LGBT

The Past Hundred Years Of Gender-Segregated Public Restrooms

While anti-transgender bathroom bills have only recently gained momentum, gender-segregated public restrooms have been sites of gender inequity for over a century. Cultural anxieties about bodily secretions, disease, sex, shame, and power — codified into law and reinforced by Hollywood — have allowed the segregated institution to stand. But should we let it?

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During one of the Democratic debates last December, as a five-minute commercial break came to a close, there was a problem: Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton hadn’t yet returned to the stage. The moderators, forced to abide by the constraints of live television, carried on without her, until, a few minutes later, she resumed her place at the previously empty podium. “Sorry,” she said, with a let’s-just-move-on smile. Almost immediately, Twitter was ablaze with reports that she’d been delayed in the restroom.

To many female viewers, it was a relatable moment. Public women’s bathrooms that are inconveniently located, clogged with long lines, and equipped with only a couple stalls (whose efficiency can’t possibly match that of the three-plus urinals in many respective men’s rooms) are quotidian annoyances for women. But others took Clinton’s mid-debate break as an opportunity to shame her for answering nature’s most basic call. The Monday after the debate, Donald Trump was seemingly repulsed. “I know where she went. It’s disgusting,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about it. No, it’s too disgusting.”

Trump’s antipathy finds itself comfortably at home in a 100-year-plus history of cultural anxieties surrounding the public restroom. Concerns about secretions, disease, and physical threats to the body are vessels through which deeper and more significant anxieties — regarding gender, sex, shame, and power — have been codified into law and reified by social norms over the span of decades.

"Trans people are only the latest marginalized group to be actively denied equal access to public restrooms — and, by extension, to equal participation in public life."

Now those cultural anxieties have zeroed in on trans people, who are being targeted by anti-LGBT bills ricocheting around state legislatures across the country. The most hotly contested bathroom bill has been North Carolina’s HB2, which prevents trans people from using restrooms that match their gender identity in government-run buildings. The bill, and others like it, is particularly erroneous when considering trans people are far more likely to be the victims of violence in public restrooms than the cis women they purport to protect. Conservatives peddling the narrative that “men in dresses” will prey on little girls in restrooms were instrumental in HB2’s passing; the same narrative thwarted LGBT nondiscrimination pushes in the past, in cities from Fayetteville, Arkansas to Houston, Texas.


Now, both the Department of Justice and the White House have been fighting back. After North Carolina filed a lawsuit against the DOJ for its condemnation of HB2, the DOJ filed its own lawsuit against North Carolina for infringing upon trans residents’ civil rights. Last week began with Attorney General Loretta Lynch delivering one of the most powerful speeches ever given by a government official in the name of trans equality, and ended when, on Friday, the Obama administration sent guidelines to public schools saying trans students must be allowed to use facilities consistent with their gender identity.

Many attribute the dozens of anti-trans bills that have been introduced since late 2015, and the few that have since passed — including North Carolina’s, one in Mississippi, and the newly recalled ordinance in Oxford, Alabama — to staunch anti-LGBT backlash in the wake of marriage equality. But more broadly, this brand of anti-trans panic is bound up in the natural evolution of American public restrooms, which have perpetuated gross inequities since their inception, with racial segregation being the most obvious, and by far the most egregious, example. Whatever civil rights battle is being waged at any given time in history, you can almost guarantee that the bathroom will be a primary battleground: the place where the bogeyman lives. Trans people are only the latest marginalized group to be actively denied equal access to safe, clean, and secure public restrooms — and, by extension, to equal participation in public life.

Most Americans consider bathrooms divided by gender to be a given born out of anatomical differences, rather than a specific set of decisions made by a select few and governed by cultural values. Joel Sanders, a professor of architecture at Yale University and editor of Stud: Architectures of Masculinity, told BuzzFeed News in a recent phone interview that throughout the history of modern design, a governing principle in functionalism has presumed that form follows function. Consequently, many assume that the design of public restrooms has been biologically preordained — a structural inevitability. The truth, Sanders says, is to the contrary: “That kind of mythology — that the shape of bathroom fixtures are linked to and reflect biology — is one of the ways in which we use science, nature, function, anatomy, and architecture to give ostensibly objective basis for what is, in the end, something that’s very culturally contingent.” Functionalism, then, lends credence to the illusion of innate binary gender distinctions.

