My nephew was not yet school age, but he was old enough to get angry when my sister wanted to take him into the women’s restroom. Yet, it was a battle for her because she couldn’t go with him into the men’s room, and she needed to protect him. Fortunately, since that time, unisex/family restrooms have been added in many public buildings, making it easier for parents with small children, or caretakers of those who need physical assistance for whatever reason.
More recently the public restroom controversy has resurfaced, currently centered in Charlotte, NC, following a recent passing of a nondiscrimination ordinance by the Charlotte City Council despite warnings from the governor that the legislature would reverse the decision. Like far too many issues, this one has turned into an angry political one with the progressives fighting for transgender rights and the conservatives fighting against public restroom predators. Both concerns are legitimate, and as most often happens when issues become political, both sides are failing to see the broader picture, and thus neglecting to seek meaningful and long-term solutions, the kinds of solutions that come from listening across the table between concerned voices on all sides of the issues.
In small spaces like medical offices or light traffic recreation areas (like hiking trails), a single restroom has long been an unquestioned accepted practice. When I’m out hiking, if there’s one small restroom facility available I am grateful. It’s usually a single-seater with a lock on the door. This seems a viable solution for many spaces. One restroom for the use of one person at a time, regardless of gender, similar to what we do in our homes. We don’t all go to the restroom together, but we don’t need separate male/female facilities.
This is not the answer for larger spaces with heavier foot traffic though, or for spaces heavily populated by teens, for multiple reasons. Large public spaces like shopping malls ideally need 3 separate restroom facilities – one for males, one for females, and a smaller unisex/family one for those with all kinds of special needs. Spaces where a mommy can comfortably take her little boy, a daddy can comfortable take his little girl, a caretaker can take an elderly or physically challenged patient, or a transgendered person can go without being questioned or confronted.
But now let’s talk about schools, where I’m most likely to step on toes on all sides. As a 29-year educator who has plenty of experience with high school and college students and restroom facilities, I caution us strongly about using our schools for winning our political battles. Our schools need to be required to provide a similar third restroom facility, but it must not be a one-seater with a lock on the door, nor does the idea of fully enclosing the stalls work for the school environment.
Middle School and High School students are not little adults. They are struggling youth trying to figure out how to navigate a confusing world of hormones and choices, often just following their peers or their own hormonal instincts. Middle schools and High schools already have restroom issues. It’s where kids go to smoke cigarettes, squatting with their feet on the toilet seat so they don’t show under the stall. It’s where they go to smoke pot. It’s where they go to have sex if they think they can get away with it. Given fully enclosed stalls and/or a unisex facility with a lock on the door, all school control is handed over to the students – their own private place to do anything they want to do with or without whomever they want to do it. This is a school nightmare. So a unisex facility for special needs, yes, but it needs to be a two-stall space with partially open stalls just like the gender-specific restrooms, with no private lock on the door.
The transgender issue is only one segment of the restroom controversy, but is not one that should be swept under the carpet as a political battle. It is real and far more widespread than most of us have any idea. In recent years I have had students every semester who privately request I call them he, or she, or neither. Middle school, high school, and college are confusing times for many, and very fertile ground for those who bully and taunt.
Likewise, the issue of child predators is a real concern. While most people in public restrooms are not pedophiles, pedophiles and child predators definitely exist, and public restrooms have proven an attractive target for them.
The public restroom conversation is an important one but is damaged when framed within a solely political context. Every public space needs to provide a unisex/family restroom facility for those who need it, and in addition, larger spaces and all schools need to continue providing gender-specific ones, to ensure the comfort and safety of everyone.. To frame the entire conversation as being all about transgendered people or all about pedophiles is flawed, as flawed as it is pretend that one or the other does not exist. If a real solution is to be reached, the conversation must include both political arguments plus the differences in types of facilities and their populations, and the well-being of the varied physically challenged people who live and work all around us.