An all-gender restroom at Santee High School in Los Angeles, California.
It's not the first time toilets have divided America
01:32 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and email. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Atlanta CNN  — 

Before I launch into the argument for making all restrooms in the United States gender neutral – that is, removing “men’s” and “women’s” labels – I want to show you a photo.

This is James Parker Sheffield.

James Parker Sheffield

Now a truly ridiculous question: Which restroom do you think he should use?

Men’s or women’s?

In the United States at the moment, the legal answer depends on location. If Sheffield is in North Carolina, it’s illegal for him to use a public men’s restroom. Since he’s a transgender man – his birth certificate has an “F” on it – he has to use the women’s.

If he’s at home in Atlanta, he can use the men’s.

“It’s now the law for me to share a restroom with your wife,” Sheffield wrote on Twitter along with his selfie. He posted that message in March, only hours after North Carolina passed a law making it illegal for transgender people to use public restrooms that correspond with their true gender identities.

The U.S. Justice Department recently said the law violates the Civil Rights Act. North Carolina on Monday sued the feds in defense of the regulation.

As it’s written, Sheffield would have to use the lady’s room or break the law.

That’s absurd, as the selfie and tweet make clear. Sheffield is a 36-year-old man who lives in Decatur, Georgia. He has a scruffy beard and a receding hairline, which he jokingly calls a “reverse fade.” If he walked into a lady’s restroom he’d likely be met with stares or screams or worse.

But you know what else is absurd? The idea that Sheffield – or anyone else – should have to choose a male or female restroom at all. And, beyond that, that any of us would feel entitled to decide someone else’s gender for them – and, consequently, where they can and can’t pee.

This isn’t a binary gender world. People don’t fit neatly into the “M” and “F” boxes. It’s time our public restrooms reflected that. The fairest way to do so is to desegregate restrooms by sex, and that means eliminating the men’s and women’s rooms in favor of “all gender” restrooms.

Think that’s an overreaction? Take a quick look at the history of bathroom politics in the United States. We’ve tried time and again to control who we sit and stand next to at the toilet.

In the 1960s, black civil rights activists were killed for trying to use “whites only” bathrooms. In the 1980s, gay men were harassed because the public wrongly assumed they could catch HIV-AIDS from a toilet. (AIDS was viewed then as a gay man’s disease). Restrooms weren’t required to be accessible to people with wheelchairs until the Americans with Disabilities act of 1990. And now, some cities and states are trying to keep transgender people out.

The only justification is bigotry and ignorance.

You might think that allowing a transgender person to use the restroom of their choice is a workable solution. It’s a first step. But Sheffield and others who don’t conform to gender norms face discrimination even when they’re legally allowed to choose which restroom to use.

Seventy percent of transgender people surveyed in Washington, for example, a city with progressive laws allowing people to use either restroom, reported “verbal harassment, assault and being denied access to public restrooms” because of their identities, according to a report from the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. Further, 54% reported medical problems “like dehydration, urinary tract infections, kidney infections and other kidney problems” because they avoided using restrooms entirely.

Sheffield told me he plans his days around where he can and can’t pee.

“I almost never go to the restroom in a place I haven’t been at least once before,” he told me. He cuts appointments short and avoids going out simply to avoid peeing in public. Sometimes he’ll find the one stall in a men’s room is occupied, or out of order. Other times he sits on the toilet for longer than necessary because he worries it’s suspicious a man would sit down to urinate.

“It’s not a good feeling to be a grown-up and wondering, ‘Am I going to make it to a restroom on time – and how do you explain it if you don’t,’” he said.

Such fears apply not only to transgender people but also those who don’t meet our rigid gender norms. In 2013, I met a female middle school student in Mississippi, for example, who told me her teachers wouldn’t let her use the girl’s restroom because she had short hair and wore hoodies. She looked too boyish.

Gendered restrooms support these biases.

“We need a restroom revolution in this country,” said Kathryn Anthony, an architecture professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

I agree. And there are simple places to start. Restaurants and small businesses with two single-unit restrooms simply can paint over the “M” and “W” on their doors and – ba-da-bing! – they’re gender inclusive. No one’s harmed as long as we men stop peeing on the toilet seat.

Philadelphia recently made that concept law for single-stall bathrooms. Other governments and businesses should follow. (And if you’re a business that is considering this sort of move, please send me a tweet).

Then, bigger leaps: The International Building Code should suggest all-gender restrooms become the norm, or at least be included, in larger businesses and public establishments. (That idea comes from Terry Kogan, a law professor at the University of Utah.)

City, state and federal governments also could legislate these restrooms into existence, too.

It won’t happen immediately, but new construction and renovations could be subject to our updated understanding of which types of bathrooms are safest for everyone. That’s the precedent set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Kogan said.

Harvey Molotch, a professor of sociology at New York University and co-editor of the book “Toilet: public restrooms and the politics of sharing,” outlined for me what he considers to be the Holy Grail of restrooms. Walk in and you’d see a long line of private toilet stalls, with floor-to-ceiling doors. On the other side would be a row of communal sinks. Anyone is free to use any stall – and there might be a row of urinals tucked away somewhere to the side.

The urinals could be left out of some restrooms, but they should be kept when possible, Molotch said, because they’re much more water-efficient than sit-down toilets.

All this sounds wildly inoffensive to me.

And it’s already happening.

The Cooper Union, a college in New York, announced on March 18 that it is removing gender identification from restrooms on campus and opening single-occupancy toilets up for anyone’s use. “We have always been ahead of our time and we must continue being leaders on issues of social justice,” Bill Mea, acting president, wrote in an email to the campus.

The Urban Justice Center, also in New York, made a similar move a decade ago.

“I’m delighted to be able to share that our experiences have been wholly positive,” the center’s executive director, Doug Lasdon, and a development associate, Hugh Ryan, wrote in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post. “To this day, we have not received a single complaint. Not one in a decade. Nor have any incidents of violence or harassment been reported.”

There’s little counterargument other that bias and squeamishness.

Sheffield, the transgender man in Georgia, doesn’t expect the all-gender restroom revolution to occur anytime soon. “If we could go to sleep tonight and wake up and all the bathrooms were gender neutral – great! But it’s not practical,” he said. “It’s not going to happen that way.”

In the meantime, he said, a little courteousness would help.

“We can’t hold it,” he said. “Trans people have to pee multiple times a day, just like everyone else.”

Currently, there are only two places Sheffield feels comfortable peeing.

One’s at home.

The other’s at work.

And that’s because it’s labeled “all gender restroom.”

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