Why the Public Bathroom Is Ground Zero for Civil Rights

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“We all need a safe place to pee,” says Canadian performer and writer Ivan Coyote. And most people in wealthy countries take it for granted that they’ll find one. Amid the relatively new hullabaloo over trans-friendly public restrooms, including a backlash in the form of “bathroom bills,” it’s worth remembering that public facilities have long been the site of battles over rights, identity and movements for inclusion.

Today it’s the fight for transgender rights, as Coyote movingly describes in the TED Talk that co-premieres today on OZY. But for decades, the public loo has been where the most intimate of rights land in the public square — and sometimes, the courts. Sharing a space of vulnerability and intimacy “can invite impassioned and at times vitriolic” responses, notes the ACLU’s Chase Strangio. Here are some watershed eras in the water-closet history:

1950s

Buses, lunch counters, drinking fountains and, yes, toilets, were all once plastered with “Whites Only” signs, thanks to Jim Crow laws and some vicious rumors. (Example: White men and women would catch STDs via toilet seats if Black men and women were allowed to plant their bums on the same ones.) Despite the absurdity of the claims, protesters were vigilant and even violent when it came to shared toilet access. It wasn’t until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 that the tide started to turn. Even still, some race-based battles over equal access to toilets persisted into the late ’70s.

1960s

Next came the push for equal access for people with disabilities, “which piggybacked on and had great inspiration from the Civil Rights movement,” says David Serlin, a professor at UC San Diego who researches the politics of design. Who doesn’t want to give access to the handicapped? In this case, the legal battles revolved around the cost issues of adapting spaces to accommodate them.

But Ed Roberts, a student at UC Berkeley, wasn’t having any of it. At the time, students like him, in wheelchairs and on ventilators, were expected to live at the hospital. He protested the setup, claiming that he wasn’t sick, an idea that was “absolutely revolutionary” in 1964, says Serlin. It’s because of him that we have sidewalks that slope downward at street corners, among other things now seen as commonplace. Finally, in 1968, the Architectural Barriers Act required buildings that use government money to consider handicapped inclusion from the ground up. By the mid-1970s mandates were expanded to include private institutions, too, though many companies still get by without providing handicapped access.

1970s & 1980s

Women entered the workforce in droves, jumping from 38 percent of the labor force to nearly 43 percent in a decade. Compared with the equal pay and maternity leave crusades of today, these women-in-the-workplace conversations were basic: Women deserved a place to pee. But they can thank their 19th-century predecessors, the Ladies’ Sanitary Association, for paving the earliest way and coining the term “potty parity.” Their first success with public-toilet access for women? Department store restrooms. For shoppers.

2000s & Beyond

First came the pushes to provide nursing spaces and changing tables in women’s bathrooms. And then in men’s bathrooms — after all, the number of stay-at-home dads in the U.S. has doubled since 1989, according to the Pew Research Center’s latest data on the subject. Then came moves for single-stall bathrooms to be labeled unisex and some state legislation banning bathroom discrimination based on gender identity or sex. “We think having single-stall bathrooms is this really progressive thing, but what’s so innovative? That’s what we all have in our homes,” says Serlin. Touché.

Today, the most emotionally charged fight arguably revolves around transgender people. How the law will reconcile nonconforming gender identity with a sex-segregated space is still playing out. As long as we see efforts to “discriminate against the vulnerable,” says Strangio, the fights will continue.

And yet, if history is any indication, victory seems inevitable.

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