A few weeks ago, I helped an elderly woman at a public lavatory. Her distinguished male companion helped her through the main door but then stood awkwardly, carefully remaining on the outside of the women’s bathroom. I asked him quietly if I might be of assistance, and he agreed. His female partner, her hair perfect and her deep plum nails freshly manicured, shuffled slowly and had great difficulty, but maintained her dignity as I assisted her with the cubicle door. He thanked me profusely, and together they slowly returned to their shopping cart.
Imagine a more comfortable, humane alternative: he and she walking to a nongendered public washroom and he helping her through yet another of her daily challenges. Why separate them?
Gender specificity in public washroom facilities is the problem, as I see it. And not just for the elderly: Any woman who’s stood in line for the ladies’ room at a baseball stadium or hockey arena, while the men sail in and out of the adjoining facilities, knows that equal rights have not yet reached the public loo. The solution? One or two private, nongendered washrooms for those needing that privacy, and non-segregated, multi-cubicle washrooms for the rest of us.
That encounter with the elderly couple wasn’t the first time I’ve wondered at our bathroom politics. A friend and I were out for dinner in a restaurant in Victoria, and I had to use a washroom. There were two public WCs, one female and one male. There I stood with the growing line of women, as the male facility sat unused, the door temptingly ajar. My queue-mates and I began to discuss the stupidity of the situation, and several of us admitted to using a “male” designated washroom in the past. Finally, with their support and because of the absence of men in need, I used the male facilities. Granted, the man I passed on my way out raised his eyebrows, but at least the rather long line for the other washroom was helped out thanks to my decision. And frankly, so was I.
For years I’ve thought about the need for equal rights as I’ve stood in lines at local fairs and concert halls. My husband has taken my young daughter into several male-designated bathrooms to save her the potential disaster that would have been caused by waiting in a women’s line that stretched farther than the Fraser River. Not once have I had to take my son into the female washroom due to line-ups at the male door. And just in case it needs saying, having one male and one female washroom is not equality — not when women take twice as long as men to urinate, based on entry to exit from the facility (as reported in Alexander Kira’s The Bathroom), or when women, according to Dr. Clara Greed, a town planner, sometimes outnumber men 80:20 in a busy mall. (Hear her talk about the sexual politics of toilets here.) Nor is it equal to expect families to cross their collective legs waiting for the one-and-only family bathroom (if they’re lucky enough to even have that option), or to separate into the appropriate gender areas, particularly when single parents are dealing with children of a different gender. Nor is it fair to force transgendered people to make the choice of which bathroom to use.
Port-A-Potties, airplane bathrooms, bathrooms in private homes, and some offices and university toilet facilities are nongendered, but we have a long way to go with our public privies. Based on an impromptu, non-statistically significant poll of friends and family, everyone I spoke to, male and female, regardless of age, agreed that nongendered johns sounded good, with a few provisos: get rid of the urinals (the men and boys I spoke with hated them, anyway), and fully enclose cubicles. I then turned for enlightenment from the next generation — my high school writing students. It was Jonathan who came up with a clever idea to solve the dilemma of people who simply are not yet ready to use multi-cubicle, multi-toilet facilities: provide two single-cubicle washrooms, possibly even initially designating one as male and the other female, while providing group, nongendered facilities in addition.
This means some restructuring, granted, but it’s necessary. As new facilities are built, an opportunity exists to establish the new system building by building. And let’s applaud forward-thinking groups, such as the University of British Columbia, who are already evolving. According to The Vancouver Sun, UBC will soon change the signs on its single toilet facilities to indicate a general area rather than a male or female restricted one. Granted, multi-cubicle restrooms will remain as they are, but at least there’ll be progress on one front.
Bottom line (so to speak)? I want to be able to duck out during a lull in a baseball game, pop into the loo, and then make it back in time to see the next big play. Don’t you, ladies?