Hey, I’ve got an idea.
Instead of building three different restrooms on every floor of every building in America — which seems to be the direction we’re heading — let’s save ourselves a pile of money and build one big restroom on each floor for everyone.
His, Hers and Transgender. And anybody else.
Why do we continue to be so squeamish about bodily functions that are essentially the same for everyone?
Even the Puritans didn’t care. For the first 111 years that the United States was in business, men’s and women’s restrooms were unheard of. Everyone used the same places until 1887, when the state of Massachusetts began to require separate facilities, reportedly because female workers were becoming more common in the state’s factories and “needed protection.”
But it took until the early 1920s for that to become the nationwide norm.
Not that we should rely too heavily on U.S. history to sort this out. Restrooms were also, incredibly, long separated by race. Seeing a “White Men” sign above a restroom door was not uncommon in the South right up until the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Maybe someday the current frenzy over gender will seem just as absurd.
Granted, the whole public bathroom thing is already a bit uncomfortable.
Writing last year in Time magazine about the advent of the “Battle of the Bathroom,” Michael Scherer zeroed in nicely on the vibe:
“The public bathroom may be shared, but it is no common space. It is a rare place of forced vulnerability where our insecurities and excretions mix with the sounds and smells of strangers, where our individual and collective fears can linger.”
The answer may ultimately lie in architectural design. But more on that in a minute. First, the issue of the hour: Which restrooms should be used by transgender people?
Some believe — such as the legislators of North Carolina — that everyone must use the bathroom that matches the gender on his or her birth certificate. Others believe — such as the former Obama Administration — that people should be able to use the facilities they identify with.
The latter view has won out nationally — at least for now — because the Title IX advisory that ramped things up last May was accompanied by a threat to withhold federal funds from any state that wouldn’t acquiesce. A Virginia court case has reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which could either kill or uphold the requirement.
Perhaps the place where the rule is the most controversial is in schools.
Not new here
Akron Public Schools had already been handling things the same way as the directive for about five years, according to longtime psychologist Erich Merkle, who runs the school system’s Pupil Adjustment Program and is the consulting school psychologist for the board of education.
Merkle says there was no controversy to speak of until the start of school last year, when word surfaced that a second-grade transgender boy had been using the boys’ bathrooms. The student was outed by a sibling: “Hey, my brother is a girl and he’s going into the boys’ restroom!”
Once brought to the forefront, the issue drew emotional responses not only from parents but some teachers and staff as well, Merkle says.
Until then, bathroom usage by transgender students had been almost a non-issue. During the last five years, Merkle has dealt with a total of 18 or 19 transgender kids, ranging in age from elementary through late high school.
He says the situations are handled on a case-by-case basis. In some cases — especially when a student has experienced bullying or intimidation — he or she will prefer using a restroom in the guidance or nurse’s office, or the faculty bathroom, all of which also are permitted.
Merkle has long believed the push to allow a student to chose is completely in keeping with Title IX, the sweeping reform of decades ago aimed at giving equal treatment to both genders. The overall goal for a school system, he says, is to provide “a safe and supportive learning environment for any student, whether we’re talking about race or national origin or gender or sexuality.”
If you wonder how a child as young as second grade could possibly feel trapped in the wrong body, Merkle, who has done extensive research on the topic and lectures widely about it, says “a lot of parents can identify their [transgender] kids around 4½ years old,” and the kids themselves usually feel some kind of disconnect by age 6, even though they don’t yet know anything about sexuality.
Fears of transgender folks attacking others in restrooms — either youths or adults — are unfounded. “There’s absolutely no literature that says a transgender person is more likely to be a pedophile or engage in any kind of sexual deviancy,” Merkle says. “Remember, these are individuals who, at their core, really believe that their gender and their biological sex don’t match. And that’s a pretty powerful place to be at.”
Still, a majority of the population is uncomfortable with last year’s missive. And those who inhabit the tiny transgender minority — experts put the figure at about 0.3 percent of the population — have a long way to go to gain acceptance. Just last week on the WNIR (100.1-FM) midday show, a caller repeatedly referred to male-to-female Chelsea Manning as “it.”
To be sure, those who oppose the policy have a legitimate viewpoint. As writer Nicole Russell put it in an essay in the Federalist titled, “Don’t put my five-year-old old girl in a bathroom with a transgender boy”:
“If the issue is truly about comfort, how does the comfort of a transgender student trump that of the non-transgender student? If it somehow helps a transgender child to use the bathroom among peers with whom he identifies, does it not equally help a child to use the bathroom among peers who possess the same genitals?”
The battle lines are clear, and the conflict won’t end soon.
Or maybe, upon further examination, the battle lines aren’t so clear.
I have learned that “LGBT” is obsolete. The current preferred acronym is “LGBTQI2S.”
According to Merkle, that stands for — take a breath — Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (“including gender variant and gender non-conforming”), Questioning (“not sure what gender attracts you; open to new sexuality experience involving gender/sexes”), Intersex (“biologically both male and female anatomical components”) and Two Spirit (“Native American spiritualist concept that we are not trapped or understood within a single gender”).
We couldn’t break it down any more? Maybe add an another “L” for “left-handed people named Sally who have a bisexual friend”? Or maybe an “S” for “Stop this right now or my head will explode.”
To me, this alphabet soup makes it even more obvious that the ultimate solution would be bathroom architecture.
Part of the current problem is that bathroom stalls in this country are just not very private. The sounds, odors and sometimes even the sights are not obscured. (Kudos to the local restaurants that pipe loud music into the can.)
Only in upscale restaurants and hotels will you find floor-to-ceiling walls and full-length doors.
That should be the norm. It’s not, in no small part because of this theory: If you give people too much privacy, they will use bathrooms to have sex or do drugs.
Um, people do that anyway. Most don’t. And most still wouldn’t with additional privacy. But most would be far more comfortable commingling with people of different genders and orientations if stalls were private.
One-size-fits-all-restrooms also would be cheaper in new construction — less wasted space with one entryway and fewer plumbing lines, for starters.
One of the biggest hang-ups would be changing the huge network of building codes that dictate the number of toilets and urinals required for X number of males and females.
So a massive restroom overhaul may not happen in my lifetime. Which would really piss me off.
Sorry. Just couldn’t hold it.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To find his podcast, “Dyer Necessities,” go to www.ohio.com/dyer. He also is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bob.dyer.31.