Even before the late 19th century, when the first law mandating gender separation was enacted in Massachusetts in 1887, public restrooms in the United States have been designed, built, and maintained with one group of people in mind: straight, white, able-bodied cisgender men, who alone in U.S. history have been able to pee in peace. While it might seem like the current uproar over gender and bathrooms is a brand-new social development, state-sanctioned gender separations in public restrooms have adversely affected women, gender-nonconforming people, and trans people for well over a hundred years — the relatively minor annoyance of being delayed in the restroom, à la Clinton, only scratches the surface of the imbalance these sanctions have bred. Men’s and women’s restrooms we largely take for granted today are the direct result of a long history involving the continual reproduction of outmoded concepts of gender difference, which have allowed countless forms of gender inequity to flourish unimpeded.


By 1920, 43 other states had joined Massachusetts in mandating gender separation in public restrooms. Terry S. Kogan, a law professor at the University of Utah, writes in “Sex Separation: The Cure-All For Victorian Social Anxiety” that “policymakers were motivated to enact toilet separation laws aimed at factories as a result of deep social anxieties over women leaving their homes — their appropriate ‘separate sphere’ — to enter the workforce.”

 "A collision of Victorian paternalism and junk science birthed the gender-segregated public restroom."

Though women had been leaving their homes to work in factories for decades, Kogan writes, the end of the 19th century saw a conflation of multiple social anxieties, from cholera panic left over from the Civil War to Victorian preoccupations with modesty and privacy, particularly concerning the body and bodily functions, to the mounting task of "protecting" fragile women in the public sphere. At the same time, burgeoning evolutionary biologists were peddling the theory that women were physically and mentally inferior to men. Thus, a collision of Victorian paternalism and junk science birthed the gender-segregated public restroom.

As women became more active in various aspects of public life, they had to be fitted into the interstitial spaces of a world that had not been built for them. (Male) architects and (male) city planners began to section off areas for them to exist out in the world, but without radically disrupting the precious social fabric of Man’s Land. These male decision-makers created separate spaces for women in everything from railroad cars to department stores to post offices. Public libraries, long since “bastions of male status that often excluded women,” began cordoning off women’s spaces as soon as they were provided any access (since some men were concerned that women would be “disruptive to the concentration of serious readers”). These spaces, decorated like living rooms and stocked with women’s magazines, provided discreet access to separate women’s restrooms, precursors to the fancy ladies’ rooms that can still be found today in high-end hotels and country clubs. Apparently, if a woman needed to venture into the messiness of a man’s world in the late 19th century, she had to be placed within a familiar pocket of domesticity.

More than that, however, her weaker body needed to be protected from the bathroom’s threat of dirt and disease. Kogan points out that many of the first laws mandating gender separation in water closets were actually “adopted by states as amendments to and extensions of earlier protective labor legislation aimed at women workers; these laws were not intended as neutral regulations for the mutual benefit of men and women alike.”

But of course, these comfortable, domestic, and hygienic safe havens were only ever afforded to white women. Decades before the “men in dresses will attack vulnerable ladies” ruse would be used to justify anti-trans bathroom discrimination, insinuations that racially desegregating public restrooms would harm white women proved a formidable barrier to achieving civil rights for black Americans. Today’s bugbear of the queer sexual deviant is directly preceded by the profoundly racist assumption, popularized after World War II, that black men would prey on white women should racial parity be established in public restrooms. As Gillian Frank detailed last November for Slate, the perceived sexual threat of sharing bathrooms with black people was coupled with a sanitary one — white women “emphasized that contact with black women in bathrooms would infect them with venereal diseases.” While separate women’s restrooms were indeed the product of sexist beliefs regarding women’s fragility and (lack of) power, white women were still afforded far more favorable restroom conditions than women of color — conditions they maintained for themselves through racist fearmongering.

By the 1990s, a full century after the first slew of gender segregation mandates, one would assume that the relics of Victorian paternalism would no longer apply to a modern world. The civil rights movement had already seen the abolishment of bathrooms segregated by race (which, while a clear step forward, by no means ended racial discrimination in public restrooms — trans people of color, for example, report problems using the bathroom at far higher rates than their white counterparts). But public restrooms remained steadfastly segregated by gender, and even the country’s most powerful women were still battling for equal access to physical slices of public life.

