On the Need for Separate Restrooms

Back in the 1970s, I used to read “Dear Abby” in the newspaper.  On one particular day, someone had written a letter to her saying that he was a transvestite.  He asked her which public restroom he should use when he was dressed as a woman.  Abby’s answer was short and to the point: “Use the ladies’ room.”  That made sense to me.  I figured that was all there was to it.  I guess I figured wrong.

Now it is a big political issue.  I have noticed that those defending the rights of transgender people always talk about restrooms only, whereas those who want restroom use to be determined by anatomy also talk about locker rooms and showers.  After all, restrooms have stalls for privacy, whereas all is exposed when people shower together.  I suppose it’s just a matter of time before some smart ass in high school says, “Coach, I feel like a female today.  I guess I’ll go shower with the girls.”  But for now, let’s just stick to restrooms.

I said that there is privacy in the restrooms on account of the stalls.  Actually, that is not always true.  I have been in several department stores where the doors of the stalls had been removed, presumably to discourage shoplifting (i.e., with doors on the stalls, a man could stuff items into his pants or under his shirt without fear of being seen).  That meant that if you went into a crowded restroom and sat down on a toilet, the next guy in line would be standing right in front of you waiting his turn.  Those in line were always polite enough to look the other way, but it really puts you out of the mood.

In fact, I used to work in a department store where the doors on the stalls had been removed.  In front of the stalls, just above the sinks, were mirrors, and to the left of the stalls was the door.  That meant that if you were sitting on either of the first two toilets when someone opened the door, you could see the people out in the store reflected in the mirrors.  And that in turn meant that the people out in the store could see you sitting on the toilet.  Granted, they could only see you from the chest up, given the angle of reflection, but it was still a most unpleasant experience.

One day, I happened to pass by the ladies’ room just as a woman was coming out.  I only got a brief glance of the interior, but I was able to take in the essentials.  Instead of seeing the open toilets, as was the case with the men’s room, I saw an antechamber consisting of a vanity, at which one woman was putting on her makeup, and a couch, on which another woman was lying down.  There was even a nice rug on the floor.  In the present debate about restrooms, it is said that forcing a person to use one restroom rather than another is discrimination.  I have to agree.  Though we seldom get a chance to compare them, restricted as most of us are to one or the other, there is no separate-but-equal when it comes to men’s and ladies’ restrooms.

Still, as envious as I was of the women who got to use the nice ladies’ room, I would never assert my right to use that restroom on the basis of discrimination were I to find myself in that situation today, because there are some things it is better not to know.  The romantic idealization of the eternal feminine does not stand a chance in the face of bathroom sights, sounds, and smells.  I once knew a guy, somewhat older than I, who had grown up on a farm where they still did not have indoor plumbing.  His conception of women was such that he just could not square it with the excretory functions he knew they must have just like men.  It bothered him and bothered him until one day he decided he just had to know.  He finally got his chance when his girlfriend came over to visit one night.  For a while, she, he, and his parents sat around conversing until at one point she said she had to use the privy.  She was gone for fifteen minutes.  When she came back, my friend excused himself, went outside, picked up the flashlight he had secreted away for just this purpose, and headed for the outhouse to have a look.  It was many years later that I knew him, but his face still looked strange when he told the tale.  “Oh God, John,” he said, shaking his head.  “It was awful.  Just awful!”

Well, they never got married, and I cannot say that that was the reason, but it would not surprise me if it were.  I remember being at a family reunion when I was sixteen, where I happened to be sitting next to my cousin, just a year younger than I.  I know she was my cousin, but I still thought she was cute.  Then, suddenly, someone farted.  It was silent, but deadly.  Rationally, it was impossible for me to know who the culprit was, but the olfactory sense is most primitive and visceral.  Something deep inside me was convinced that she was the one.  I am an old man now, but whenever I have seen her or talked to her in the years that followed, I always think of that fart.

Actually, the whole problem concerning privacy and separate restrooms in America is nothing compared to France.  A woman I knew said that when she was in France back in the early 1960s, she once had occasion to use a public restroom, which was open to both sexes.  There were no stalls, only toilets without so much as a cubicle.  She was the only one in the restroom at the time, so she sat on one of the toilets.  To conceal herself as much as she could just in case a man should walk in, she used the newspaper she had bought to form a kind of cover over her body below the waist.  Sure enough, a Frenchman walked in and had a seat on the toilet next to hers.  After he got himself comfortable, he looked over at her, smiled, and gently tugged at the newspaper, as if to show his amusement at her modesty.  Then as now, I found the story hard to believe.  All I can say is that she was not the type to make up stuff, and so I pass this on as she told it to me.

And so, however this issue for transgender people works out, I hope that I never have to use the same restroom that women do, because I do not want my romantic illusions contaminated by intimate knowledge of harsh reality.  Of course, as a confirmed bachelor, who has never even lived with a woman, I have been able to hold on to these illusions longer than most.  As a married friend of mine once said, “You know the honeymoon is over when you are in the bathroom brushing your teeth, and your wife comes in, sits down, and takes a dump.”  For that reason, I think separate bathrooms for the sexes would be a good idea even in private residences.

I said that I have never lived with a woman, but there were times when I let a girlfriend spend the night.  I prefer to sleep alone, sprawled out in the bed like a big old swastika, but I figured that letting her sleep over was the least I could do.  However, she had a bad habit of getting up in the middle of the night, using the toilet, and then leaving the seat down.  That was inconsiderate, because later, when I had to go myself, I ended up peeing all over it.  I didn’t realize it at the time, of course.  But in the morning, being the gentleman that I am, I would always let her go first.  As soon as I heard her scream, I knew what had happened.  Well, it was her own damn fault for not lifting the seat when she was through using it.

With separate restrooms, that would never have happened.

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