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Politicizing the Restroom

by on April 18, 2016 6:00 AM

Americans love to use our right to free speech to politicize just about everything.  From the clothes we buy to the shoes we wear to the food we eat, there are is a political left and right to just about everything.   

We’ve even gone so far as to politicize our restrooms.

The big news in recent weeks has been legislation recently passed in North Carolina that people are decrying as discriminatory against the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and trans-gendered communities. People are so outraged by the legislation that entertainers, for-profit organizations, sports competitions and other entities are pulling their business out of North Carolina in protest.

I wonder how many of those same entertainers and businesses quietly make money in countries that oppress women or condone religious persecution?  That, unfortunately, doesn’t get as much press coverage.

At the heart of what is being called the “Bathroom Law” in North Carolina is the mandate that individuals in the Tar Heel State must now use the public restroom that matches the gender assignment that is noted on their birth certificate rather than the gender with which someone personally identifies. Opponents of the law contend that the law discriminates against the transgender community.

First, let me say that I oppose discrimination in every form. In this writer’s opinion, people should have equal access to all aspects of our society regardless of their skin color, religion, disability, race, gender or sexual orientation.

The bathroom question, however, isn’t quite as clear.

I can tell you I would be more freaked out by walking into a women’s room and bumping into what appears to be a man than I would by what seems to be a woman washing his/her hands next to me at the sink.

Instead of making this political, let’s be practical.

Point number one: How will most of us even know the biological gender is of the person in the stall next to us?

Point number two: With all of the pressure and expectations that we have for law enforcement today, do we really think that they will have time to be patrolling the public restrooms at the mall or Wal-Mart?  I can’t even think about the issues surrounding proving one’s biological gender to a police officer.

Point number three:  How much time are people spending in public restrooms?  

Finally, point number four: What happened to making reasonable accommodations?

The chances that a person will actually have an interaction with a transgendered person in a public bathroom are pretty slim.  It is estimated that about .3 percent of the US population self identifies as transgendered. Although experts suggest this is likely an underestimate because of the difficulty with gathering accurate data, we aren’t talking about a whole lot of people.  

Conversely, one in five people in this country has a disabling condition.  

In 1990, the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted to support access for people with disabilities to all activities of life in our society. That includes the use of restrooms.

The standards of the ADA and the people who enforce those standards worked with organizations to afford them time to get their buildings and facilities up to speed in terms of physical access. Ironically, many of the features that now make facilities and programs universally accessible (i.e. the doors that automatically open when someone approaches) benefit all of us. What parent pushing a stroller hasn’t benefited from an access ramp or an elevator?   

Paralleling the ADA, if we mandated at least one gender neutral, accessible bathroom in every facility, concerns about gender dysphoric children being bullied in the bathrooms at school or the fears of children being confused or traumatized by seeing someone “different” in the bathroom would no longer be an issue.

Although my results are largely anecdotal, I can tell you that the single toilet, wheelchair accessible, gender neutral bathroom on the floor of my office at Penn State seems to get more use than either the men’s or women’s restrooms adjacent to it. Throw a diaper changing table in that bathroom and it would be the most popular option available.

Until society catches up with this issue, let’s be reasonable. Some of us have likely already shared a public bathroom with someone who is transgendered and didn’t even know it. There are already laws in place to address someone being in a place where they aren’t supposed to be with the intent to do harm – whether they are dressed like another gender or not. Most of the parents I know already take great care when sending their kids into a public restroom.

In the meantime, our military veterans are reportedly committing suicide at the rate of 22 per day. It is estimated that 15 million children in our country don’t have enough to eat. Obesity and related health issues impact 1 in 3 Americans. Racial discourse is at its highest level in decades. There is lead in water in our cities.

Who uses which bathrooms is pretty far down on my list of concerns.

Extremists on both ends of this issue have forced this conversation upon us. The political correctness crowd has pushed the transgender issue – one for which statisticians, scientists and the medical community admittedly don’t yet understand or agree  – while the extreme right pushes back to make sure we get that their religious rights are their priority. Those of us who fall in the middle just shake our heads.

Rules of etiquette say that religion, sex and politics should be taboo at a dinner party. Let’s take them out of our bathrooms too.


Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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