Why Not a Private Restroom for Everyone?

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

From reader Hunter Oatman-Stanford:

I enjoyed the reader comment in your recent note that outlined how the so-called bathroom bills may actually require people to use bathrooms that don’t match their genitals:

Since people are, in fact, getting reassignment surgery across the country, one can imagine a scenario in which a transgender man who has received surgery and as such has male genitalia, who identifies as a heterosexual man, would be forced to use a women’s bathroom AS A RESULT OF THESE LAWS.

The laws implicitly assume that people are more comfortable using a restroom or locker room with only one gender, when it’s common knowledge that many people are uncomfortable even in gender-segregated spaces, hence the stereotype about middle-school kids hating to shower after gym class.

If locker room or bathroom anxiety is a common issue, why aren’t we pushing to make all of the spaces accommodating to people who want real privacy by offering gender-neutral, single-person stalls? Much like the retrofitting requirements of the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act], this seems the logical way to approach public accommodations.

A pricey one, though, and who’s going to pay to retrofit all those bathrooms? The local, state, or federal government? Presumably federal, given the recent directive from the Obama administration over transgender access to school bathrooms under Title IX. Perhaps it’s a relatively small price to pay—not only for trans Americans’ desired access, but privacy for all kinds of people.

This next reader and transgender woman, Emily, makes a similar case as Hunter’s. Her note is specifically responding to the one from reader Ben Denny, “Does the Left Have a Smug Problem?”—a call for intellectual honesty and openness to opposing views when it comes to the caustic debate over bathroom access. Here’s Emily:

None of us is immune from smugness. I can attest to it coming up in my own words or behavior at times. I agree with Mr. Denny in that it is helpful to remind oneself of ones foibles from time to time.

Interesting that he picks the transgender bathroom issue to use as an example. I am a transgender woman, and no one is going to be, or ever has been, endangered when I use the women’s restroom. (We are usually the ones subjected to violence and horrible discrimination due to nasty and untrue stereotypes about us.) The possibility that some man might dress up as a woman and commit perverted acts was there long before transgender people ever came into the consciousness of most Americans.

Is there a realistic fear of this sort of attack? Then make all restrooms single-use, gender-neutral spaces.

This would both make sure that anyone using the restroom will be able to securely lock the door and solve the problem of parents out in public with their opposite-sex children, caretakers assisting people with disabilities who need help in the rest room, and transgender people who do not see themselves as male or female. [CB: Hunter also made a strong point that’s relevant here: “When the justification of these bills is to prevent sexual assault, why is it not brought up that children can (and are) assaulted by members of their same biological sex, sometimes in bathrooms? Why do we insist on ignoring the evidence of cases like Dennis Hastert or the many Catholic Church officials who assaulted boys in male-only spaces?”]

Mr. Denny asks for healthy pushback toward both the left and right side of the spectrum when they overreach. How is it not overreach to pass the bathroom bill aimed at transgender people without consulting us? Perhaps some of the reaction has been imperfect. It is still a fact that some of the proponents of these bills do think we transgender people are just “deciding to change genders”—an inaccurate view that renders us non-existent and has been used to hurt us in palpable ways.

I would be happy to have a reasonable discussion with Mr. Denny on this subject. I would point out, at the same time, that idea markets are not always fair; much can depend on who has the power to enforce their ideas.

I was denied gender confirming surgery by my healthcare provider based on Medicare’s denial—a denial that had been disputed by the AMA, APA and WPATH for more than a decade. Their reasoned, evidence-based statements did little to change this unjust denial until the political situation changed, and that was in large part due to some of the admittedly sometimes messy and loud advocacy by transgender people and their allies. The people who stood firm against this change were little affected by reasonable debate. I know because I tried for over a year with my provider with no success.

I am not against reasoned debate; to the contrary, I spent 14 months attempting to have a reasoned debate with my provider over their denial, one which they had it in their power to change. And if some of the people pushing for these bathroom bills have their way, we transgender people will be pushed back into the closet. In fact, not being able to find a safe restroom will have exactly that effect for many people. The closet is a painful place to live; I know from personal experience.

Lastly, reader Michael relays a sensible approach to prevent the exploitation of bathroom laws by non-trans people merely dressing up:

Think Progress had a good explanation of the Washington State restroom ordinance that addresses specific concerns about the possibility of abuse of the ordinance. (Full disclosure, I used to work at Center for American Progress.) The ordinance does not fine or jail people if they question or deny access to a trans person who tries to use the restroom that conforms to their gender as long as the denial of access is based on a reasonable, good-faith assumption that the person is not trans and may be trying to gain access to the restroom to engage in illegal activity.

If a non-trans person tries to get into the opposite-gender bathroom for nefarious purposes under the false pretense that they are trans and is denied access, either that person would not file a discrimination complaint or, if they did, the complaint would easily be dismissed upon a quick investigation.

Granted, a conservative troll could file a complaint and try to fight it tooth and nail just to prove a point, but we should not require laws to be so airtight as to be immune to aggressive trolling. Conversely, if a trans person is legitimately trying to use a bathroom that conforms to their gender and they are denied access based on the access-denier’s good faith belief that the person is not really trans and may be up to no good, and as a result the trans person files a complaint, then the Washington State human rights commission does not have the authority to jail or fine the access-denier. Instead, the commission carries out a mediation that allows both parties to resolve their misunderstanding amicably.

This shows that the state allows for the possibility that you are not a bigot and are acting in good faith if you deny access, as long as you allow for the possibility that the person you denied access to might actually be trans and are willing to apologize if they are. As long as both sides act in good faith, misunderstandings can be resolved and the state can facilitate their resolution with a well-crafted ordinance.

I understand that popular cynicism assumes that vindictive litigiousness will always win the day in American society, but well-crafted laws and fair-minded institutions are capable of ameliorating that … if, of course, people would stop being so smug.