On transgendered bathrooms.

Or, as most people call them, “bathrooms”.

matt harbowy
10 min readMar 20, 2017

The idea that as a society, we need to gender-segregate certain activities, causes many of the problems we are trying to solve by segregating the genders.

As a child, I grew up in a one-bathroom house. Mommy used the bathroom, Daddy used the bathroom, Grandma used the bathroom, and my brother and I used the bathroom. The bathroom was the place where you went when you needed to:

  1. Bathe when you were soiled.
  2. Evacuate your bladder or bowels.

Notice how those two activities aren’t in any way gender specific. There is absolutely no shame in performing either activity, however, there are very good reasons that you might want to perform those activities by yourself in some privacy:

  1. You might need to remove your clothes.
  2. You might create sights, sounds, or smells that are unpleasant.
Image: “Full Metal Jacket,” Stanley Kubrick, 1987

Sadly, the idea that individuals have a right to privacy, even within the confines of the “bathroom,” is a relatively new concept. In a social order which “owns” your time or your labor, your right to take a few minutes to “do your business” is seen as an infringement upon the rights of those who own your time or labor. In fact, the right to use a bathroom has never historically been seen as a right. The regulations were originally codified in 1974 (39 FR 23502, 29 CFR 1910.141) but, note, the FLSA does not require a company to give you time off to take a break- that’s only a right in a handful of states.

…toilet facilities, in toilet rooms separate for each sex, shall be provided in all places of employment... The number of facilities to be provided for each sex shall be based on the number of employees of that sex for whom the facilities are furnished. Where toilet rooms will be occupied by no more than one person at a time, can be locked from the inside, and contain at least one water closet, separate toilet rooms for each sex need not be provided.
29 CFR 1910.141(c)(1)(i), Occupational Safety and Health Standards. (as of Oct 2016)

Note carefully, that the existence of a shared toilet room separated by sex is not mandated- but rather a nod to the pre-existing dominant mode of providing such facilities, which often in a male-dominated workforce, involved little more than a communal trough which may have had both taps for hand washing and deep basins for urination.

Webster’s defines the “Water Closet” (WC) as “a room that contains a toilet,” but the mere suggestion that the room is a “closet” implies the small, (singular) personal size, and dates its origin as 1736. The Online Etymology Dictionary dates it to 1755, using the word privy, 1200’s,

…from Old French privé “friendly, intimate; a private place,” from Latin privatus “private, personal”.

It would seem that from the late middle ages to the opening of the industrial era, the toilet or WC was considered a private function, intended for singular occupancy.

The open question remains: what purpose does a non-private toilet serve? Is it a matter of cost or greater utility? Does the loss of privacy serve some pannonian, “transparency as ethical good” end?

I’ve heard the oft-repeated argument that “a man can stand to urinate” (ignoring that, in a skirt, a woman can, too) made as justification for the urinal, but the idea is ridiculous: it is obviously a reverse-engineered explanation. Given a urinal of specific design, one can force such a device to accommodate only males of a certain height, but the more common “hole in the floor” used for squat toilets, hand-dug latrines, and others of their ilk which long predated the urinal makes it obvious which one came first.

The urinal coincides, uncomfortably, with industrialization (1760–1840), the end of slavery (1865) and with the rise in the women’s suffrage movement (1840–1948) so while it is tempting to place the so called “patent” on the odorless urinal (1866) as squarely at the beginning of women’s suffrage and therefore somehow related, I’m much more wary to draw the conclusion that its invention was somehow anti-feminist, but I do look sternly at the coincidence.

It is a simple fact that a given company cannot predict whether they will have a greater or fewer number of male or female employees. Any justification that male use of the WC can be made somehow “more space-efficient” by the urinal is contradicted by the simple legally expedient fact that small, locking toilets can be used by either gender and therefore at any given time during the day, a greater number of these toilets can be put to use if they are not dedicated to a gender. Enclose a closet-sized space sufficient for a non-ADA toilet around a urinal, and you will lose no more than one urinal in the process, in rooms which usually have fewer than 5 urinals. You would have to argue that time spent waiting for an available stall would somehow rise greater than 20–50% against the obvious fact that among both genders’ bathrooms, there is an unoccupied stall available during a majority of the day, mitigating any lost time except during “crunch” times.

if anything, it’s justification for a time study on when break periods and meal periods are scheduled and distributed among employees. Of course, liberalizing the rights of employees to take breaks “when needed,” rather than codified into law, seems a much better way to go overall, and I wonder why we as adults need to have our rights to the bathroom policed. Perhaps because we never left school.

Institutionalized schools. It is here where the existence of gendered bathrooms and the loss of privacy seems to come first into the consciousness of the young child. For myself, having attended a series of both private and public institutions of learning, “bathroom breaks,” despite being heavily policed, were an opportunity for male bullies to be out of the watchful eye of mostly female teachers and supervisors.

Del Campo Saatchi & Saatchi, “I will survive”

For those of us who underwent the indignities of shared bathing or toilet facilities, it again seems obvious that the correct response is not anti-bullying PSAs or the obscene turnaround politics suggested in this particular one shown to the left: the solution is to provide greater student autonomy. As a society, we shouldn’t be questioning the cost of locking, individual facilities, we should be looking at the huge indignity (not to mention tort liability) around not providing adequate private facilities.

The idea that a bathroom, if shared by students of mixed gender, is a place where some kind of indignity might happen has nothing to do with the entirely hypothetical and invented risk of transgender students assaulting (female children, vulnerable children, vulnerable women) in the bathroom, it comes from the very real indignities suffered by both genders in a single-sex bathroom. It comes from the fears and tortured psyches of legislators trying to “imagine” (since they typically have no direct experience with homosexuals of either gender) what it means if you put either homosexual or transgendered individuals into this mix, the single gendered bathroom of their own childhood. Imagining some sort of sadomasochistic or erotic thrill from these events is the only place their narrowed field of vision can take them.