As recently as 1992, female U.S. senators did not have their own restroom. Before Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell announced that a new bathroom for women would be built on the Senate floor, there was only a men’s room there, reading “Senators Only” (which assumed, of course, that senators could only ever be — and would only ever be — men). The female senators were forced to walk a long way from the floor to relieve themselves among the tourists. And even when a restroom for female senators was finally completed in 1993, it had only two stalls; 20 years later, by which time there were 20 women in the Senate, long lines were a daily nuisance. In 2013, when a few of the senators spoke up about the inconvenience, two additional stalls were added to their restroom. Meanwhile, in the House, congresswomen also had to schlep to the tourist bathrooms in Statuary Hall until the 76 female members of the House finally got their own restroom in 2011.

But the battle for equal restroom space hasn’t only been waged by and for the politically powerful. Working-class women in particular have suffered as a result of bathroom segregation. In 1979, Eileen Lynch, a carpenter’s apprentice based in Tennessee, worked on a three-acre site with a couple portable toilets designated for women and more than 20 used mostly by men. All of them were typically filthy and lacked toilet paper. After holding her urine on the job and suffering from a urinary tract infection, she occasionally used the clean, well-stocked restrooms in the powerhouse (technically off-limits to construction workers, though she said her male co-workers used it all the time) and was fired for doing so. She filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission; the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that women were placed at a higher risk of contracting infections due to unsanitary portable toilets. In another suit, filed in 2000 under Title VII, Audrey Jo DeClue, the first and only woman employed at the Central Illinois Light Company, complained that her employer did not provide any restroom facilities for her; while working on power lines, linemen are typically far away from any public restrooms, but male electrical workers typically have no problem relieving themselves outside, something DeClue was far more hesitant to do. (The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit decided against her.)

What both Lynch and DeClue’s experiences highlight is that even men’s and women’s restrooms that are similarly clean, similarly accessible, and equipped with the same number of stalls are not necessarily equal. Professor John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University and the self-described “father of potty parity,” says that achieving gender equity in restrooms through lawful means at first involved advocating for an equal number of men’s and women’s rooms in public spaces. “But traditionally, men’s and women’s rooms have been the same physical size,” he added, in a recent phone interview with BuzzFeed News. “Which is not really equal, because women’s [facilities] take up more space.” Combined with the fact that cisgender women take longer to do their business (some studies say up to two times as long as cis men do), pregnant people need to urinate more frequently, and menstruating people need to use the restroom for an entirely different reason, Banzhaf argues that equity can only be achieved if women are given access to more facilities than men are. Separate, in this case, is not equal.

“When I first proposed that the consequence of separate restrooms were that women would have to wait on longer lines — which could violate gender discrimination laws, or even the Constitution — people laughed in my face,” Banzhaf said.

But by now, many states have adopted potty parity laws, which differ from state to state. In New York City, the Restroom Equity Bill, passed in 2005, called for a 2-1 ratio of women’s rooms to men’s rooms in newly constructed public venues, a fairly common standard. Most potty parity laws only apply to the building codes of new structures, however, which has no legal impact upon the countless older buildings that are already fixtures of public life. Neither do most address the host of other issues of convenience, access, and safety that arise from gender-segregated public bathrooms: the mother who is forced to send her young sons into the mall men’s room alone; the elderly wife who can’t accompany her husband with dementia into his stall; the father who can’t change his baby’s diaper because changing tables are still mostly fixtures of women’s rooms; and the gender-nonconforming person who feels profoundly unsafe in either restroom — to name but a few.

“Bathrooms trigger homophobia — trans people are ‘gay people in drag', which is a complete misunderstand-ing of who trans people really are."

So how can restrooms in older buildings become more equitable, without costly construction of more multi- or single-occupancy facilities? One solution — simply making every single restroom in a certain building gender-neutral — has become relatively commonplace in certain (mostly urban) restaurants and workplaces, but nowhere has the strategy been employed more often than on college campuses. More than 150 colleges and universities across the U.S. have instituted some sort of gender-neutral bathroom, in a sweep that’s been concentrated over the last decade, oftentimes in consultation with LGBT centers endeavoring to make their campuses more inclusive.

“When I went to school in the '60s, there were male and female dorms,” said Banzhaf. “If anyone ever suggested we could have coed dorms, that would be crazy. Women in many schools had to be locked up by midnight. Then someone started a coed dorm, but with separate floors. Then someone said, ‘Well, gee, if we have male and female floors, how about we have everyone on the the same floor?’ And they tried it, and it worked out fine.” Bathrooms became the next frontier; now thousands of college students of all genders share dorm restrooms across the country, without significant fanfare.

