Thursday, February 20, 2014

Toilet Talk

We have a male janitor at work, and he is probably the nicest, least creepy male janitor a woman could ask for, knowing he has to enter the women's bathroom to clean it on a regular basis.  But seeing him waiting patiently outside the bathroom got me thinking about gender issues at they relate to separate bathrooms, and I think I've convinced myself that bathroom separation by gender is outdated, if it was ever correct in the first place.  

History books tell us of the old racist America having bathrooms for white people and bathrooms for "colored" people.  I've never seen such thing, and I hope they don't still exist anywhere, except maybe in a museum to remind us of the wrongdoings of our past, so as not to repeat them.  But my understanding from the context is that the "colored" bathrooms were probably dingier, less sanitary, lower quality, and otherwise less desirable to enter.  From "The Help", we learned that white people did not want coloreds using the same toilet, so it was common for them to build separate bathrooms for their black servants.  I only bring these issues up, because I sense that there are parallels, although much less extreme, in our continuation of separating men's and women's bathrooms.  

I suppose the major difference between the two bathrooms (men's and women's) is that the men's are known to have urinals, with no stall walls for privacy.  It would seem odd for a woman's bathroom to have anything but private areas to do our business in.  In fact, I once went into a public bathroom, I think at a state park or something outdoorsy, that had no doors, just walls on the sides of the toilets, and thought that was really odd.  So my first question is whether or not this privacy is really necessary.  Most adult women have seen male private parts, and its not like the men walk around their bathrooms completely pantsless or anything like that (at least I hope).  In fact, with many stereotypical men being homophobic about bathroom situations, I suspect that perhaps men would prefer a woman, rather than another man, to be around them while they urinate.  Not that there'd be women starring if we shared bathrooms with men - most men in the bathrooms of our workplaces would not be attractive to us anyways, so its not like we'd try to see - just that passing glances may be less offensive coming from the opposite gender.  Maybe.  Nevertheless, what are we really talking about here?  It's okay for men to see each other's private parts, but not for women to see them?  It just seems odd, when you think about everyone being an adult.  And even with kids, wouldn't it be better for them to know and be comfortable with the opposite gender, rather than have a societal separation from the start?  Again, little boys are bathrooming with little boys, why would it be bad for them to bathroom with little girls too?  In fact, thinking about how my nephew and niece used to bathe together when they were younger, I think the grosser idea is that old men bathroom with little boys, and that we say is acceptable.  Perhaps if bathrooms should be separated, they should be separated by age, below 18 and over 18.  

As I thought more about this seemingly basic issue, its complexity unwinded.  Separation of church and state was initially created to protect the church, and is commonly misused to try to protect the government.  Are we doing the same thing with our bathrooms?  Who are we protecting?  By separating the bathrooms, are we protecting the women from the gross men, with their tom foolery and stinky farts?  Or are we preventing the men from seeing the gross parts of being a woman, with their tampons and time spent adjusting themselves in the mirror?  Who cares?  Women fart in the bathroom while I'm in there all the time, what difference would it make if it was a man farting instead?   And men know about our menstrual cycles, its not like its a big secret we've hidden from mankind.  I'm not saying we should talk about it more openly even, I'm just saying its a known part of life, so why should it only exist in the private recesses of the women's bathroom?  It's childish, really, to keep the men and women separate in the bathroom.  We are practically putting up signs on our bathroom doors saying, "Boys ONLY!" or "Girls KEEP OUT!" like we're 5 years old and defending our forts.  

Being a female engineer, I've had many opportunities to listen to and empathize with female engineers who came before me.  They talk about the discrimination they faced, much worse than what I've seen in my career.  I've heard from some women that, when they started their careers at engineering firms, the companies didn't even have women bathrooms yet, and they had to wait until the men cleared out before they could go in to use the restroom.  It reminds me of my high school Computer Networking class, in which I was the only girl.  Our high school's genius networking administrators put the networking closet in the men's bathroom, so I had to make field trips into the men's bathroom to do my school work.  The teacher always made sure there were no other boys in there except our class, but some of my classmates whipped it out in front of me anyways.  My teacher was very sensitive to gender discrimination, and always encouraged me to report anything of the sort.  I think he just wanted to reprimand a certain boy who picked on me a lot, because the teacher didn't like the boy's attitude.  I didn't mind being picked on, because I could defend myself and hold my own.  It taught me a very early lesson in discrimination.  

