Could the Transgender Debate Lead to Pay Toilets?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A few readers made the case earlier that single-person bathrooms or private stalls in locker rooms might be the best way to accommodate transgender Americans and Americans in general. If that happens, who pays for all that new construction? The local, state, or federal government, or the private sector? This next reader’s logic leads her to conclude that pay toilets could be coming:

I see this on both the right and the left: People think they can change something dramatic as to how society is structured and nothing else will change. Sometimes it works out that way, sometimes it doesn’t. Like Kansas thinks it can destroy its tax rolls, suck the money out of the department of transportation, and that will be just fine for the state’s highway system. On the other hand, conservatives predicted dire consequences for allowing gay marriage, and that doesn’t seem to have happened.

Here’s what I see happening on this transgender issue. If conservative states are required to allow trans people to use the bathroom of their choice, that is the same thing as not having sex-segregated bathrooms at all. Will most people use the bathroom that most conforms to their gender identity? Probably. But there will be cisgender male creeps and jerks who will insist on their right to hang out in women’s locker rooms, and it will be un-actionable. Sure, everyone will know they are being a creep. But we can’t/shouldn’t police people’s gender identity. How do you draft a law that allows pre-transition bio-males in women’s spaces, but keeps out completely cisgender creepy men? [A previous reader highlighted Washington State’s approach.]

That’s going to make a lot of people uncomfortable. And I think it’s going to lead to a breakdown in public toilets.

When the public pools in the South were integrated, it led to the abandonment by local governments of public pools. Private country clubs opened up instead. Does that mean I believe the public pools should not have been integrated? Not at all.  But I think it’s what were going to see here too.

If people can’t sex segregate public toilets, a lot of them won’t maintain public toilets. Instead there will be pay toilets. They probably won’t discriminate; they will be nice, single-use facilities that anyone can feel comfortable in. But they won’t be free.

So the question becomes, does the entire public want to give up free public toilets so that a tiny sliver of that public does not feel discriminated against in their choice of bathroom?

Thoughts? Send us a note and we’ll update.

I remember pay toilets in Germany when I lived there growing up, but I’ve never seen them in the States. Why? I just poked around and found this concise but fascinating history of the downfall of pay toilets in America, which in 1970 had over 50,000 of them, but by 1980, almost none. The impetus behind their demise was The Committee to End Pay Toilets in America (CEPTIA), formed on a lark by a small group of high school friends in 1969. Money quote from Aaron Gordon’s piece in Pacific Standard:

In a direct response to a [pay toilet manufacturer] Nik-O-Lok leaflet titled “Why Pay Toilets?,” CEPTIA published a pamphlet titled “Why Not Pay Toilets?,” which featured the organization’s first widespread usage of the feminist argument against the locks. Because the locks were on stall doors — and not on the outside of the bathrooms — men could use urinals for free, while women had to pay to do the same deed.

Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley seized on the “Did It for Women’s Lib” slogan and in 1973 made his city the first major one to ban pay toilets. Many other cities and states quickly followed suit.

But pay toilets have started to creep back. In 2008, for example, New York City installed its first 20 permanent, self-cleaning pay toilets. If you know of other notable examples, drop me an email.