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Soraya Chemaly is a media critic and activist. Faced with a long restroom line that spiraled up and around a circular stairwell at a recent museum visit, I opted not to wait. Why do we put up with this? This isn’t a minor pet peeve, but a serious question. This is frustrating, uncomfortable, and, in some circumstances, humiliating. It’s also a form of discrimination, as it disproportionately affects women.
Immediately, people responded with the suggestion that women use the men’s room. How on god’s green earth did you arrive at the conclusion that this was sexist? Let me count the ways. This is especially true in powerful institutions, such as schools and government complexes, where old buildings, and their gendered legacies, dominate. Prior to that, the nearest women’s room was so far away that the time it took women to get to the bathroom and back exceeded session break times.
Additionally, old building codes required more space for men, as women’s roles were restricted almost entirely to the private sphere. Not only does the absence of women’s bathrooms signify the exclusion of women from certain professions and halls of power, but it also has functioned as an explicit argument against hiring women or admitting them into previously all-male organizations. She cites examples, including Yale Medical School and Harvard Law School, both of which claimed that a lack of public facilities made it impossible for women to be admitted as students. Schools like the Virginia Military Institute used this excuse as recently as 1996. They complained until five women’s rooms were converted to men’s. The result was that, once again, women’s wait times doubled. No protests have yielded a commensurate response to reduce them.
Why don’t they demand changes? LGTBQ advocacy and a generational sea change in how gender is understood. They are also philosophically palatable to a broad spectrum, as they represent not so much a contested segregations or de-gendering of restroom spaces, as much as a rethinking of privacy and the uses of public space. Women aren’t standing in lines because we bond over toilet paper pattern or because we’re narcissistic and vain.
We’re standing in line because our bodies, like those of trans and queer people, have been historically shamed, ignored, and deemed unworthy of care and acknowledgement. We shouldn’t have to wait or postpone having these needs fairly met in public space. Soraya Chemaly is a media critic and activist whose work focuses on the role of gender in politics, religion and popular culture. Sign up to receive the top stories you need to know right now. Listen to the most important stories of the day. TIME Ideas hosts the world’s leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.
TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice. Transgender in public bathrooms: Why does our safety always come second? This essay is excerpted from the book Gender Failure by Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon, out now from Arsenal Pulp Press. 1 11 5 14 8. 5A22 22 0 0 1 48 73c-2.
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3 0 0 1 23. 9a17 17 0 0 0-6. 2 10 10 0 0 0-6. I can hold my pee for hours. It’s a skill I developed out of necessity, after years of navigating public washrooms. I hold it for as long as I can, until I can get myself to the theatre or the green room or my hotel room, or home.
Using a public washroom is a very last resort for me. I try to use the wheelchair-accessible, gender-neutral facilities whenever possible, always after a thorough search of the area to make sure no one in an actual wheelchair or with mobility issues is en route. I always hold my breath a little on the way out though, hoping there isn’t an angry person leaning on crutches waiting there when I exit. This has never happened yet, but I still worry. Sometimes I rehearse a little speech as I pee quickly and wash my hands, just to be prepared. I would say something like, I apologize for inconveniencing you by using the washroom that is accessible to disabled people, but we live in a world that is not able to make room enough for trans people to pee in safety, and after many years of tribulation in women’s washrooms, I have taken to using the only place provided for people of all genders.