As recently as 2001, trans students arguing for a “Restroom Revolution” at UMass Amherst were coolly dismissed—by the university vice chancellor and the campus press alike—as attention-seekers looking for a problem where there was none.

Only 15 years later, their cause is anything but a fringe issue: Even the President of the United States is now playing an active role in a heated national battle over which restrooms transgender citizens may use—one that gets to the heart of how we as a society think about gender. The debate moved from college campuses and cable news shows to the courts with the introduction of North Carolina’s HB2 bill, which states that people must use the public bathroom that corresponds to the sex listed on their birth certificate.

Since Governor Pat McCrory signed the bill in March, an assortment of business and entertainment titans from PayPal to Bruce Springsteen have shunned the state, President Obama advised public schools nationwide to allow children to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Department of Justice would take legal action against North Carolina for violating the Civil Rights Act. (North Carolina is now suing the Justice Department in return, accusing the department of “baseless and blatant” federal overreach.) In the last days of his waning presidential campaign, Ted Cruz declared, “Grown adult men, strangers, should not be alone in a bathroom with little girls,” summarizing the arguments of those who frame the transgender restroom question as a women’s safety issue, while activists pointed to statistics showing that transgender individuals are themselves much more likely to be the victims of violent crimes. Target declared that employees should use whichever bathroom matched their gender expression, prompting a boycott of its stores.

Writing for The New Yorker, Jelani Cobb compared the current deadlock to a previous standoff between federal and state governments in the South—over desegregation in the 1960s. With a nod to the famous Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins that ignited a national movement, he mused that in similarly sparking progressive outrage across the country, HB2 has been “remarkably successful in turning North Carolina into one long Woolworth’s counter” and likened McCrory to a modern-day George Wallace.

Are those familiar “men’s” and “women’s” pictograms—faceless, dress- or pants-clad silhouettes used to sort people by their anatomy—the “whites only” signs of our time?

In his 2010 book Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing (co-edited with Laura Norén), sociology and social and cultural analysis professor Harvey Molotch brought together a range of essays on how public bathroom design reflects and reinforces cultural attitudes about gender, class, and disability, and chronicled efforts (such as the U Mass movement described in the book by Olga Gershenson) to establish unisex restrooms on college campuses.  

NYU Stories checked in with Molotch to talk about the anxieties public bathrooms provoke, the inequalities they perpetuate, and why unisex might just be the way to go.

photo: headshot of Harvey Molotch

The authors in your book argue that current bathroom design (and segregation by gender) raise questions about equality for lots of people—not just those who are transgendered. What are some of these concerns?
Oh my, so many reasons, so many inequalities, so many pains—mostly silently endured.

In the U.S. (and many other countries) there is a shortage of truly "public" public restrooms—places where people have a right to go just because they exist as human beings. So there end up being work-arounds in which we earn entry because we are customers and/or give off the right vibe. We need permission—tacit or explicit.

But then there’s the problem of class. Those less well off can't rely so dependably on this kindness of strangers to have a place to go—hotels, restaurants, and the like pick and choose who gets through. I myself was turned away by a midtown New York hotel because I was not a guest of the hotel nor could I come up with the name of a current guest. This was humiliating. Imagine what goes on for those who are scruffy or otherwise look "wrong"— most everywhere and most all the time. Some kinds of workers are especially penalized by lack of public access: taxi drivers, work crews, street vendors. 

More tragically, many millions have no access whatever, no matter how they might present themselves. Half the population of India must eliminate without benefit of plumbing. This pollutes water sources and is a major source of early mortality.

And women, of course, most everywhere, seldom come first. In our rich countries, there are long lines at the women's room and not the men's (although this is changing). This is because even when women's rooms are equal in space to men's, individual women have unequal access—given their dependence on toilets, having more physiological needs, and being more likely to be caretakers of children or other adults.

Why are public bathrooms segregated by gender, anyway?
Gender segregation in regards to elimination seems universal, impossible to trace in terms of origin. But the problem surfaces as women shift in their social roles. To the degree women are assumed to remain outside the public sphere, their public requirements need not be taken seriously. Assumed to stay at home, they are on what has been termed a "urinary leash"—unable to venture beyond biological capacity to hold it in. 

As women gained access to public life—restaurants, train waiting rooms, and libraries—the toilet (reluctantly and slowly) followed them in. When factories began employing women in large numbers in the 19th century, state after state legislated, in the name of their protection, sanitary facilities deemed appropriate to their gender and status.

