Washington, DC - For most of human existence and identifiable history, toilet facilities were wherever the urge struck one. The world was one’s toilet for those actions which could neither be delayed nor delegated. One memorable and illustrative little jingle went: “In days of old, when knights were bold, and toilets weren’t invented, they left their loads upon the roads and went away contented.” Chamber pots from standard dwellings were dumped on the streets (often just hurled from upper story windows). Creeks and rivers were open sewers.
You were into relatively modern times before society recognized the close connection between sanitation and disease. And while there was an appreciation that clean water was a significant health benefit, it is still recognized primarily in “Western” civilization. Throughout much of the globe, particularly in rural areas, sanitary facilities are closer to “the world is the toilet” than anything more sophisticated.
But in the West, massive efforts have resulted in effective sanitation both in private homes and public facilities.It is in public sanitary facilities that culture conflicts now have arisen with greater intensity. These are closely connected with the efforts during the past generation to redefine and expand the legally accepted characterizations of sexuality. And oh how complicated such has become.
A generation ago, it was simple: there was a boy’s/men’s bathroom and a girl’s/women’s bathroom in schools and buildings with public access (restaurants, theaters, sport facilities, etc). Those individuals who were males used the clearly identified facility; those who were female did likewise.
Even so, there were issues, but these were architectural/fiscal rather than social/cultural. For example, in the 1950s, my father and uncle were designing a church. Bathrooms are expensive to install with significant ongoing maintenance requirements. So some members of the church building committee suggested having a unisex bathroom (supposedly “like they have in Europe.”) A firestorm ensued (if you can imagine a Welsh-Protestant congregation in incendiary mode). Ultimately the proposal was defeated not for reasons that you might imagine, but because the building committee concluded that women of the congregation would get control of the bathroom and not let any men enter.
Fast forward to 1987 and there was a quantum shift in (some) cultural attitudes. My wife and I sent our daughters to a great university and arranged for them to be housed in a university dormitory. We had attended the same university during the 1960s under standard housing and bathroom accommodations. Thus we were a bit surprised to find that the university was housing men and women on the same floors of the dormitories, when previously they had been strictly segregated. We were even more surprised (let’s say “shocked”) to find that all bathrooms were unisex.
Subsequently, our daughters found these arrangements more amusing than disconcerting. Boys were messy—didn’t keep facilities clean. Boys were casual about closing/latching cabinet doors and/or what they wore when going from their rooms to bathrooms. Reportedly, more than once boys were shocked into a urinary freeze when a woman entered and caught them in full flow.
But, to the best of our knowledge, nothing untoward occurred due to proximity in bathrooms. Although we will admit that we didn’t communicate this degree of social progress to grandmothers.
But 25 years later, the complexity has become more complex. We now have “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI)” designations, all of whom require access to bathroom facilities outside their homes. All demand access to facilities where they believe they will be most comfortable and secure, regardless of the degree that their presence might disconcert those not of LGBTI persuasion/sympathy. So now we are struggling with laws saying, in effect, that you must use the bathroom of the gender specified on your birth certificate. Not a satisfactory answer for many.
So the ultimate answer may be “Gordian knot” variety: All public bathrooms will be unisex. And if you don’t like it, carry a container and/or depend on your Depends.