A Tricoastal Woman: Changing Bathrooms

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.



A Tricoastal Woman: Changing Bathrooms — 9 Comments

  1. I always say I have to “visit the little girls’ room.” I guess I’ll have to come up with a new label now. “The facilities” has a nice, neutral, ring to it.

    I’m a bit ambivalent about the whole issue. Intellectually, I see the sense of gender-neutral facilities—we have them at home, after all. As a smallish person of the female persuasion who has had a lifetime of experience dealing with harassment of various kinds at the hands of members of the opposite sex, I’m somewhat leery. While most people will undoubtedly uphold the respectful space, there’s always going to be one idiot to spoil the equilibrium. While I see gender-neutral restrooms becoming the norm, I think they will continue to exist alongside the gender-specific ones, rather than replacing them altogether.

    • In a large venue, I think there will be very little problem with harassment because of the sheer numbers of people coming through. In smaller places, I think individual bathrooms are the easiest solution for everyone. And I agree that we’ll have separate ones, at least for some time to come.

      And my father also said “little girl’s room” from time to time. No idea why, but I think just to be funny. Since his name was John, he steadfastly refused to call it the john.

  2. Some years go I attended a Romance Writers of America event at the Sheraton hotel in Washington DC. This is a vast hotel (they’re talking of having a Worldcon in it in a few years), quite rambling and well appointed. And, as you surely know, romance writers are mostly female. This event was perhaps 98% women. I went into a ladies room and was impressed by its size and luxury, including a wall of potted palm trees. On closer inspection, these potted plants were hiding a wall of urinals. The clever hotel had accommodated the special needs of the event, and simply changed the men’s room to a women’s room by hanging a new sign on the door and adding a dozen palm trees. This of course left the half-dozen male attendees trekking a long way to the single men’s room, but we shed no tears for them.

    • Having trekked quite a ways to find the ladies room in facilities that assumed more men than women — such as buildings housing state legislatures — I share your lack of tears. There are stories about the lack of ladies rooms in the waiting area for lawyers about to argue at the US Supreme Court.

  3. So if it’s gender-neutral, of course the guy before you didn’t lower the seat. Odds are he’s as likely to be followed by another man (who’d prefer the seat up) as a woman (who’d prefer it down). This very genuinely goes both ways.

    • I could argue that since men occasionally want the seat down, and since men who don’t are looking at the toilet when approaching it, as opposed to backing toward it, seat down is the better default. But that way lies madness, as I have learned from earlier debates on the subject.

      However — to be mildly serious — to best solution is for all toilets to have a lid and for that lid to be closed before the toilet is flushed. That’s more sanitary (see the book The Big Necessity) and makes everyone need to take action before doing their business.

  4. We have some in newer areas of Austin, with the formed granite sinks like in Walmarts and newer airports. The one out at the Alamo Mueller had tiny stalls with airline-like locks. They seemed small to me for the average sized American, but people were coming and going.

    My only personal problem is that the so-called natural deodorant cakes in the urinals at one library caused me to stop breathing. That was very scary. That location has another room with no urinal, so I will use the other next time. But I did write up a note about it, as the librarians have filed as many protests about the scents as they can.

    As a younger woman I would have found the unisex baths more troublesome. I have never felt uncomfortable with trans people I was aware of, but this means we all have no place to hide from a persistent male who doesn’t understand when a female says Go Away. (This will also mean that males have no place to hide from a persistent female.) I suspect eventually there will be cameras on the entrances to restrooms, for safety reasons. Or much smaller rooms that lock the entire area for privacy.

    There was a reason woman at bars went in small groups to the restroom.

  5. The only kind of unisex bathroom I would find acceptable is a single-user room, or possibly a long row of individual little rooms, with full-length walls and doors, each containing a toilet and a sink. But a regular public-style restroom, with gaps above and below the door and cracks on the sides through which you can easily see someone on the toilet if you glance? As a sexual abuse survivor I have a hard enough time using such facilities with just other women. (And yes, I consider trans women to be women…and I wouldn’t want to share a regular public restroom with a bearded, deep-voiced trans man any more than a cis man!)

    • I think you make a good argument for the availability of private individual bathrooms, such as the family facilities available in most airports these days. Those can be used for a variety of purposes, including providing privacy and safety to those who feel uncomfortable in more open spaces. Perhaps our bathrooms should be divided more by need for additional privacy than by gender.