I went to a college graduation in a sun-drenched football stadium on a recent hot Saturday afternoon. Having spent a lot of my life in hot climes, I was drinking lots of water as well as wearing light clothes, a hat, and sunscreen.
Graduation ceremonies are lengthy events, so I slipped out before things got underway to find a bathroom. Just under the stadium I spotted a tell-tall line of women and joined it. It turned out that we were the line for two gender neutral, accessible individual bathrooms. I’m sure there were other, larger facilities around, but the line wasn’t that long and, given the size of the crowd, there was no guarantee that the other places would be line-free.
While we were standing there, a man walked up, looked at the line, and started to walk in, saying, “Is the boy’s room open?” He obviously assumed that it was.
We all took great pleasure in informing him that there was no separate boy’s room and that he was obligated to join the line if he needed to pee.
I cannot tell you how satisfying that experience was.
Every woman will understand; the experience is universal. All of us have stood in line, crossing our legs and hoping the person ahead will hurry, while watching men come and go from the men’s room.
But I had an even more interesting experience with gender-neutral bathrooms in San Francisco a couple of days later. We were at a lecture at the Nourse theatre, and decided it was wise to pee before heading home. One facility was labeled “gender neutral,” so my sweetheart and I headed over to it.
It turned out to be what I suspect had once been a woman’s bathroom – a row of stalls with metal dividers, but no urinal – with the usual row of sinks and mirrors on the other wall. When I walked in, I saw both men and women at the sinks. I stood in a short line behind a guy or two.
I was surprised. Somehow I hadn’t expected to see a truly gender-neutral facility that was just like the regular large-scale bathrooms I was used to in big public places. But I wasn’t uncomfortable. No one else appeared to be uncomfortable either.
I noticed a couple of things. First of all, if you’re sharing that kind of bathroom with men, odds are the guy before you didn’t lower the seat. Secondly, there wasn’t the kind of chatter that’s common in women’s bathrooms. People used the toilets, washed their hands and left.
I wonder what will happen as those kind of bathrooms become more common. Will the casual social behavior common to women’s bathrooms assert itself, or will we end up with the basic “taking care of business” attitude that I saw?
Those who have not spent a lot of time in women’s bathroom may not be familiar with the social side of such facilities. In fact, based on scenes in the movies, they may be under the impression that women’s bathrooms are primarily places where the mean girls remind the outsiders that they don’t belong.
Truth is, women’s bathrooms tend to be friendly places. Folks complain about the lines, adjust their clothes, comb their hair, compliment strangers, comment on the event we’re attending. It’s not necessary to talk, but friendly words to strangers are accepted at face value.
Women’s bathrooms have been a small place of refuge. For those few minutes, you get to let your hair down, so to speak. Or maybe the proper phrase is adjust your armor. It’s OK to let a little uncertainty show – what happens in the bathroom stays in the bathroom.
In a sexist world, that bit of refuge can make a woman’s day easier. Back when I was in law school there was a woman’s bathroom that was actually a full-scale lounge, with couches, easy chairs, and a few tables. At the time, the student body was less than 10 percent women. Many of us studied in that lounge.
It’s not that women don’t compete with other women in all kinds of ways. But to some degree, that behavior is off-limits in bathrooms.
Personally, I’d like to see a variant of friendly women’s bathroom behavior in gender-neutral bathrooms. That is, I’d like to see men take it up. We’re all in the bathroom to take care of our natural functions, so it’s not a place for the pretense that we’re somehow above all that.
But even if it means that casual sociability will disappear, I’m in favor of gender-neutral bathrooms like the one at the Nourse. Lines move more quickly at those than they do in the individual ones. An event can draw an unequal number of men and women without adding pressure on the facilities. And it is obviously a blessing for trans and genderqueer folk, who all too often run into barriers at the bathroom door.
I noticed the Nourse also had a traditional women’s bathroom – I spotted the line. I’m sure it had a men’s room, too, probably with a urinal. Those are probably necessary for now. But as we loosen our gender definitions and roles, all the rules on bathrooms will fade away. I look forward to it.
By the way, I’m sure someone will disagree with my use of the term “bathroom” for these facilities, since very rarely do such rooms in public places include bathing facilities. I am aware of the distinction. But I’ve never much liked the word restroom and toilet just sounds crass to my ear. So I say bathroom.
Though more often, I say facilities. I’ve noticed that everyone has their favorite terms for both the room and for excusing themselves when they go in search of it. My father used to powder his nose. Some people see a man about a dog. Some are just blunt enough to say they have to pee.
However we say it, we all need the facilities, sometimes in a big hurry. Gender-neutral makes it easier on everyone.