People in Search of Safe Restrooms [is] a group founded here three years ago. It reflects a small but active movement, mostly on college campuses but also in a few cities, in which the bathroom, that prosaic fixture of past battles against racial segregation and for the rights of the disabled, has become an emotional and at times deeply personal symbol of a cultural and political divide.
In fact, bathrooms have become a cultural "fault line," said Mary Anne Case, a law professor at the University of Chicago, where the Queer Action Campaign for Gender-Neutral Bathrooms recently got 10 single-use restrooms on campus designated gender neutral.
"Very few spaces in our society remain divided by sex," Professor Case said. "There's marriage and there's toilets, and very little else."
To young transgender people, especially college students, the issue has particular resonance.
"Students are looking hard at the right to express their gender, a painful right of passage for every young adult," said Riki Wilchins, executive director of the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition, a nonprofit group in Washington that fights discrimination and violence based on gender stereotypes. "These kids are demanding the right to be who they are and what they are 24/7. They're tired of being harassed or hassled when they simply need to use a public facility."
And so many students - including those at Beloit College in Wisconsin, Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., and the University of California, Santa Barbara - have lobbied successfully for gender-neutral bathrooms.
At the New College of California, a liberal arts college in the Mission District of San Francisco, men's and women's rooms have recently given way to "de-gendered" restrooms, devoid of urinals as well as of white stick figures with pants or a skirt. Signs on the doors proclaim the new restroom politics: "Lots of people don't fit neatly into our culture's rigid two-gender system."
Yes, but lots of women care a great deal about not being exposed to men while they are in the bathroom. There are some obvious safety and privacy issues here.
I'm old enough to remember when the Equal Rights Amendment went down to defeat. One of the main things people obsessed about at the time was whether it would outlaw separate bathrooms. Proponents of the ERA worked hard to assure people that of course, somehow, it couldn't mean that.
I have no problem with the sort of bathrooms that accommodate only one person at a time being made available to anyone. But once you have more than one person using the same space, separating the sexes is important. Having to mix with men in the bathroom would be like having to mix with men in the locker room!
UPDATE: One emailer writes:
People in Search of Safe Restrooms ... I feel an acronym coming on...
And a female law school colleague writes:
As for gender-neutral bathrooms -- forget it! I'd just as soon eliminate the one stall model too. I hate the messy toilets on the 6th and 7th floors. So long as men can't pee straight, nor wipe after themselves, I sure would prefer to keep them out of my space. I have sit in their mess and it's disgusting.
Well, now that you mention it, maybe I should take back my statement that I have "no problem" with the single-user unisex bathroom. The truth is I do. Years ago, the single-user bathrooms in the law school were labeled for one sex or the other. (Usage note: I don't say "gender" for "sex." I don't say "limb" for "leg" either.) In those days, the women's room was one floor up from my office, which was on a floor with a men's room. Nowadays, I can use the bathroom on my own floor. But I much prefer the days when I had to go up a floor, but got to use a women-only room. The simple reason is that a bathroom used by men is dirtier. It doesn't have to be, but it is! Get your act together, guys! It's a wonder women are willing to live with you at all.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Okay, there's a delicate issue here. There are varieties of filth. Jiblog writes:
[G]uys have a tendency to leave the seat a little damp. Outside of that, womens' rooms are much, much dirtier. I speak from experience. From ages 16 to age 25, I was employed in retail industries in some way, shape, or form. I had to do numerous bathroom checks/cleanings, and without fail, the womens' rooms were always dirtier. And disgustingly so at times. I'll spare you all the details.
And I received email saying:
When I worked at [a Madison coffee shop] it was often my job to clean the restrooms, and the women's room was consistently dirtier than the men's room.
To which I answered:
Is it possible that the women's rooms were used more?
Do you think I'm more sensitive to the dirtiness of men (e.g. pee on the seat) and you're more sensitive to the dirtiness of women (sanitary products??)?
Oh, my friends: there is a divide between men and women!
I don't want to say anyone is better than anyone else, but, my friends, we are different! Please, leave us to our separate bathrooms, lest all hell break loose!
YET MORE: Sissy Willis comments.