Making Bathrooms More ‘Accommodating’
The clearest visual markers of sex difference many of us see in the course of the day are the signs on public bathroom entrances: MEN on one door, WOMEN on the other. Restrooms are public conveniences, freely available in most places and in principle open to all, but the terms for entering them have been fixed. They’re fundamentally fraught spaces, where we undress and obey the dictates of our bodies and therefore feel vulnerable. If people think you’ve confused male and female and walked through the wrong door, you risk discomfort, or even real trouble. This can lead to the spectacle of women standing in line for what feels like forever while the men’s room is empty. Now transgender people, most prominently, are asking society to rethink all of this, from signs to design to who gets to enter where.
Many people viscerally resist the idea of mixing male and female anatomy in multistall bathrooms and locker rooms. In Houston earlier this month, voters rejected a broad equal rights ordinance that protected against discrimination in housing and employment, as well as public spaces, on the basis of several categories, including age and race along with sexual orientation and gender identity. Opponents focused their campaign narrowly, nicknaming the law the ‘‘bathroom ordinance.’’ They created ‘‘No Men in Women’s Bathrooms’’ T-shirts and a TV ad with sinister images of a man threatening a girl in the stalls, successfully playing on voters’ fears.
School districts throughout the country have generally agreed to call transgender students by their preferred names and pronouns, and allowed them to join the sports teams of the gender with which they identify. But deciding where they should change and shower and use the bathroom has been trickier.
In suburban Illinois, a transgender high-school student who is undergoing hormone therapy and has a passport identifying her as female asked to change in the girls’ locker room. The district refused, saying that ‘‘privacy concerns’’ required sending her to a separate room down the hall. She and her family brought a civil rights complaint, and the United States Department of Education intervened earlier this month, asking the district to give her the right to shower and change in the same locker room with her female peers. A privacy curtain could address both her needs and other students’ concerns, the Education Department said — as long as other girls are also allowed to change behind the curtain, if they choose.
A word that comes up frequently in discussions about access to bathrooms is ‘‘accommodate,’’ and it is a telling one. ‘‘Accommodate’’ comes from the Latin for ‘‘to make fitting.’’ It means to adapt, to bring into agreement or harmony, to furnish with something desired or needed, to favor or oblige. It can be a word of welcome and hospitality coming from a concierge or maître d’. But it can also have a compulsory aspect — it’s a word that involves moving over to make room for other people, whether you want to or not. In the 1960s, Congress gave religious people a right to reasonable accommodation at work, like a place to pray, or time off on the Sabbath, or permission to wear a turban or kipa or hijab. In 1990, the Americans With Disabilities Act afforded a similar right to people who had been shut out by doors they could not open and stairs they could not climb. For them, fighting for accommodation in bathrooms was central. If you can’t get into one and use it, you can’t work in a building or go to a concert.
Activists for all manner of marginalized groups have chafed at the word ‘‘accommodation.’’ It often sets up a distinction between the normal and the other. One group’s needs determine a basic shape, and then another group comes along and asks to alter the contours. But the word also allows for the possibility of mutual give and take. ‘‘It implies a two-way street,’’ says Mara Keisling, co-founder and director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. ‘‘Having a civil society is all about accommodation. Any relationship demands that.’’ She thinks transgender people have been doing all the accommodating when it comes to the bathroom. But for a lot of people, the transgender bid to reconsider norms — the vocabulary, a girl who has a penis — has burst into the public consciousness quickly, and seems bewildering.
However natural separating men and women in the bathroom may seem, it’s a cultural creation, with its roots in the Victorian era. States started to require sex-segregated ‘‘water closets’’ in the 19th century, when women entered spaces that men previously dominated, like factories, parks and libraries. Privacy and sanitation justified partitioning those early and rudimentary bathrooms; so did concern for the ‘‘weaker body of the woman worker,’’ as the University of Utah law professor Terry Kogan points out in an article on the history of sex-separated public bathrooms. Shopgirls got ‘‘retiring rooms’’ out of concern that they were prone to dizziness and fainting. Outside the home, beyond the bounds of the cult of domesticity, women supposedly needed a haven. But it was an exclusive one. When government offices integrated in the 1940s, some white women refused to share bathrooms with their black co-workers, claiming they would catch syphilis from towels and toilet seats.
Today women curse the time wasted waiting for a stall, while on the other side of the wall, urinals keep the line moving for men. (We could see the urinal as an accommodation for the male body, but we treat men as the norm, so we don’t.) Some feminists see this lack of parity as a problem of ‘‘everyday sexism,’’ as the writer Soraya Chemaly put it earlier this year. The sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out that the environment in a women’s room is expected to be more refined and genteel than that of a men’s room, a relaxing ‘‘all-female enclave.’’ It also establishes ‘‘a sort of with-then-apart rhythm’’ for the sexes, with periods of intermingling among men and women punctuated by moments of separation.
Over time, women have become attached to the camaraderie of the ladies’ room. When girlfriends want to chat, they head there. And now some of them are disturbed by what they see as an incursion by male anatomy. That’s their explanation for the ‘‘No Men in Women’s Bathrooms’’ T-shirts in Houston, and the resistance to letting transgender students into the locker room. It’s poignant: Transgender women say they are women, but some other women can only see them as men, and so they don’t want to make room. ‘‘I am a bleeding-heart liberal — but in this new development I can’t help but feel that people with two X chromosomes are once again having their rights pushed aside to accommodate people with a Y and X chromosome,’’ a commenter wrote in The Times’s Motherlode blog.
The problem is that this vastly oversimplifies the experience of transgender people and the biology of chromosomes, which can appear in other combinations. There is a spectrum of male and female, and no one definition of accommodation. Some people, transgender or otherwise, like single-stall bathrooms that are unisex (or all-gender, the word that’s lately in favor). Maybe they want more privacy or their bodies take an unusual shape for any number of reasons. But for transgender girls, the locker room and the bathroom are about joining the all-female enclave, about fitting in. ‘‘I just want to be with the girls at all times,’’ a 12-year-old transgender girl in Connecticut told me. Her coed school, where she started this year, lets her use the girls’ locker room. She showers in her underwear, which other girls her age do as well. ‘‘I don’t walk into the changing room and feel like, Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m here. It feels just as natural to be in there with girls as it does to be in the classroom with boys and girls.’’ She recently started revealing her full gender identity to the friends she has made this fall. It has been a little scary, she said, but so far, they haven’t pulled away.
The framework of accommodation is useful, as a starting place, because it’s practical. For people with disabilities, reasonable accommodation is about a bar next to the toilet and a button that opens the door. For transgender kids, it’s showering near your peers in your own stall, and then maybe getting dressed behind a privacy curtain. (Other girls with their own reasons for shielding their bodies from view might welcome a curtain, too.) It’s about relatively small adjustments for the sake of coexistence.
It doesn’t seem like much compared with the self-contorting accommodations that the public bathroom can demand of transgender people. The Transgender Law Center offers a resource guide, ‘‘Peeing in Peace,’’ with a variety of strategies for going into the restroom of your choice. One is called Invisibility: ‘‘Don’t look at or speak to anyone.’’ Another is called Gender Proof: ‘‘Try pointing out your physical characteristics if they will help prove that you belong. For example, if you have breasts, try pointing them out to prove that you belong in the women’s room. If you have a deep voice, try speaking to show that you belong in the men’s room.’’ The ache lies in the word ‘‘belong’’ — another basic human need we all share.