Bathroom Politics: Preserving the Sanctity of the ‘Ladies’ Room’

"Joan" from Mad Men primping in the Ladies Room.
"Joan" from Mad Men primping in the Ladies Room.
“Joan” from Mad Men primping in the Ladies’ Room.

In the 1950s the Ladies’ Room was a place of refuge, a wall-papered lounge with a couch, polished mirrors, fresh flowers, and often an attendant armed with fresh towels, perfume, and mints. As men have always suspected, we didn’t go there just to use the facilities; the Ladies’ Room was a safe gathering place.

We went there to talk, to primp,  to smoke, to cry, to adjust a poor wardrobe choice, to sneak away from a bad dinner date, or just to sneak away. The Ladies’ Room was a place where women could be women–a place with no men watching, commenting, judging.

The Politicization of Bathrooms

In the early 1970s, at the height of the feminist era, “Ladies” Rooms came under fire. We feminists were not “ladies” who needed fainting couches in restrooms because we didn’t have the fortitude to work an 8-hour day without a nap or a good cry. “Ladies” were well-behaved women; we early feminists were anything but ladylike. As a result, “Ladies” Rooms became the Women’s Rooms– or Womyn’s Rooms– and the couches all but disappeared.

Further politicization of public bathrooms came later in the 1970s. I remember my first trip to a gay bar with a couple of gay guy friends, George and Henry. As professional photographers, the three of us worked together and played together. The Kismet, a legendary downtown Columbus gay bar, was hopping the night we were there– loud disco music, flashing lights, dancing, plenty of booze, and other adult entertainment and harder drugs, if you knew who to ask.

Not long after our arrival, I realized that there were two types of women at the bar  (three types if you count me– the only openly straight woman). All of the real women (AKA people with vaginas) were wearing jeans and weren’t wearing any make-up. All of the “women” who were decked out with slinky dresses, big hair, heels, and gobs of make-up were men… transvestites. I noted my observation to George, and he validated it.

Then it dawned on me: If they’re men dressed as women, which restroom do they use?

“They’re men. They use the Men’s Room,” George answered matter-of-factly. That solution worked at the Kismet but not so much in mainstream Columbus, I’m sure.

Papers to Pee Laws

Fast forward to Arizona in 2013, the City of Phoenix passed an anti-discrimination law that extended “basic protections to transgender people in housing, the workplace, and places of public accommodation.”  Since “public accommodation” includes public restrooms, this got the attention of Arizona Representative John Kavanagh who proposed legislation stating that people should use the bathroom assigned to their sex– not what  “they think in their head”. In other words, a person with a penis– even if it’s covered by dress– should use the Men’s Room.

From The Daily Beast

Going to the bathroom in a public venue can be a huge source of anxiety for transgender people, particularly those who are just transitioning and don’t yet “pass” as their true gender. According to a recent study conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 53 percent of transpeople report being ”harassed or disrespected in a place of public accommodation.”

There was a huge outcry over Kavanagh’s “papers to pee” bill, and it died in the Arizona Legislature.

restroom signThe latest twist in Arizona bathroom politics comes after a Henry Elementary School girl who identifies as a boy used the Boys’ Room at the school. Shortly after that, Tucson Unified School District’s (TUSD) changed its nondiscrimination policy. 

From the Arizona Daily Star

TUSD amended its nondiscrimination policy in March [2014], adding “gender identity or expression” to a list that prohibits discrimination based on disability, race, color, religious beliefs, sex, sexual orientation, age or national origin. While the policy does not directly address bathroom use by transgender children, the discussion that led to the change stemmed from an incident at Henry Elementary School, 650 N. Igo Way, in which parents raised concerns about a transgender student using the boys’ restroom…

Sanchez [TUSD Superintendent] said the policy revision is in line with case law that has gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and in line with other districts of TUSD’s size that have dealt with such circumstances.