Certain cities (like San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Austin) have provisions stating that single-occupancy bathrooms in public places should be labeled as gender-neutral. But the move toward multi-stall, multi-gender bathrooms has been a much slower, stickier process outside the liberal bubbles of universities. Enter: a whole lot of cultural baggage, and the specter of the trans predator.

New Line Cinema

Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street being preyed upon by Freddy Krueger. Hollywood’s depiction of the bathroom reveals it to be one of the most powerful spaces for informing our cultural anxieties around gender, bodily shame, abjection, disease, and sexual deviance.

The public restroom as a site of queer stranger-danger isn’t new. As Lee Edelman writes in Stud, the male restroom has long since operated “as a theater of heterosexual anxiety.” The way male restrooms are typically structured, along with the unwritten social code that men can’t look at or speak to their neighbors while urinating, invites the fear of the abject — and of homosexual desire — to fester in these spaces. The AIDS epidemic in the 1980s only heightened the spread of gay panic propaganda, one element of which cast public restrooms as war zones for straight, cisgender men.

Public restrooms — and, perhaps even more strongly so, locker rooms — have always operated in the cultural imagination as sites of strict gender roles and compulsive heterosexuality. With the notable exception of Ally McBeal, a '90s Fox sitcom about a law firm centered upon a unisex bathroom (which, instead of normalizing the concept, arguably made a conservative case for restroom gender segregation), popular culture has long established tropes associated with each restroom. The men’s room is a place for aggressive macho posturing, bullying the weak, and artfully avoiding eye contact; women’s rooms, meanwhile, are hyper-feminine places for girls to get primped, gossip, cry, and avoid boys — boys who, in turn, fantasize about what goes on behind the closed girls' room door. A number of '80s teen movies, from Pretty in Pink to Porky’s to Fame, include scenes (which have inspired countless others) involving guys attempting to see into or enter the girls' bathroom — and they either play the attempt for laughs or treat deeply creepy peeping Tom behavior with a cavalier "boys will be boys" shrug. While queer men in bathrooms are a threat, straight men are just guys doing what guys do.

In the shift from drama and comedy to horror, the bathroom becomes ground zero for violence against women. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the most famous bathroom scene in cinematic history involves a woman in the shower getting stabbed to death by Norman Bates, a notoriously genderqueer bad guy. In what’s arguably the other most famous bathroom scene of all time, The Shining’s Jack corners Wendy in the bathroom and proceeds to hack his way in. David Cronenberg’s Shivers, from 1975, features an absolutely repulsive scene involving a parasite that crawls up the bathroom drain and between a woman’s legs. And speaking of '80s teen movies again, Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street gets an unwelcome visit from Freddy Krueger while she’s in the bath. If they want to avoid spiders and grudge monsters, women in horror films would do best to avoid the bathroom altogether. These scenes manage to sexualize the vulnerable and violated female body, while also suggesting that the Victorian paternalism of yore might still apply according to the fantastical versions of our modern conceptions: Women still need protecting.

Hollywood’s depiction of the bathroom reveals it to be one of the most powerful physical and social spaces when it comes to both revealing and informing our cultural anxieties around gender, bodily shame, abjection, disease, and sexual deviance. Just as the Equal Rights Amendment lost essential footing in the '70s due to infamous counterprotests claiming that banning gender discrimination would result in unisex toilets (which, protesters cried, would enable sexual predators), so, too, have today’s social conservatives driven anti-trans panic by insisting that gender-neutral bathrooms would give (queer/trans) aggressors free rein to prey on girls. The mixing of genders in bathrooms, so our pop-cultural scripts go, results in awkward gags at best and rape and murder at worst. Anti-trans bathroom bills are, in part, the product of pop culture's queerphobic and transphobic scripts.

“Bathrooms trigger homophobia — trans people are ‘gay people in drag’, which is a complete misunderstanding of who trans people really are — as well as misogyny,” Joel Sanders, the Yale professor of architecture, told BuzzFeed News.

Since the dawn of gender-segregated bathrooms, proponents have maintained that the separation keeps women safe. But after a century culminating in a long string of potty parity laws, women are closer to achieving convenience without being much closer to achieving a standard of safety — to say nothing of trans and gender-nonconforming people, who are straw men painted in perpetrators’ clothes even though they are so often the victims of bathroom violence.

