Opinion: America’s Public Restrooms Are Kind of Great Now
Everywhere you look, there are cleaner, more private and more inclusive loos. Thank social justice warriors.
By Farhad Manjoo Dec. 11, 2019
In the past few years, something amazing has been quietly happening across the land. Public restrooms in America — long a flash point of exclusion by race, gender, class and ability — have gotten much, much better. Thanks to an increasingly effective campaign by a range of activists, America’s public bathrooms are now cleaner, more plentiful, more private, and more accessible and inclusive than ever. In many places, they’re even great.
This is a story about identity politics, advocacy, design and architecture. It is also a story still in motion, with progress yet to unfold and many people still shut out. There is still much controversy surrounding our bathrooms, who gets to use them and how. But it’s important to recognize progress as it’s happening. And if you travel across America, now, it’s undeniable that how we go keeps getting better.
How do I know?
At the risk of T.M.I., I happen to be an expert on bathrooms. Twenty years ago, when I was a senior in college, I was diagnosed with a condition called achalasia, a rare, sometimes genetic swallowing disorder that I was actually quite familiar with, because when I was a kid, my mother had it, too.
It began as a blinding, burning bolt of pain in the middle of my chest after eating. Imagine heartburn after you’ve eaten something spicy, but amped up to 11, as if the thing you’d eaten was a chain saw doused in ghost peppers. The pain would abate after a few minutes, but it would come back again and again, usually after I’d eaten a big meal. Then it began to hurt during big meals, then during every meal, and soon anytime I’d try to swallow anything. For many people the condition is curable through surgery, but for me that long-ago flash of pain turned out to be only the beginning of an all-consuming, chronic and often embarrassing disability.
Over the last two decades, though I’ve undergone dozens of invasive procedures and tests, taken a panoply of pills and had various parts of my digestive system removed or surgically rebuilt, my symptoms have only gotten more intense and more — how to put this delicately? — expansive. Swallowing food is now an arduous enough task that I have to get much of my nutrition through liquid: As Kanye once rapped, “I drink a Boost for breakfast, an Ensure for dessert.” But it’s no longer just eating that’s a pain; it’s what happens after, too. From the nave to the chops, my swallowing problem has spawned a gross-out comedy’s worth of G.I. complications.
The ugly upshot is this: At least once every day and sometimes many times, I have to run to the restroom on a moment’s notice, and what happens to me there is best experienced alone, in blissful, unembarrassed solitude.
I tell you all this, in order to establish my bona fides: I know public bathrooms. In my travels, over the years, I have assembled in my head a veritable Michelin Guide of private, peaceful places to go. So trust me when I tell you that in the last few years, better public bathrooms have started to pop up everywhere. Again and again, in big cities and small, in red states and blue, in airports, hotels, shopping malls, theaters, stadiums, offices and a range of other public venues, I’ve been saved by a bounty of better loos.
More restrooms are now explicitly inclusive and accessible, designed for people who are physically disabled; are gender nonconforming; are traveling with children; or are otherwise in need of special accommodation. (For instance, paruresis and parcopresis, phobias that inhibit people from urinating or defecating in public restrooms, are real, debilitating conditions that affect tens of millions of people.)
One innovation that has been of particular use to me is the lockable, single-occupancy, all-gender restroom. A decade ago, in most public places, it was nigh impossible to find a private place to do your business. Today, these one-person stalls are a rising trend across the country, especially at airports and other large public facilities. In some places they’re labeled “all gender” restrooms; in others, they’re called “family” bathrooms; in yet others, signs welcome everyone with broad language, like, “All persons may use this restroom.” Whatever you call them, they’re a haven in a world marked by chaos and disorder. Over the last few years, when nature called suddenly and panic set in, I’ve had the fortune of finding a clean, private place at, among other locations, the Guggenheim in New York; the Getty Center in Los Angeles; the Mall of America; a dozen airports, at least; and so, so many Starbucks.
Of course, things still aren’t perfect. I am a member of a racial minority, but I’m a cisgender person of means and social privilege. It’s likely that a lot of people still find it hard to find clean, private restrooms in much of the land. Still, the restroom situation in America is much better than it used to be and, I’ve noticed, so much better than in many other parts of the world.
On a trip to Britain and France with my kids last year, I was surprised at how difficult it was to find a clean, private bathroom; when there was one, you often had to pay to use it. I’ve seen some very nice bathrooms in Dubai, but only in places that cater to the wealthy. In South Africa and India? Forget about it. America has less and less to be proud of these days; our life expectancies are falling, our infrastructure is crumbling, and our politics are in the toilet. But look at our toilets! While there’s no official metric on this sort of thing, in my estimation American toilets are now likely among the top in the world. Japan’s loos are said to be very nice; if we can’t be No. 1, it’s possible we’re at least, you know, No. 2.
If it’s true that our toilets are getting better, it’s worth asking why. In a word: activists. In the last few years, a range of advocates fighting on behalf of transgender people, the disabled, homeless people and others have mounted a variety of legal and public advocacy campaigns aimed at making bathrooms more accessible. These have sometimes sparked backlash and controversy, like the 2016 law in North Carolina that rolled back gender-inclusive restrooms. At the Supreme Court this fall, justices considering a case about gay and transgender rights couldn’t stop themselves from considering everything through the lens of the loo.
Despite the political controversy, on the ground, in facilities all over the country, the moral arc of the bathroom is bending toward inclusion. At Starbucks, after a viral incident last year in which two black men who had asked to use the restroom were arrested at a Philadelphia location, the restrooms are now open to everyone, even people who haven’t purchased anything. Cities are now spending money to create more public restrooms. And earlier this year, Stalled!, an organization of designers and activists who push for restroom-related social justice, mounted a successful campaign to get the International Plumbing Code — which sets standards for bathrooms — to adopt new language supporting all-gender restrooms.
“Inclusive design” has been a hot new term among architects and product designers; the idea, broadly, is that when you create products and spaces that are accommodating of a broad range of human capacity, they end up being much more useful to everyone in unexpected ways. Advocates of inclusive design point to some canonical examples: Sidewalk ramps were put in place for people with wheelchairs, but they turned out to be handy for parents with strollers, too. Some of the technology in the smartphone’s touchscreen was invented as a way to help people with disabilities like carpal tunnel syndrome. Typewriters and keyboards were first created to help the blind.
Restrooms are following a similar path. It’s not just obviously disabled and gender-nonconforming people who need a private, more accessible restroom. Everyone, now and again, can do with a nicer place to go to the bathroom. In America, at long last, we’re getting that. Thank you, social justice warriors.
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