Bathroom Activism — From Another Angle

My daughters and I are in the midst of potty training. There are so many fiddly little details and strategies and tips and whatnot around this process — this very protracted process — that are of zero to negative interest to non-parents.

Well, most non-parents.

I imagine most people would look at me a little funny if I described bathroom access as a social justice issue. Bathrooms seem like such a small issue — until you really need one. Even so, it can be hard to keep your eye on the big picture when you, or your charges, just really need to pee.

If you want me to go all theory-head on it, I’d say that lack of bathroom access is in part a symptom of our abdication of commitment to the public sphere. Public bathrooms are sparse, and budget cuts assure that most are not maintained well “ they’re dirty, wet, they smell awful and they lack toiler paper and soap.

For the parent of toilet-training toddlers, lack of public bathroom access keeps parents and children indoors and homebound. In fact, I wonder if any pundits on the state of American childhood have had it occur to them that one reason kids in the U.S tend to train late might be precisely lack of facilities? I know that I’ve put the girls in diapers more than once when going out simply because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find a bathroom for them when the time came.

This is compounded by the fact that many bathroom facilities that are accessible in theory aren’t necessarily in practice “ toddlers tend to be a lot smaller than adult humans, you may have noticed, and full-size toilets and toilet seats can be a challenge. These days I get to carry around my own adaptive device “ a folding toddler-sized toilet seat — everywhere I go.

Bathroom access is also an important issue, albeit a naturally delimited one, for pregnant women. Enough so that “how to find a bathroom how-tos for expectant moms are rife.

But let’s open the scope a little bit.

Let’s not forget that not so long ago, bathrooms were as segregated as lunch counters, and that disabled activists fought (and still fight for) legal assurances for accessible bathroom space.

“Potty parity” is a slightly cheeky term for the activist goal of equitable bathroom facilities for men and women, i.e. a solution to the problem of long lines at the women’s room, no waiting at the men’s. National legislation has made progress in ensuring federal buildings achieve this goal, but progress is often hit-and-miss elsewhere and can vary widely state by state.

Bathroom access is also an issue for homeless populations. Various “security” measures undertaken in the past decade or so have made this a particular hot spot, as hotels, restaurants and other private businesses lock down their facilities.

And then there’s transgender populations. Equitable bathroom access for gender-variant folks is in fact a huge activist goal. And it’s well-known that “family bathrooms aren’t just for people like me who have small children in tow, but are also safe havens for those who may risk opprobrium at best, and deadly violence at worst, for picking the “wrong bathroom.

Now, I identify as genderqueer but not as transgender, and I pass as a woman with only the most minor of double-takes in all but the most conservative of communities. (I may have felt like I was from another, butcher and much taller planet when I went to visit the facilities during the Adult Video News Awards, but that’s a story for another time.) So my perspective on these issues is one of an outsider “ a supportive ally, but not directly affected every single day. Nonetheless, I am close enough to see connections, and perhaps potential for stronger ties.

Am I being starry-eyed in imagining a “Fair Bathrooms Coalition movement? Parents and caretakers, homeless and homeless advocates, trans people and trans allies, socialists, feminists and architecture students all united in fighting for clean, well-maintained, spacious and ungendered public bathrooms?

As it turns out, no. The American Restroom Association, “advocates for the availability of clean, safe, well designed public restrooms,” although they look a little moribund at the moment. Nonetheless, their site is full of handy links and resources (some may be outdated). There’s also the World Toilet Organization, which is quite active. They do, however, proclaim that “We don’t believe in charity or handouts, instead we strongly believe in self help, social entrepreneurship and private market solutions,” as if public and private solutions are mutually exclusive or at the very least, antagonistic. Also, way to be condescending to public policy advocates.

For more information on various “bathroom activism” campaigns:

The Transgender Law Center’s Safe Bathroom Access Campaign — download their fabulous “Peeing in Peace” resource guide here.

The safe2pee blog — which, among many other key resources, offers an app for your smartphone!

Feministe’s essay on trans bathroom activism, with several relevant news stories and links to the excellent Toilet Training documentary.

The National Coalition for the Homeless has a directory of local service organizations, many of which provide bathroom access to the populations they serve.

And don’t miss Rajiv Shah’s fundamental paper How Architecture Regulates.

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