the sisterhood can be trusted.
Some designers are suggesting urinals that can be used by males and females alike, and can be separated by screens. Again, I feel an irrational recoil. For one thing, we have to take off half our wardrobe; all a man has to do is unzip. We are automatically more naked, more vulnerable. And depending on age and time of the month, we have more mopping up to do. Even in a loo for all genders, provision should be made for those of us who have to disrobe, and who cannot wave our anatomy about to dry it in the breeze.
Others suggest putting urinals in cubicles, which rather defeats their speedy point. The winning concept currently is to isolate a row of urinals in a section of the toilet room that is not directly visible to those in other areas. How weird it will be, to hear the rumble of male voices in the sanctuary. Will we begin sharing intimate details, commiserating, laughing together? Trust should not be predicated upon plumbing, I tell myself. They might even give better romantic advice.
My conditioned readiness to let down my guard only with my own gender, a la Phyllis Schlafly, is useless in a world where gender is ceasing to matter. The Human Rights Campaign recommends that employers grant access to a restroom that matches an employee’s “full-time gender presentation,” but even that is out of date. In a world of unisex fashions, hairstyles, and adornment, presentation is less and less easy to categorize. That is frustrating those who live by anatomy, and they have redoubled their efforts: for every inclusive law passed, an outrageous one pops up. In 2016, South Dakota became the first state to force transgender students in public schools to use the restroom that corresponds with their ”chromosomes and anatomy” at birth. In 2017, Glasgow, Scotland, took down all the Girls and Boys signs in their public schools to help students struggling with gender identity. Legislators in more than a dozen states have proposed bills restricting access to public restrooms according to—well, they say “sex as biologically defined,” but the brain is part of biology, so I am not sure that washes. Sex on the birth certificate, then. They cannot rely on anatomy, because it can be surgically altered (though these people are trying their hardest to prevent that from happening).
Back in 2015, Texas wanted to award $2,000 in damage reparations for the “mental anguish” experienced by any student encountering a transgender student in the “wrong” restroom.
No damages were considered for the transgender student; another bill suggested they be fined $4,000 and charged with a Class A misdemeanor.
India simply created a third gender, hijras, for transgender people, and Thailand did the same, creating “pink lotus” public toilets for “kathoeys,” who were anatomically male but transgender. Where the transgender men who were anatomically female were to go is not clear. And how do you accommodate nonbinary individuals who wish to shed gender altogether? It can be shed; it is a cultural construct, based on anatomy but not reducible to anatomy.
Besides, third gender solutions only draw more awkward attention to their users, keeping them at risk. In a huge study by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 12 percent reported being verbally harassed in a public restroom for being transgender, and almost 60 percent reported avoiding public restrooms for fear of harassment or assault. In a study of transgender teens, the risk of assault was higher when they were forced to use a restroom or locker room that did not match their gender identity.
How did we decide to segregate restrooms in the first place? Some say the segregation began in the rigidly gendered Victorian era, and before the Industrial Revolution, toilets were often communal and mixed. Others point to ancient art that shows the sexes carefully segregated. We do have evidence that the first sex-separated public toilets in the West were a temporary set-up for a Parisian ball in 1739. The practice caught on for the usual reasons: social morality, privacy, sanitation, and the protection of women’s bodies from rape or sexual harassment or the memories of such. What that list misses is the camaraderie, the sense of refuge, and the elimination (if you forgive the pun) of the male gaze, before which a heterosexual woman might not wish to bleed or puke or toot. A more realistic acceptance of the body, an earthier sexuality, might let us feel sexy when breaking wind or heaving—but I doubt it. The better goal, I suppose, is to not need to feel sexy in front of the opposite sex. But such a dreary world that would be, if we all stopped parading and primping and glossing our feathers like exquisite birds….
We are entering a world where fewer distinctions are made, fewer lines are drawn. Empathy and acceptance are not automatically determined by membership in the same category, whether it is gender, age, or race. There is no point looking for refuge in those clubs, using an accident of birth as a promise of commonality. We are all in this human thing together. And I will make my peace with urinals if I have to.
I just hope the graffiti stays fun.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.