Imagining the Socialist Bathroom

Public restrooms are the one area of American life where access to a basic universal necessity remains strictly controlled by anatomy.

This persistent version of “separate but equal” does more than express a sense of propriety or privacy. It imposes order and implies policing.

Bathroom segregation hasn’t always been only about gender. Jim Crow laws required the establishment of separate facilities for whites and blacks. In that era public restrooms doubly anatomized users, maintaining racial boundaries at a most elemental level of existence.

In the 1970s, restroom segregation was further politically freighted. Opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment invoked the specter of unisex restrooms and gay marriage as examples of the horrors that would surely come to pass if the constitution was amended to guarantee equal rights for women.

So perhaps it was inevitable that the struggle for transgender rights would ultimately land squarely in the restroom.

Old Assumptions

Much of the current conflict over bathroom rights still revolves around the pivot of old assumptions: the idea that one ought to relieve oneself in a place allotted to one’s true gender.

The main point in dispute is where this truth of gender actually lies. For social conservatives, gender is evident at birth, in the supposedly unambiguous facts of anatomy. End of discussion. For many trans people and their advocates, gender is a no less essential inner truth, albeit one sometimes belied by the outer signs of anatomy.

These viewpoints may never be harmonized. But do they need to be for trans people to achieve bathroom justice? Do we, as a society, truly need sex-segregated public restrooms?

Halting answers to this question have already been put forward, and some of these solutions are not especially controversial. A version of the unisex toilet — consisting in a single toilet and sink behind a lockable door — is already widely available.

Of course, current practices remain a hodgepodge. Some cities prohibit single-occupancy toilets from being gender-assigned, but many states have laws requiring male and female designation if two single-occupancy toilets exist.

But single-occupancy toilets won’t serve all needs. High-traffic areas in airports, lecture halls, museums, or stadiums will always require large-scale facilities.

Meeting these needs will require us to think about public spaces in new ways and to design built environments in a genuinely progressive style — in a manner that provides greater personal freedoms for everyone while restricting the access of no one.

Oaxaca’s anthropological museum at Monte Alban has a large unisex facility that could serve as a model for this type of public space.

In place of two separate rooms designated for men and women, the Monte Alban museum bathroom features a large opening that permits a partial view of the restroom from a busy hallway outside. Thus, no one need fear being trapped in an enclosed space with a menacing stranger. Along the long right wall is arrayed a series of secure enclosed stalls for anyone to use. Along the left wall are faucets and mirrors.

The design is at once unsegregated, child-friendly, and handicapped accessible. Accommodating a section of urinals behind a partition would also be simple enough. So would equipping each stall with a disposal bin for sanitary napkins. (I cannot remember whether the space included a diaper changing station or two. This, too, would pose no special problem.)

Democratic Spirit

A design like this communicates important messages. Men, women, and others are more alike than they are different; their restroom needs are essentially the same. In an unsegregated social space, there need be no special classes needing special protections. Here, the personal security of each is communally underwritten by the personal security of all.

There are additional benefits. Fathers who accompany small girls or mothers who accompany small boys no longer confront a dilemma. Indeed, as legal scholar Mary Anne Case notes, the abolition of restroom segregation would relieve many others of anxious dilemmas, such as “the adult son waiting outside the door of the women’s room for his Alzheimers-afflicted mother to emerge, and the wheelchair bound husband left to navigate the handicapped stall in the men’s room without the help of his wife.”

No doubt the model I am proposing would not solve every problem. Not everyone is equally conscientious about cleaning up after themselves. Thus, it is very much in the spirit of this proposal to outfit toilets with self-cleaning apparatuses wherever possible. The incorporation of bidets, consistent with Japan’s discriminating toilet culture, could also to be considered.

And why stop there? Tasteful appointments in a variety of styles could make using the restroom a less oppressive and more enjoyable experience.

There are broad historical precedents for the sort of radical bathroom vision I am sketching here. Sex-segregated public toilets actually represented a progressive innovation in the late nineteenth century; before then, workplace restrooms had been for men only. Ambitious constructions undertaken by the Works Progress Administration were large, beautiful, and democratic in spirit — and they also embodied a then-radical idea, making commodious restrooms widely available to the public.

And as the photographs of Soviet-era bus stops recently popularized by Christopher Herwig’s coffee-table book remind us, functionality can and ought to be beautiful. The people’s bus stops expressed a future-forward ethos, planting avant-garde architectural design in quotidian settings and out-of-the-way places.

All of which goes to say that an advance for the rights of transgender people need not be a zero-sum game; it can also be an advance for the rights of all people.

As a robustly democratic space, unisex toilets would balance public spiritedness — gender equality and equal access — against the need for privacy without reifying gender. Properly invested with modern appurtenances, unisex public toilets could even allow for the development of new modes of “public luxury.”

By contrast, the Human Rights Campaign’s formula, which advocates for access to the toilet corresponding to one’s “full time gender presentation,” fundamentally lacks imagination.

It conditions transgender access on something that sounds suspiciously like a dress code (how one “presents”) while giving identity a boring, workaday definition (“full time”) at that. It represents one more blandly liberal accommodation for one more finely delineated group within the scope of institutions that aim to segment and segregate (and ultimately to stratify).

That segregation is neither inevitable nor necessary. Our goal today should not be to fortify the gender system by hardening it into the built architectural environment; it should be to open it up and to create spaces that allow for new possibilities.

Unisex design squares socialist aims with queer principles. At the wide door of the unisex restroom, everyone is welcome and no one has to explain themselves.

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Roger Lancaster is a professor of anthropology and cultural studies at George Mason University and author of Sex Panic and the Punitive State.

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