On the other hand, working at a male-dominated company meant that most of the time I had the bathroom to myself.  I very rarely ran into another woman, because there were just so few of them in my building.  Naturally, the building had to have the same number of bathrooms for men as it did for women - anything less would be discrimination, right? - even though there was far less fewer of us, and it was not necessarily practical to have so many women's bathrooms.  When I did see another woman in the bathroom, especially if she and I knew each other well, we would chat.  It was like our own private water cooler, where only us gals could gossip, and no overbearing men could hear us or identify the speakers.  It was like a club house of sorts, which also meant that the men had their own private water cooler club house.  Even if its taboo to talk to one another at the urinals, I suspect some men do, or at the very least, they talk while washing their hands, or something.  They must, right?  And us women are strictly excluded from these conversations, not because they aren't relevant or interesting to us, and not because we don't have anything interesting to contribute, but simply because our society dictates that we use the women's restroom.  

How different would it have been, for me in high school, if bathrooms were gender-neutral?  I wouldn't have been out of place working in the networking closet.  The boys would have one less way to pick on me.  And in my professional career, and for my female engineering predecessors, if bathrooms were gender-neutral?  That would have been one less thing to make us stand out for the wrong reason.  It could have been one less way that the men could have had a "boy's club".  

I started to wonder to myself, who would defend bathroom segregation if it was brought to the table to change?  Does anyone feel a compelling reason to keep them separate?  There's a notion, right or wrong, that women's bathrooms are cleaner than men's.  Is that because men produce more bodily fluid?  Or because they have poor aim?  Or is it because women clean up after themselves better?  Or make less mess to begin with, because they are more familiar with cleaning?  Or is it because women complain more if the bathroom is dirty?  Frankly, if my bathroom shares a janitor with the one across the hall, and he happens to be a man, I would think that they'd be equally as clean.  The same would be true, I'd assume, if we both had a female janitor, although one might argue a woman's emotions could lead her to do a better job in her own bathroom than what she doesn't have to use.  No, I'd argue that cleaning procedures are cleaning procedures.  

Then I thought about how women's bathrooms often have sofas in them.  Perhaps that's an artifact of breastfeeding, and I think a lot of places now provide specific rooms for such a thing.  Certainly, my current company and my prior one both have such a room.  Is it fair that we have a sofa and men don't?  It's not like we're going to sit down and read a book in there, and while our male counterparts have to work all day.  Maybe its there because women are social pee-ers, and we go to the bathroom together, so there is a place to sit for the non-peeing accompanying friend.  Regardless, if there is any inkling of women's bathrooms being nicer than men's, that seems wrong, doesn't it?  Discriminatory in the opposite direction than sexists usually go - benefiting women!  But still discriminatory, nonetheless.  

Here's another scenario: I walk into a fast food restaurant, and I want to use the restroom (or even just wash my hands) before I order and sit down and eat.  But there's someone in the singular woman's restroom.  So I'm standing awkwardly in the hallway waiting.  There's noises, but nothing that makes me believe she is wrapping up anytime soon.  I continue standing and waiting.  The men's restroom is clearly vacant.  I think about going in there, but then a man comes up beside me and enters.  I continue waiting.  The man finishes quickly and comes back out, looking a little surprised / annoyed to see me still standing there.  I could have ordered my food and had it by now if I hadn't opted to come to the restroom first.  

That scenario could play out a dozen ways, but the bottom line is that the gendered bathroom segregation adds awkwardness, inefficiency and wasted time.  What value would I get by using the women's restroom over the men's?  What would happen if there was a man waiting when I came out of the men's bathroom?  Again, if we assume we're all adult about it, it shouldn't matter which restroom we use, so why make the distinction?  Indeed, some public places with single restrooms have made them gender-neutral, and I think that's an obvious play for restrooms with no separate stalls.  Afterall, most private homes don't have a men's and women's bathroom.  Maybe its because urinals aren't common in private homes, or maybe it just doesn't make sense.  