This story and a similar one from Colorado about 5-year-old Coy Mathis, who is a boy self-identifying as a girl and who recently won a court case which allows him to attend school as a girl, or the little girl whose Christian school told her she looked too much like a boy because she self-identifies as a girl but prefers pants, t-shirts, and short hair.

The two stories about young children “self-identifying” as the opposite gender concern me. First of all, how can a 5-year-old know and express the belief that he feels more comfortable as a girl? I do believe that people can show signs of being gay when they are children, but in my opinion, the concept of gender identification is far more complex and beyond the intellectual capacity of an elementary school student. I wonder what role parents and psychologists have played in this “self-identification.”

I’ve been a Mom and a Grandma for decades. Besides my two children, my two grandchildren, and now my two step-children, I’ve known many young people since they were little kids. Four of my children’s friends grew up to be gay. The girl was a tomboy who liked sports, but she also wore make-up and dated guys all the way through high school. There was no indication (to me, anyway) that she would be a Lesbian later in life. The three boys were a different story. By the time they were 10-11 years old, my gaydar was picking up the signal; the one little boy showed signs of being gay much younger and enjoyed “playing dress-up” with my daughter’s large collection of frilly dress-up clothes. I never said anything about my observations to the parents, to those children, to my children, or to anyone (except my husband in private). Then and now, these four young people were accepted by the neighborhood gang that played together and went to school together.

What About the Women?

War on WomenWomen have suffered a long history of discrimination and violence at the hands of men.  The statistic above says, “53 percent of transpeople report being ‘harassed or disrespected in a place of public accommodation.’” Welcome to our world.

How many times have women heard the establishment (ie, straight men, including some elected politicians) say that rape victims “asked for it” with the way they dressed? How many times are women told, “If you don’t want to be jeered at, harassed, fondled, or raped, don’t dress that way.”  In other words, sexual violence can’t be controlled, so potential victims must curb their actions. Don’t walk alone at night. Don’t go to those parts of town. Drive with your windows up and doors locked. Don’t wear that. Don’t wear shoes you can’t run in. Carry a gun. Society’s message for the “weaker sex”: You are vulnerable.

Straight men are in power. Period.

Bringing this back to the bathroom question, there are lots of solutions floating around the Internet. There are stories like this one about the City of Philadelphia, which recently passed a law saying that all new or renovated city buildings should include unisex bathrooms, in addition to traditional men’s and women’s restrooms. This is a good solution, in my opinion, because it provides a safe space for everyone– including transgender people and families. (It bothers me when my son has to take my little granddaughter into the Men’s Room because most restaurants don’t have unisex or family bathrooms.) I also agree with converting all of the one-seaters out there to unisex bathrooms.

Others– primarily activists and academics aligned with the LGBTQQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Androgynous, Allies) community– advocate for all public bathrooms to be gender neutral, no gender-specific restrooms.

From The Ethics of Gender-Segregated Bathrooms

Avoids Marginalization

One of the most often-cited arguments in favor of gender neutral bathrooms is that on a societal level, adhering to a binary system with only two choices (male or female) “others” people who do not fit into or subscribe to this dichotomy, with consequences that extend beyond the immediate discomfort of having to choose which bathroom to use.

This group of marginalized people includes people who identify as transgender, transsexual or intersex, and people who do not identify within the confines of these categories.

In “Coming Out of the Water Closet: The Case Against Sex Segregated Bathrooms,” (Texas Journal of Women and the Law) Alex More discusses the extent to which having male and female bathrooms excludes people. More writes “Sex segregated restrooms force people to choose “male” or “female”—those who refuse to accept the dichotomy become defined out of existence. People who do not identify with their socially assigned sexual category represent the remainder of sexual division—the leftovers, sexuality’s refuse…”


A concern for safety motivates people on both sides of this debate.

In the article “Embodiment, Elimination, and the Role of Toilets in Struggles for Social Justice,” Judith Plaskow, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, raises the issue of how to reconcile the “need of transgender persons for safe and accessible restrooms” with some people, primarily women’s, desire “for the privacy and safety they associate with women-only space.” [Emphasis added.]