Their imagination is not the correct basis for legislation. Because of the fear and shame associated with these events (and the frightening occurrence of such events in the experiences of children in institutional schools, so much that these fears can be shorthanded to mere tropes and vignettes) a rationality-squelching adrenaline response is assured. We need to move beyond mere assurances that the “right thing” will be done, to concrete solutions that change and eliminate the breeding grounds for such fears.

Pre-industrialization and pre-institutionalized schooling, the dominant form of living arrangement was on the farm. There’s no mystery to the sexes for farm children: animals both behave in clearly sex-defined ways (roosters vs chickens, bulls vs cows) and there’s no absence of non-heterosexually divided activity (from the dog that humps a person’s leg to any number of other barnyard animals that respect neither gender nor species), but there’s also the simple fact that no animal cares who observes them shit, piss, or fuck.

But let’s face facts about sex education: the ability to be entirely ignorant of the opposite sex has always been a class privilege of the wealthy. As we move away from an agrarian, largely poor population to a society with a growing middle class that seeks to mingle with the wealthy (and often emulate their oddities), the idea that there is a cloak of mystery around biological function stands at odds to the idea that large segments of the population must be educated in a modern republic.

The institutionalized principle that men and women must be kept separate and differentiated is pervasive. We can ape the “separate but equal” myth however we choose with Title IX, but everyone knows that separate is inherently unequal. We can squirrel the girls off to a separate presentation about menstruation, and we can teach the pedagogy of the XY sex chromosomes, despite the fact that both men and women can benefit from knowledge about the menstrual cycle. Furthermore: menstruation, like the hormonal influence of X or Y chromosomes, is not a guaranteed outcome nor is experienced in quite the same way by all women. At some point in education, we have to learn that simple inequalities of some attributes aren’t a proxy for universal truths and don’t justify segregation in all other matters.

At one point in my youth, I honestly thought that the divisions between people of different races, genders, sexual identities, and the like were a relic, that somehow when I reached my fifties this would all go away. I attribute this naïveté to one simple thing: I attended a very liberal, highly respected, “east coast” university for my education. We were so committed to breaking down those barriers, that in my mixed-gender dormitory the unofficial “policy” was that for most of the bathroom facilities, both men and women were welcome to use either facility irrespective of the label provided by administration. Nothing severely untoward ever happened: you might see the occasional double pair of feet peeking out from underneath a closed shower curtain, but by and large, men and women used the facilities in entirely non-sexual ways: they did their #1s and #2s, showered, shaved, brushed their teeth in their pajamas, and attempted to make the maximum use of the limited resources we had. Much as brothers and sisters, moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas might do, back at home.

This brief interlude, where both men and women crammed for their exams, picked over the mediocre food in the cafeteria, learned subjects both artistic and scientific, did everything the same with no expectation that either gender would get special passes, was not to last. It wasn’t a reflection of the society outside of that very privileged space. I graduated, and returned to a world still consumed with the idea that the right-brainers were mostly one gender and went off to one set of career paths, and the left-brainers did the other.

To people who never shared in that privileged time or space, either because their parents didn’t have the money or they didn’t have the right set of grades or SAT scores or after-school activities or whatever, I’ve discovered that all that money and privilege and opportunity really didn’t bestow anything any more fairly than giving out a bunch of randomly selected lottery tickets among those who did participate, and that many people who you would have thought would or should have been granted some kind of magical golden ticket weren’t actually any luckier to have gone through that.

In fact, so many of my friends went into serious levels of debt, debt that cannot be discharged no matter if you go bankrupt or get sick or happen upon any of life’s mishaps. Cruelly, many won’t see a financial reward before they die, no matter how smart or creative or talented they are.

I can’t go back in time and re-litigate all of life’s events. I can’t magically find some reparation that makes all of the little paper cuts somehow less deadly in the end. We as a society need to get beyond the idea that there’s some magic formula, whether it is believing in Jesus or earning the most amount of greenbacks or cramming for exams night and day or working our fingers to the bone or any other “thing” we can say or do that makes us better or different or more entitled to any opportunity. In the end, people who like to bake will bake, people who like to toss a ball around will toss a ball around, and people who like to watch squiggles on paper or computer screens will do so.

I don’t want to make big changes, or write whole new codes of law. As bright as some people might think I am, that’s a horrible use of my time and isn’t going to make anyone any happier.

Bentham, for all his questionable incursions into privacy for the sake of efficiency, I think had it right overall. Do what brings the most happiness to the most people shall be the whole of the law.

TL;DR: so what simple thing am I asking? In short, the furore over transgendered bathrooms needs to end. We need to acknowledge that as a society that must come together and have shared civic responsibility, we must have equality of opportunity and education, and seek to reduce or end the divisions which encourage us against such an end.

Principally: we need to eliminate this specific gender division in a way that is fair for both men and women. Encouraging the creation of universal, private, single-person WC facilities when needed and shared equally among all is a worthwhile goal, and reduces the opportunity for mistreatment and groupthink. It’s not that big of a deal: somehow, moms and dads, brothers and sisters, grandmas and grandpas can seem to manage it, even all under one roof or with just one (gasp) room for everyone.

matt harbowy is a scientist, activist, and data management expert. He is one of the founders of the non-profit Counter Culture Labs, working to bring fairness and egalitarian ideals to people interested in learning about science and biotechnology. He is also a top writer on the question and answer site, Quora.



matt harbowy

no job too dirty for the f*%&ing scientists. --Burroughs