My mind wandered to a scene from Glee in which the student, born a male but dresses and acts like a female, talks about using the bathroom where she fits in best.  She tends to only go to the bathroom during class, never between classes, so as to ensure as much privacy as possible.  And even though she has male parts, she uses the women's bathroom, because that's where she feels she belongs.  She gets beat up for being different in the men's restroom, and rejected by insensitive girls in the women's.  I've never been well-acquainted with someone who is transgendered or in transition or anything like that, but I could definitely see the dilemma the Glee character faced.  And again, I came to the same conclusion: all this drama and awkwardness could be absolved if the norm was one general bathroom for all people.  Or, with students and teachers being a sensitive topic, an adult bathroom and a children's or underage bathroom.  Age, unlike gender, is a clear cut thing.

Similarly, sexual orientation is a sensitive topic that is aggravated by our insistence to keep bathrooms segregated by gender.  The recent coming out of a top NFL recruit stirred up conversations about a gay man in the locker room.  It's a topic of discussion, because it's different, and it scares some people.  If everyone accepted it as easily as everyone wants to pretend that they accept it, or as their lawyers or peers say they should accept it, then nobody would be talking about it.  But it's different, so its a topic of discussion.  Look, if we all grew up sharing bathrooms with both genders and all sexual orientations, then there would be no difference to speak of.  Same goes for gays in military, and I'm sure other situations which haven't blown up yet.  The distinction starts with the "norm" being straight people and separating the boys from the girls.  If boys and girls weren't separated, then gay men in the locker room would be a non-issue.

The big current topic related to gender is same-sex marriage, and I could see why it is such a priority for gays and supporters.  It's a big deal to couples who want to marry.  I get it.  But to me, I would think bathroom segregation would be an easier battle to win, and do more for defeating discrimination, for straights and gays and transgenders and a host of other groups of people.  In fact, same-sex couples have a strange advantage over straight couples:  Same-sex couples can wait in line together at busy events.  They don't have to each find their separate bathrooms at large venues, and then try to find each other when they're done.  Wouldn't it be better if all couples could wait in line together, go to the same general restroom, and come out together?  Such a thing could be possible with gender-neutral bathrooms.  And while religion is the biggest barrier to same-sex marriage, it doesn't matter what your religion says, everybody has to use the bathroom.  

Now, going back to my bathroom conversation before I get anybody worked up about same-sex marriage, I don't know why we have separate bathrooms.  I don't think there is anything in the Bible that says, "Thou shalt not urinate in the same room as someone of the opposite gender."  I imagine in ancient times, there probably was no separation.  I couldn't find any concrete history on how and why bathrooms were separated, only a hint that it may have been a Puritanical concept.  Wikipedia put it in the category of a legal requirement based on safety concerns.  I don't get the safety concern thing.  If a man wants to attack a woman in the bathroom, what better place to do it where he expects no other man to be - in a women's bathroom!  If we had gender-neutral bathrooms, then whatever sexual predators might try in the bathrooms is more likely to be stopped, and thus less likely to be attempted, than if the bathrooms were separate.  

As I research this topic, it's a relief (pun intended) to know that I'm not the only one who has pondered this, and there are a lot of other good arguments for unifying the bathrooms and tearing down the walls of segregation by sex.  The only arguments I've seen against it are illogical ones, trained by our norms, like, "I don't want men in my bathroom," and "I like my privacy".  Privacy in a public bathroom?  I suppose you also think only your friends can see your facebook pictures, and that when you delete posts, they're gone forever.  Get real.  If we can elect a black President, legalize marijuana in some states, and allow same-sex marriage anywhere, this should be a no-brainer.  I suspect the only reason it lingers is that it doesn't have a dire enough consequence for enough people.  There's no burning platform like there is for same-sex marriage.  It has a dire consequence, no doubt, for a small population of people, and it has a small negative consequence for a lot of people, but even combined, those aren't big enough issues to compel the nation to change.  But maybe someday.  

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