The Public Restroom of this Century

In “Making Bathrooms more Accommodating” by Emily Bazelon, she advocates for greater acceptance of accommodation in the realm of bathroom equality. The central assumption of this is of a shift in the view on the concept of accommodation from one group making compulsory changes for the benefit of another to an idea of mutual concessions. This concept is explored through a brief history of the public restroom and anecdotes of concessions at different levels.

Emily Bazelon states that one of the most basic needs of a human individual is “to belong.” This belonging is often solidified by personal and public acknowledgement of membership in a particular group. For transgender individuals this often manifests in using the bathroom of their choice without threat or discomfort. In addition to the practical necessity of being able to fulfill their physiological needs, the use of their preferred bathroom signifies membership in their identified gender. It is difficult to gain acknowledgement as a female if regulation requires a transwoman individual to only use the male restroom. This is a reason for which the bathroom debate has reached such fervor: it requires society as a whole to acknowledge the existence of non-conforming gender identities and to put them on the same level as those in the binary system.

Other examples in the history of the public bathroom show similar meanings for the acceptance of particular groups in society. The first iteration is the creation of female facilities in public places. This was significant in that it meant society acknowledged the increased role of women in the public sphere and the requirement for their comfort at offices, libraries, and other spaces. It might be said that this was an accommodation to the increasing numbers of women in these spaces. Since the institution of gender-specific public restrooms, they have come to be recognized as an immutable aspect of public life, and even have taken on a culture of their own. Women’s bathrooms are seen as respites from the male world, where females can socialize without judgement of their male counterparts. Men’s restrooms on the other hand, are characterized as dirty and impersonal, where socialization is frowned upon. In regards to efficiency, women often lament that men’s restrooms move quickly or remain empty through the use of urinals while women wait in long lines for stalls.

Another instance of accommodation was the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. This legislation created means for disabled individuals to access public spaces that would otherwise bar them due to features such as stairs and complicated doors. In the bathroom, it creates a larger stall with bars and a private sink. This bill did not receive much backlash and has been successfully implemented throughout the country.

Emily Bazelon and activists argue that reasonable accommodation for transgender individuals is to allow them to use the restroom or locker rooms of their own choice. This has become a contentious issue as many women argue that it is simply a modern example of men imposing their will on women and having the all-female enclave of the public restroom be shattered by people with male anatomy. Another concern is that regardless of identity, transwomen maintain their male advantage of a higher average strength, leading to safety concerns. The author argues that “it’s about relatively small adjustments made for the sake of coexistence,” proposing that more unisex bathrooms can be established and privacy curtains can be put in locker room showers. She claims that this is helpful for all people who may have concerns of privacy or fears of undressing in front of others.

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