Public Bathrooms

A few years ago the public bathroom scandal concerned the ignorance of male architects in incorrectly designing toilet capacities for the different requirements of men versus women. Clear evidence could be witnessed during intermission at the Kennedy Center in the form of much longer lines outside the Ladies’ rooms than the Men’s rooms. This was a real problem and thus a real scandal.

Now we have a totally fictitious scandal of transgender men and women using public bathrooms appropriate to their sexual identity rather than their sex recorded in their birth certificate. All these years of transgender women using the Ladies’ Room went unnoticed, but you can believe there would be (will be?) a ruckus if they had used the Men’s Room. This is politics of the worst type pure and simple by religious fanatics and Trump-like exploiters of latent bigotry (though to Trumps credit he also labeled this problem a phony, non issue).

The highly respected economist, Dierdre McCloskey—born Don, shared some of her experiences with me in correspondence:

“Before I “passed” (surgery, working at it) I was frightened to go into a ladies’ room, but I could hardly go into a men’s room in a dress.  You can imagine how dangerous that would be!  I was allowed to put Female on my driver’s license in tolerant Iowa in 1995.  But you are right that it is unwise in such matters if nothing much is going wrong to stir things up.  I’ll bet now that Iowa has rules from the state.  Then it was left to Iowans’ ample common sense.  My passport F was tougher—I wept to the woman at the New Hampshire passport office, and she relented and sent my passport the day before I was boarding a flight to go to Holland to teach for a year, in January 1996.  So the State Department unofficially was cool.  A year later I tried to get Harvard to change my degree from Harvard College class of ’64 to the women’s college, Radcliffe.  The male dean I spoke to thought not.  I whined, “But the State Department had no problem giving me an F passport.”  With a smile in his voice he replies, “But Harvard is older than the State Department!”

“There’s more on all this in my memoir of my transition, Crossing: A Memoir (1999 University of Chicago Press).

“The bathroom “issue” is entirely phony.  It has never been a problem.  Anyway, if men wanted to sneak in (they don’t), they could always have done so, with or without North Carolina’s law.  How is it to be enforced?  DNA testing by the TSA at every bathroom door?  Anyway, your house has a unisex bathroom, I presume, and in Europe they are not entirely uncommon—after all, the stalls have doors.  Etc, etc.  On both sides it is just a club to beat up the other side in the silly Cultural Wars, and to make people hate and disdain each other.  Adam Smith would not have approved.”

In fact my friend’s Washington restaurant, Café Asia, has one large unisex bathroom—a long row of washbasins and mirrors opposite individual, locked toilet stalls. No one seemed upset. “Nobody in this entire debate has produced a single documented instance of a trans person initiating any kind of violence or sexual harassment in a bathroom.” Elishe Wittes, a Washington DC high school student https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/one-bathroom-for-all-install-gender-free-single-user-restrooms/2016/05/13/0d15664c-1907-11e6-924d-838753295f9a_story.html

So the whole issue is phony. But it does raise once again the question of how best to promote the broadening of the civil liberties of all Americans and our history reflects broad, if sometimes uneven, progress. From the abolition of slavery the achievement of full equal protection of the law for all (abolition of: Jim Crow laws, the ban on interracial marriage, separate but equal, ban on same sex marriage) has been a slow process of broadening and deepening public understanding and acceptance to the dignity and rights of all law abiding people. Crucial Supreme Court rulings that have confirmed such rights came only after they were broadly supported by most (but not all) of the public. So the real battlefield for enlightened, (classically) liberal values is one on one, and in the churches, synagogues, Mosques, classrooms, and clubs in which people talk to each other in search for better lives. Once those who wish to deprive such protections to some group (blacks, Jews, gays, transgender, etc.) fall into a discredited minority, they rather quickly fall (relatively) quiet once the Supreme Court has ruled. Man’s insular, self-protective nature, and attachment to the familiar, eventually gives way through education to the higher values and enrichment of modern civilization. This will surely happen again. Though the Trump backlash may slow the process.