A decade ago, a colleague of mine, his specialty being Queer Studies, successfully convinced the college I teach at to turn a men’s room in my department’s building into a non-gendered restroom. At the time I would not have admitted that I didn’t understand the need for it. Nor would I have acknowledged the fact that I avoided that restroom, even though it was right down the hall from my office. Instead, I climbed the stairs to the women’s room on another floor.
What was my problem? What did I think might happen to me in a genderless restroom? Would I be attacked? Would it be dirty?
Oddly enough, three decades before that, I attended a college at which no restrooms were gendered. Everything was co-ed on campus. And it didn’t bother me in the least. Hell, we all use non-gendered bathrooms all the time: at home, in others’ homes, at small single-bathroom eateries and shops, as well as big chains like Starbucks that recognize the pointlessness of gendering toilets.
Surely you’ve witnessed the long lines of ladies waiting to enter the women’s room at concerts while men saunter in and out of the men’s room. Do women ever think to step out of line and use the men’s at such events? Sometimes. And it feels like going renegade. Which is just absurd.
On a trip to Chicago last month, my partner and I found ourselves frantically trying to locate non-gendered restrooms for JJ in a city we didn’t know. Before leaving, I’d been excited to learn about a phone app called Refuge Restrooms that could supply the locations of such facilities. In practice, however, I found that either the app wasn’t working or there were no such bathrooms anywhere near us.
At a celebrated deep-dish pizza joint we had the misfortune to eat at, JJ reluctantly used the women’s room while I stood guard. This was after we had located a Starbucks only to learn they were closing and would not let us in. Life can be cruel sometimes.
At Charmers Cafe, a wonderful little breakfast nook in the Rogers Park neighborhood, their non-gendered bathroom had a broken lock. There was a sign taped to the door warning patrons: “PLEASE KNOCK.” I stood guard again for JJ while they went.
Soon after that (I drink a lot of coffee), I stood behind a woman who was standing guard for her adult daughter. We got to chatting about the broken lock. “Really,” she wondered aloud, “what does it matter? We’re all human.”
Exactly. When I spent a month in China back in 2007, the bathrooms were holes in the ground one crouched over. I won’t lie and say I liked them, but I’m sure folks in China are accustomed to them and would find them preferable — and more hygienic — to our toilets, upon which we place the flesh of our bare asses.
Earlier this summer, while on the road in Vermont, we had to use the gendered restrooms at a gas station/convenience store. JJ was nervous. They are looking far more masculine now, having been on testosterone for a year and a half. Yet they don’t feel comfortable going into men’s rooms (which are “scary” and “dirty”), and they are worried they will be “hate-crimed” if they use the ladies’.
Imagine your own child turning “hate crime” into a verb.
Anyway, the men’s room was closed for cleaning, so JJ and I waited until the women’s room was empty and slipped in to use it. My partner, Peter, also had to pee, so JJ and I stood guard outside the ladies’ while he did his business. It felt like being in a Monty Python sketch — if only it were funny.
I’ve come to believe this whole conundrum could be solved if businesses and institutions did one of two things: 1.) provide single-stall, non-gendered restrooms in numbers sufficient to handle demand; or 2.) provide a non-gendered alternative to larger restrooms with multiple stalls. Not just a “family restroom,” God help me (those are always locked at the airports).
I would like to think nothing terrible will happen to anyone in any such restroom. I personally don’t feel paranoid, but that has a lot to do with my being cis het. I don’t know what it feels like to have people hate my very being simply due to my gender identity. (But, wait. I do! I am, after all, a woman.)
We can easily modify these public spaces to help everyone feel safe, even the folks who prefer gendered restrooms, like I once was.
And really, aren’t we worrying about the wrong things? Do we really think a label on a door telling us which gender can enter the room is a safeguard against violence? Do we really believe locks on bathroom stalls can effectively deter a determined predator? Is no one else watching horror movies?
It just doesn’t make any sense. A lot like gender norms. You know where I’m headed… Shouldn’t we worry more about losing our children to guns?
Tina Carson can be reached at email@example.com.