At Harvard, the Co-Chair of the Harvard College Queer Students and Allies wrote in an opinion piece titled “Safe Bathrooms for All” that Crimson editorial arguing against gender-neutral bathrooms on safety and modesty grounds ignored “that gender-neutral bathrooms are a matter of dignity and safety for those in our community who don’t conform to traditional gender norms,” and “…treated unsubstantiated risks of sexual harassment and assault against women as though they were facts, without offering any evidence for their claims.”

Why Not?

On the other side of the issue are people who believe that the creation of gender-neutral bathrooms would make bathrooms more dangerous, and make people feel uncomfortable in terms of privacy and modesty.

A Concern for Safety…But Safety for Whom?

One of the biggest concerns raised by people who are against the implementation of gender-neutral bathrooms is safety.

When Harvard University was considering building gender-neutral bathrooms, the editorial board of the Harvard Crimson student newspaper argued against the creation of gender-neutral bathrooms on-campus. Much of the editorial “Rethinking Privacy” focused on safety: “Gender-neutral bathrooms could provide opportunities for verbal harassment and even unwanted attention that perhaps could be avoided in gender-specific bathrooms. We understand that assault and harassment can occur anywhere; we simply believe that gender-neutral bathrooms would make it easier.”

Privacy and Modesty Concerns

While the potential for increased danger for bathroom users is a major deterrent for people in favor of maintaining sex segregated bathrooms, The Crimson raises another issue in its editorial advocating against the addition of gender-neutral bathrooms, that of modesty, a concern often brought up by religious groups as well.

The Crimson asserts that although a small minority of students may feel discomfort at having to use sex segregated bathrooms, many students would also feel discomfort if forced to use gender-neutral bathrooms.

From No More Women’s Rooms: Why Bathrooms Should All Be Gender Neutral, published by Slate

The foremost reason for being anti-bathroom-neutralization involves the sensitive issue of sexual assault. Many people who believe gender-neutral bathrooms would benefit society in both providing for the needs of trans* people and helping to alleviate severe separations between the genders don’t want to be insensitive to the needs of sexual assault survivors. That said, conceding the fight for neutralization solely based on this concern ignores the fact that sexual assault can—and more importantly does—occur among members of every gender, and all survivors of assault deserve the same sensitivity. Choosing not to rid society of the bathroom divide because of an assumption that sexual assault survivors are all women who have been assaulted by men perpetuates a culture that embraces this as inevitable. This opposition also minimizes the existence of sexual assault that is not male-on-female.

On the grounds of safety, I completely disagree with the idea of making all public bathrooms– including those with multiple stalls– gender neutral, and thus allowing anyone to go anywhere. The Slate author misses the point. This may come as a news flash to some, but women don’t trust men. It’s not just about sensitivity to assault victims (although that is part of it) that I oppose “neutralizing” bathrooms. It’s about common sense and safety for everyone– especially the vulnerable, which includes women, the young, the elderly, and, yes, transgender and transsexual people. Would I want my little granddaughter or my 90-year-old Mother to be forced to use a gender neutral bathroom with men? No. 

A third “solution” is what TUSD and Sunnyside School District have adopted: Allow transgender students to choose any bathroom where they feel comfortable. I call this the capitalist or bureaucratic solution because it is the cheapest and easiest. No remodeling. No new construction. No new signage. Just force everyone to deal with the embarrassment, the lack of privacy, and the safety risks. There are definite privacy issues surrounding this solution– not the least of which is the deplorable conditions of many public school bathrooms. Having attended many Democratic Party State Committee Meetings in high schools around the state, I can attest to the horrid conditions of many girls’ bathrooms. Yes, they’re basically clean, but broken or misaligned door locks and missing stall doors abound. At one high school, out of six stalls, only one or two had both a functioning door and lock.  And the school districts want to allow transgender boys to use these facilities with the girls? I trust teenage boys less than I trust grown men. (Seriously, how hard is it to align a latch? Misaligned, broken, or missing bathroom stall latches are everywhere–even in swanky hotels.)

