Having a sh!t-in: Why sex-segregated bathrooms hurt all of us

When I was a grade-school kid, having just learned the history of Jim Crow and Rosa Parks and sit-ins, I became inspired to protest segregation in my own way.

I started hanging out in the boys’ bathroom.

To me, dividing bathrooms by sex didn’t seem any less bigoted than dividing them by race. People were uncomfortable using the bathroom in the presence of the opposite sex? Well, in the days of Jim Crow, people were uncomfortable using the bathroom in the presence of another race; that didn’t make segregation acceptable. Sexual crimes happen in bathrooms? Well, so do racial hate crimes, sometimes, but that’s no reason for racial segregation.

No one listened to my arguments. I saw the inside of the principal’s office more often than the inside of either restroom.

At the time, I wasn’t even very aware of transgender issues. I was focused on the ways that segregation hurts everyone. The girls like me who didn’t try to look boyish but always got mistaken for boys anyway. The disabled adults who needed help to use the bathroom, and whose only available helper was someone of the opposite sex.

Have you ever been denied the right to use a public restroom because the restroom for your sex was closed for cleaning? Then you, too, have been a victim of segregation.

And now, in this era of slightly increased transgender awareness, society is finally starting to realize that the issue even exists.

All over the news are articles about transgender people fighting for the right to use the public restrooms intended for the gender they identify with. The struggles they have to go through to fulfill this basic need are heartbreaking.

One issue that always seems to be ignored: This discrimination can be ended only by eliminating segregation entirely.

It’s a simple line of reasoning. If you have a rule that men have to use the men’s room and women have to use the women’s room, then:

1. Having that rule is pretty useless unless you can enforce it.

2. To enforce it, you have to be able to define who is a man and who is a woman.

3. And you have to be able to identify people as men or women just by looking at them, or some other test that can be performed in the moments before they enter the restroom.

Pretty impossible.

You could define it by who looked male or female to you, but that leaves tons of potential for error. I would have been kicked out of the girls’ room as a kid, if it had been based on people’s ability to tell I was a girl by looking at me.

You could define it by the clothes people were wearing, so that anyone who was presenting as a woman could enter the women’s room… but how do you define women’s clothing? Would I not be allowed in the women’s room if I’m wearing a gender-neutral t-shirt and jeans? And how do you tell a transwoman from a cis man who puts on a dress so he can legally go in the women’s room and ogle people?

There was a city that tried to enforce it by looking at the gender printed on people’s state IDs. But this discriminated against transgender people who had not had their IDs changed to reflect their reassignment– as well as people who didn’t have an ID with them.

The only solution is not to segregate the bathrooms in the first place.

Before you criticize this option, and rail against me for desecrating women’s privacy and encouraging sex crimes… take a look at this picture of an actual unisex restroom.

This is a drawing I did from memory, of a bathroom in a local theater here in MN. See how each stall is its own little room, with thick walls, and a door that goes all the way to the floor? See how the common area with the sink is out in the open, so anyone who wanted to harass someone would be in plain view of pretty much everyone?

A unisex bathroom gives you more privacy than a segregated one.

And it solves all the other problems too. It removes the debate over which bathroom you should use when people disagree on whether you’re a man or a woman. It provides a welcoming environment for disabled men who need the help of a wife or mother to use the bathroom, or vice versa. And each stall is cleaned individually, so no one ever has to wait for the “correct” bathroom to be cleaned before they can use it.

If you agree that all bathrooms should be like this, spread the word. Perhaps we can make a difference.

My ostracized childhood self, leaning against the wall in the boys’ room greeting every visitor with “Hello, I’m having a shit-in!” may have been taking the wrong approach. It may have been more a plea for attention than an earnest expression of my beliefs. But I did have those beliefs, and they were on the right track. Maybe someday they will finally be vindicated.

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