The deeper issue is the continuation of the strict gender segregation practice. Women have entered one male-only setting after another—the professions, the Congress and now maybe even the Presidency. In a sense, the toilet is again behind the times.

A common argument against unisex bathrooms (or against transgender people using whichever bathroom they choose) centers around the idea of "safety"—specifically women's safety. Are bathrooms inherently "unsafe"?
I doubt there are any crime statistics about restrooms; police keep data by type of crime (rape, murder, larceny) and by street address. We don't even have reliable data on crime in the New York subways, for example.

The great criminological revelation, going back generations, is that a good way to protect people is to have more of them around. Men, in general, are not rapists. If you allow men in, there are more eyes in the loo— maybe double or more. Hanging a sign that says "women" surely keeps out good men while those of ill intent are not going to be put off—maybe even further tantalized to come in and do their mischief.

Then why do so many people seem to feel threatened by the idea of sharing a bathroom with a member of the opposite sex—or someone who doesn’t fit the gender binary?
Restrooms can be tense environments. These are places where people conduct radically private acts in the public sphere—that alone does it. They can be heard, smelled, and identified by sight of their faces or recognition of shoes under the stall partition (U.S. stalls, in particular, provide minimal privacy). We are all made psychologically vulnerable. In the case of men's rooms, male homophobia brings some extra anxiety into the mix. In combination, I believe, all this translates into expressions of concern for "safety," a displacement of fear on to a fictitious transgender threat.

For many people, humans must come in either male or female, end of story. Mating, romance, song lyrics, and much else hinge on the sacredness of the distinction. Any compromise to the Great Binary raises danger. Homosexuality is now "out." Transgender even more radically challenges what remains of the edifice.

Is there a parallel to be drawn between the struggle to integrate restrooms that were segregated by race under Jim Crow and the current debate over bathrooms and gender?
In both cases, challenges get raised to what were thought to be essential differences. As movements for equality gained strength a compromise was to have separate but equal. We now accept that, in regard to race, there was no such thing. We now struggle to afford women separate but equal accommodations—but that means providing greater space and facilities to women in the aggregate to achieve equality for individual women compared to individual men. The cry is for "potty parity." Stay tuned.

Are men's and women's restrooms, by being separate, inherently unequal?
The racial parallel does not quite hold in that an element of chivalry accompanied early arguments for women's restrooms—there was no such sentiment operating to "protect" black people when they were assigned separate restrooms. 

But for those whose identity hinges on the demise of the binary— transgender people—enforced segregation erodes dignity of their very being. So, yes, it is inherently— right on its face—unequal.

Your book describes hard-fought efforts by students and faculty at UMass and other universities to establish separate, non-gendered bathrooms for the safety and comfort of transgendered students. Today NYU, for example, has several of these bathrooms. Does that mean there has been progress in this realm in the intervening years?
Yes, it does mean change has occurred. Besides university campuses, we see it in some restaurants, clubs, and theaters. Public high schools are making moves in the unisex direction, albeit by creating "third space" facilities. The doctrine of separate but equal otherwise reigns.

Does it surprise you that the current controversy (spurred by the North Carolina bill) has centered around how to use existing (gendered) bathrooms rather than around whether to make a new third option?
I think North Carolina represents a last gasp opposition to the progress of women in occupational and economic spheres and, most prominently, to the acceptance of gayness in most all spheres. Evidently, we are not yet ready for the third option, but who knows what's blowin' in the wind? 

On the one hand this issue seems to stir up people's most deeply held feelings about privacy, safety, gender, and sex. But there are also those who tend to laugh off the issue or make light of it. Why do discussions about bathrooms seem to invite such extreme reactions?
Toilets are taboo. When you can't talk about something, you can't change it. That's why these conditions that penalize women and transgender people in particular—but really harm everyone—have persisted for so long. Ridicule and potty jokes are both an evasion as well as winking acknowledgement of our secret truths.

You've proposed some design changes that could make the bathroom experience more efficient and more private (and maybe safer) for all. What are some of these?
I'm for unisex—almost all the way. Preserve the urinals. They are wonderfully efficient. They take up less space than toilets and in current versions use zero water. Women dislike being in spaces where men expose their penises and some men are averse to the female gaze—of their penis. Architects I know are eager to solve the problem. There can be semi-transparent scrims to shield peeing men; alcoves can be dedicated to urinals; panels can be installed to obscure men's mid-sections from view as they go. The Parisian pissoir conquered this problem over 100 years ago and was not a threat to French society. Viva la pissoir and with it creative frankness in addressing practical human need.