Civic Doody: A History of Bathroom Oppression

The history of the toilet is pretty shitty; but thanks to evolution and innovation, humans eventually realized that health and privacy suffered more without indoor plumbing. Strangely, these sanitation methods didn’t catch on as quickly as one would expect. A very primitive flush toilet was invented in 1596, but outhouses, chamber pots, and holes in the ground had a long moment in the sun before the toilet came along in 1851. Now toilets come in a variety of colors, some even light up, and others have multiple flush options to make them more eco-friendly. Add-on features like this should be the end of bathroom history, right?

Unfortunately, the saying “everyone poops” is not the great equalizer. Humans have a knack for using their discriminating taste to make others feel less than based on nonsensical criteria like their race, religion, gender, income, sexual orientation, etc. And one of the most demeaning ways of enforcing this otherness is by restricting access to public bathrooms.

As much as we don’t want to know what’s going on in there, society still polices the bathroom. Daring to poop in the wrong hole brings with it judgment or, worse, handcuffs. The latest attempt to bar people seeking relief in the bathroom targets the transgender community, but this is certainly not the first attempt to relegate someone to a second class citizen in such a manner. Jim Crow laws existed through 1965 and prevented blacks and whites from using the same public facilities. Unlike bathrooms for whites, black bathrooms were often ill-kept and far away from the central gathering. Separate certainly… but equal? Not even close. Whatever it took to keep the races separate. Whatever it takes to withhold respect and dignity from minorities.

Just as it wasn’t really about bathrooms then, it’s not about bathrooms now. While discussing similarities between the Jim Crow segregation laws and the anti-transgender bathroom bills, Elizabeth Ann Thompson notes that for her personally, these new attempts at legal discrimination are “both a portal back to… the ‘60s and a reminder of my current status as a lesbian of African descent who wears ties and is sometimes mistaken for a man.” Thompson added, “I don't carry my birth certificate with me when I use a public restroom. Do you?”  

Supporters of anti-transgender bathroom bills, like those introduced in North Carolina and Texas, may claim that the bills are designed to protect women from men who use the guise of female dress to enter women’s restrooms, but these are just thinly veiled attempts to discriminate against transgender individuals.

As Laverne Cox discussed with Trevor Noah on the Daily Show on Valentine’s Day 2017, laws that require individuals to use the bathroom that corresponds with their birth sex instead of their true gender identity are not about public safety no matter how much it’s spun that way. Instead, these laws are about removing (or at least limiting) transgender people from public spaces. “Just pee at home” equals banning someone from every school, every store, every museum, and every public venue not near a personal relation’s residence.

Bathrooms also play a role in enforcing traditional gender and child-rearing roles. In some cultures, women were and/or are secluded from public life during menstruation, often relegated to huts away from society. Seclusion during “Aunt Irma” means that some women are prevented from being part of the continuous public sphere, similar to how transgender individuals are told they are not wanted in public spaces. As a consequence, women miss out on education, work, family-time, and other events. Seclusion during menstruation is not a common practice in the United States, but its existence throughout the world is a good case study on the opportunities that individuals are deprived of if they are not allowed in public spaces.

In addition, a changing table is standard in many public women’s bathrooms, but not so much in the men’s room. Only women change diapers, right? Wrong. The message is clear: child-rearing is Mom’s job, not Dad’s. Not only is this sexist, it ignores the needs of single parents, babysitters, and gay fathers. In fact, as I was researching this post, I found numerous daddy stories lamenting the fact that they can’t easily change a diaper. It’s a pain even with a changing table. Image how awful the process is with only the floor or a sink!

Once again, the bathroom dictates who is allowed to parent, but the Obama administration did take one step towards equaling the parenting field. In October 2016, a law passed requiring all men’s bathrooms in government-owned and/or financed buildings to have a diaper changing station. Unfortunately, this isn’t a rule in many of the public spaces where a guardian may need to care for a child, but the website helps families find changing stations. It’s something, but it would be so much more helpful if businesses, performance centers, and other public location simply provided changing tables in all bathrooms.

In many ways, society dubbed the simple public toilet The Ostracizer. Only those who are cis gender may enter, and a changing table will be provided for the appropriate child caregivers. That is the decree of The Ostracizer. Americans have enacted some pretty crappy policies when it comes to accessing toilets, and unfortunately, these shitty situations aren’t getting flushed anytime soon under the current administration. We may now have automatic toilets that flush themselves, but transphobia and adherence to traditional gender rules cannot be sucked out of American society with a wave of a hand. Instead, we must work towards ensuring equal access to bathrooms for all persons no matter their gender. Until the bathroom is no longer The Ostracizer, America, you can pretend that you don’t smell that smell, but it’s there.... lingering…. What are you going to do about it? ‘Cause nobody wants to visit someone with a smelly bathroom.