Is it wrong to long for the bygone days of the Ladies’ Room? Is it wrong to long for a sanctuary where men are not allowed? A place where women can be women? A place where women can feel safe? No.

My opinion…

1- All one-seater public bathrooms should be unisex. This would help everyone whose life doesn’t fit neatly into the “men go here” and “women go there” paradigm, including but not limited to transpeople. It will solve one problem women have everyday– standing in line outside of a women’s room while the men’s room is empty or at least has no waiting. This solution also helps family members who have to care for others of the opposite sex (ie, a Mom with a son, a Dad with a daughter, a spouse who has to help his/her partner, a nurse and patient).

2- New construction should include building codes for family bathrooms, in addition to multi-stall men’s and women’s bathrooms. The Phoenix Convention Center is a good example of this. It has large multi-stall traditional men’s and women’s rooms but also has many family bathrooms throughout the facility.

3- Transpeople should be able to use the bathroom in which they are comfortable. I am not afraid of transwomen in the women’s room. I totally get why they don’t want to use the men’s room; it’s the same reason why I oppose full gender neutral bathrooms.

4- For safety and privacy reasons, I oppose multi-stall gender neutral bathrooms. Existing multi-stall bathrooms are sealed up for privacy, often with heavy doors. Putting men and women into the same bathrooms  when they are designed in this way sets the vulnerable up for assault. This also goes back to my original concern: privacy and sanctuary for women.



  1. When I was growing up in GA the white girls felt uncomfortable with black girls using the same rest room.

    There has to come a time when people examine their feelings of “uncomfortableness” for what it is – and in this case it is simply prejudice and homophobia.

    A little education is a better and cheaper solution than bathroom construction and pandering to prejudice.

    • Black girls and white girls are still girls. As the radical feminists from the 1970s would remind us: anyone with a penis is capable of rape.

      It is interesting to me that you (a member if the ruling class, men) are telling me (a member of an oppressed minority) to get over it.

      Transsexuals in the women’s room– I have no problem with because they have made the commitment to become”women” surgically. Transgender men (or men pretending to be transgender) in the women’s room are a physucal threat to women. Accirding to the Wikipedia definition of transgender, these men may still be heterosexual. We should not trade one group’s safety for another group’s safety.

      The transgender argument is about “feeling uncomfortable” making the male/female restroom choice. The women’s argument is about safety.

      Also, women have NEVER had equal bathroom facilitates in the US, and now you want us to settle for even less? This is another issue where bureaucrats are willing to use women’s rights as a trading chip in the culture wars.

      • “Transgender men (or men pretending to be transgender) in the women’s room are a physical threat to women. ”

        You may believe that to be true, but factually you are wrong – just as those white girls sincerely believed that black girls were a threat.

        I say this with respect but you simply don’t know what you are talking about, and if u want to educate yourself there are plenty of great resources – you might want to check with SAGA and I’m sure they will help you.

        There are very few trans kids in TUSD and I promise that none of them pose the least threat to the non-trans students, male or female.

        But parental prejudices passed on to their kids do, factually, pose a real threat to trans kids.

        • My comments are related to the push for gender neutral bathrooms– where everyone uses the same bathrooms, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

          The issue goes far beyond what is happening in TUSD. Read the whole article. It is a complex issue. As I said, anyone with a penis is capable of rape. Remember when people trusted Catholic priests?

          • Anyone is capable of rape – even women without penii 🙂

            At the moment I am just concerned about the prejudice surrounding trans kids in TUSD and hate to see such ideas passed around. Again I would urge you to contact someone knowledgeable – Wingspan and SAGA are good resources, and you don’t need to speak to a person with a penis – they have females who will be happy to help.

  2. A cop friend of mine told me that they had a problem when a male transgendered cop dressing as a woman (who hadn’t done the surgery yet) started using the women’s room at the police HQ. The women staff/cops felt uncomfortable & refused to use the bathroom at the same time. Tough situation for the department.

Comments are closed.