“It’s not about an architectural barrier,” said Sanders. “Walls never keep people out. There’s this mythology of walls as bastions and boundaries, but they can always be breached.”

Sanders, as well as various trans activists, contends that single-occupancy bathrooms are actually less safe for marginalized groups than multi-stalls are: “The more people in a bathroom, the safer it is,” said Sanders. “It’s a self-monitoring space.” Single stalls are also potentially ghettoizing for trans and gender-nonconforming people, who might be forced to out themselves should they use them, and who are still isolated from other people.

“If we’re really going to transform society," he said, "we need to create public spaces that encourage people to mix."


On Monday, May 9th, the president of the state Senate and the House speaker in North Carolina filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice, asking a federal court to decide whether civil rights laws do or don’t require that trans people should be allowed into single-sex facilities that match their gender identity. The complaint begins: “When people find themselves in the intimate settings of public bathrooms, locker rooms, or showers, they expect to encounter only other people of the same biological sex. Until very recently, that simple expectation of bodily privacy would have been taken for granted.”

What we actually take for granted is why, exactly, public restrooms are segregated in the first place. We assume building codes are purely objective, rooted in science and dictated by function. Separated restrooms, in their guise of objectivity, only manage to reinforce age-old essentialist notions of binary gender difference. What would it mean to break down those walls?

The predator bogeyman — the impetus behind a million anti-trans petition signatures; a villain as potent, and as pretend, as Freddy Krueger — is not at the true heart of the bathroom maelstrom. Those who oppose equitable bathrooms are presumably far more afraid of what trans people represent than the nonexistent physical threat they pose. The expansive, complex, never-ending potential of gender, which separated bathrooms have veiled with the lie of their form-follows-function objectivity, is arguably what anti-trans protesters are trying to suppress — along with, of course, the fundamental fact of trans people’s humanity. Under the pretense of “privacy” and “safety,” social conservatives are stoking cultural anxieties around bodily privacy, genitalia, and sexual deviance in order to keep trans people from participating in the public sphere, a fate of bathroom exclusion that befell women, people of color, families, and disabled people before them. The bogus fear of an aggressor is, at root, the fear of the Other gaining power.

“The trans controversy is a lens through which to think about how we can redesign social spaces to make them safe, and encourage diversity not only for trans people, for all embodied subjects.”

Sanders, alongside professor, author, and theorist Susan Stryker, is embarking on a research project to determine what viable design alternatives exist to make the restroom a more equitable place for those of all genders; they will publish their results later this year in South Atlantic Quarterly. While they don’t believe that functionalist architecture can necessarily make public restrooms more safe — acknowledging restrooms’ weighted history and advocating for shifting cultural mindsets is higher on the researchers’ priority lists — both Sanders and Stryker are in favor of functional improvements by way of one-entrance restrooms featuring European-style mixed hand-washing areas, as well as multiple stalls fitted with nearly floor-to-ceiling doors. (All the privacy of single stalls within the self-policing community of multi-stalls – arguably the best of both worlds.) New buildings, however, are relatively easy to envision, while retrofitting older buildings is a tougher task. But just as the American Disabilities Act requires all building owners to conform, equitable bathrooms can theoretically be legislated into widespread reality.

“The trans controversy is a lens through which to think about how we can redesign social spaces to make them safe, and encourage diversity not only for trans people, for all embodied subjects,” said Sanders.

Gender-neutral bathrooms, by this point, are everywhere: They’re a mainstay in Europe, cropping up ever increasingly in restaurants and other public spaces in cities across the U.S., and they’re a part of everyday life in over a hundred college campuses.

For Banzhaf, the universities in particular are providing a blueprint for how mixed bathrooms can change cultural scripts around gender normativity. “In the days before coed dorms, the only time men and women would see each other would be outside for class or a date, when they’d be well-dressed, and women would have their makeup on,” he said. It was, he added, “an artificial impression of the other. But once you have coed restrooms, when everyone has towels wrapped around themselves, their hair looks like hell — I think they begin to see each other more as real people instead of constructs. People as they really are, rather than how we’d like others to see us.”

Perhaps so, too, can sharing the public space of restrooms with trans people — something everyone’s already done before, even those who think trans identity is just some newfangled threat created by the liberal feminist machine — allow everyone, of all gender identities and presentations, to see one another as people, all equally worthy of access and safety. All of whom just need to pee. •