Paso Canoas (Panama/Costa Rica Border)
May 19, 2016
Over the last couple of months there has been a barrage of garbage analyses of the “Transgender Bathrooms in the U.S.” debate throughout social media…and by “garbage” I mean passionate, but misdirected kneejerk responses from both sides of the argument. I recently stumbled upon a video where a man stands outside of a set of restaurant bathrooms and explains that we need to fend off the liberal, political correctness and fight to keep men’s rooms for the men and women’s rooms for the women…because it’s “what’s right”. As an anthropologist, phrases like “what’s right” make my head spin. These remarks are dangerous. They are blanket statements that generalize the views of intensely diverse populations and gloss over an endless list of deeply rooted problems within our country. Other news reports tell stories of fathers standing guard outside of bathrooms while their children use the facilities, or marches through Target department stores in protest of restroom regulations. But, while I read these reports I have to question the effectiveness of these bathroom rights campaigns. The arguments about “what’s right” will only lead us to a dead end. We will never produce evidence to truly prove who is right and why they are indeed correct. Furthermore, the glories of the past—a time when we didn’t have to worry about being pc—are only glories for those of us that fall into the majority. Sure, yearning for a return to the past is great if you identify as a straight, white, male. But, for many others, the past wasn’t that great and was filled with destructive oppression; something that we as a country have fought hard to overcome. We should not direct our emotions on this matter towards debating “who wants to use which bathroom”, but we should use this debate as an opportunity to produce effective results by thinking critically about “how we plan and construct public restrooms”.
In regard to sexual orientation, biological sex, and gender identity, I identify as a heterosexual male. For as long as I can recall I have never been anywhere near comfortable using public restrooms. Even on campus where I work, I’ve designated a handful of bathrooms as my “secret offices” because they are tucked away in hard to find spaces and are rarely frequented by multiple users at the same time…providing me with a sense of privacy that makes me feel comfortable enough to take care of business. I have not developed these bathroom idiosyncrasies because I fear some stranger seeing my body, but more because I don’t want them to see and hear what comes out of my body. I’ve just never been comfortable rubbing elbows with other bathroom users as we cram into a line of urinals or as I unleash the hell fire that brews within my bowels while a group of people sit within a few feet of me—only inches of poorly constructed bathroom stall keeping us from gazing into each other’s’ eyes. My reluctance to use public bathrooms boils down to sheer vulnerability. I feel vulnerable when I am using the bathroom—not vulnerable like I am afraid that someone can do something to me, but vulnerable because I am opening up myself in the rawest and most private ways to a group of people that I don’t even know…I am just not comfortable with other people seeing or hearing me in that state. It’s even worse on campus. What if I step out of a stall and I brush by one of my students as we wash our hands? How can I expect them to respect me after they’ve just listened to me destroy the bathroom for 10 minutes? While what I am saying is very personal, I know that I am not the only who shares these thoughts.
A couple of nights ago, I was out with friends pounding rounds of beers at La Frontera bar in Paso Canoas—on the Panama/Costa Rica border. There are two bathrooms: Señores (Men’s) and Señoras (Women’s). The women’s restroom was designed as a short hallway with a sink at the end of the hall with a row of about 5 private bathrooms lining the right side; each with a door that reached to the ground. The men’s room, on the other hand, was a similar hallway, but at the end was a single toilet and a long trough-style urinal lining the right side of the walkway. A swinging, wooden door cordoned off each of the gender designated bathrooms. While chatting over a few handfuls of Imperial lager, I noticed a male friend of mine continually glancing over at the men’s bathroom. After about ten minutes of this routine I picked up on what was going through his head. “You’re waiting for the men’s room to empty so that you can have some privacy, aren’t you?” I asked with a shit grin on my face. “Hell yeah!” He responded. “It’s so weird in there. I can’t take a piss in that trough with a bunch of other guys bumping into me. I wait until its empty and then I go.” I tilted my head in a gesture that let him know that I knew exactly what he was talking about and we both started laughing hysterically. A couple thousand miles of cultural distance and yet we have the same uncomfortable sentiments about public restrooms.
Even Stephen Colbert shares a similar reluctance about the design of public restrooms. During his April 26th top of the show monologue, Stephen revealed his views to the public. “Here’s the thing”, he explained, “I don’t care if you’re male or female, what sex or gender identity someone is. I—and I mean this sincerely—do not want to share a bathroom with anyone. Ok? For two reasons: Number 1…and Number 2… Whose idea was it to have us all in there together anyway!? That’s what’s wrong! I don’t know about you, but my bathroom at home is not a two-seater.”
My personal dread that I expressed above, my cross-cultural experience in Paso Canoas, and Stephen Colbert’s pre-written take on the current debate all point to one glaring issue: we should rethink the design of public bathrooms to make them…less public. What if we were to borrow a few concepts from that ladies’ room at La Frontera bar in Paso Canoas? There are two ways that I am thinking about this:
First, for smaller businesses, let’s just do away with group bathrooms all together and replace them with private bathrooms. Most small businesses only have single occupancy restrooms anyways…so, the solution may be as easy as removing gender designated signs (this may also require a re-writing of government bathroom facility codes as well…but that is over my head at the moment).
Second, for larger establishments, instead of two groups of gendered bathrooms, we could designate a general restroom area that is closed off, not by a door, but by a privacy wall/screen—similar to the entrance to many airport restroom facilities. This privacy wall would provide…well…privacy, while also removing the security risk of a door that closes all types of people in one room. The entrance could open to a common area that would have the general mirrors, sinks, baby-changing areas (also resolving another issue with U.S. public restrooms), etc. that we are accustomed to seeing outside of the closed off toilet areas. In place of partially open stalls, what if we followed the design of La Frontera and included full doors that reach to the ground and a stall design that is more private—solid walls, better doors, and basic mirrors to deal with anything that you might not want to do in the common area? In this case, there would be no need to select the appropriate bathroom based on gender. We would only have to wait for a stall to open for us to use it; much like waiting for a private bathroom to open at small restaurant. We already use a similar technique when waiting in line at the porta-johns of outdoor venues such as concerts and festivals. Some other benefits: 1. This design would make it less awkward for parents to accompany their opposite sex child while they use the bathroom—also calming those who are concerned of what others may do to your sons and daughters while they use the restroom. 2. All parents would have access to baby changing stations.
I know that these concepts have flaws, but I am working to start a productive conversation. Also, I am clearly providing information that is only based on my experience using public restrooms as a male. The ideas that I have laid out lack the perspectives of other types of bathroom users. However, I expect to be critiqued on these plans. I encourage you to point out these problems and, in doing so, to think of ways to resolve them. You see, this is using our experiential knowledge and emotion to take the debate in a productive direction. Instead of arguing endlessly which contingent is “right”, let’s start talking in ways that can actually result in a solution.