It is not my obscure gender identity or my penis envy that compels to pee like a man. As a solo parent, the logistics of peeing in public restrooms presents an ongoing quandary.
I am 27-year-old journalist living in New York City. I am also a single parent to a 5-year-old boy named Peter.
When he is not in school, Peter tags along with me everywhere -- late nights at the office, formal dinners with friends, even on vacation.
Lately, Peter has become conscientious about urinating in restrooms with doors marked by skirt-clad stick figures.
“I’m a boy! I’m going in the BOY’S bathroom,” he shrieks at me one day in a crowded JFK terminal. His chubby cheeks turn pink, bleeding into his copper hairline as he clenches his tiny fists. People are staring.
Fine. I wait outside the door patiently. Suddenly, I need to pee.
I consider my options. I could abandon my only child in a mysterious cesspool of germs and wagging penises and make a mad dash for the ladies side. Or better, I could join Peter in the men’s room, release in a neighboring stall, talk him through his bathroom experience and ensure that he emerges unscathed.
And so my restroom saga begins.
Restrooms are the last area of modern society to be segregated by gender. Advocates for LGBTQ rights have long made the argument for gender-neutral bathroom options, as a solution to the incidents of harassment and violence against transgendered people. But the right to “pee where we please” actually affects a wider segment of the population, if you think about it.
Really any person who is dependent on another for care is put at risk by split bathrooms. In other words: the disabled, the elderly and children. Society’s most vulnerable cannot always choose the gender of their caretakers, and sometimes they, or their caretakers, need to “go.” It’s that simple.
And it is not only a women’s issue. Dads I’ve spoken to say that the trickiness of taking their daughters to the bathroom is compounded by the grossness of men’s rooms, and the fact that social norms prohibit men from entering women’s rooms, like, ever. It’s sort of a double standard in that respect.
Take my friend Aaron, single dad to 6-year-old Avital, who, until recently, was forced to take his little girl into the men’s room with him with his hands covering her eyes.
“Of course she always pulled my hands off her eyes, and I had to explain the whole trough thing to her, and it’s always so disgusting in there,” he said.
Now that Avital is a little more independent, she goes to the women’s room on her own, but often gets distracted playing with the water or blow dryers. Helpless to check on her, Aaron finds himself stopping random women to go in and find his daughter for him.
But what can be done? Is it time we abandon archaic social constructs like gender-segregated restrooms, or at least burst open the taboo of peeing on the wrong side of the bathroom divide?
Like any stumped parent, I took my dilemma to Google. After searching “gender-segregated bathrooms” and I pulled up this “Ethical Inquiry” from Brandeis University and learned that segregated bathroom idea is a relatively recent one. The first legally mandated, gender-segregated bathroom was built only in 1887.
I also learned that many advocates for gender-neutral bathrooms see gender-specific bathrooms as discriminatory, similar to pre-civil rights bathrooms that segregated based on race or disability. By now, the idea of segregating bathrooms based on race or disability has become taboo, while bathrooms segregated by gender have become the norm.
The pro-segregation party insists that mixed bathrooms might set women up for harassment and sexual assault. Others point out that the discomfort of a few should not be traded for the discomfort of many, namely: everyone who is not a child, elderly, transgendered or disabled.
There are two proposed solutions to the bathroom problem. One is a “gender-neutral bathroom option,” like the single-stall “family” restrooms that can be found at many malls and franchises, such as Target. The other is “gender-neutral bathrooms for all,” as proposed by transgendered lawyer Martine Rothblatt, which forces the public to pee together, like a happy family, making gender irrelevant.
Honestly, I am ambivalent about which option is better. I do get that some prudish men and women might not feel comfy being in each other’s private space all the time, so creating more family restrooms in public places might be a good compromise. That said, when a family restroom is not available, I think we could all benefit from loosening up a bit about the bathroom gender laws.
No one said solo parenting would be a cakewalk and I am not one to complain, but I am sick and tired of feeling like an intruder, skulking around the boy’s room, just to help my son use the toilet. Just once, I’d like not to get stared down like I have the cooties as I stroll past the urinals.
Occasionally, it is more than just stares, and I need to face off with folks who care deeply about where I pee.
Last year, at Barnes and Noble store in Midtown Manhattan, a surly security guard physically blocked me from following my son into the men’s room. Even my shrillest, indignant mom voice wouldn’t budge her from the doorway. She just stood there, arms crossed, as if bouncing bathrooms was her only job on earth, and said flatly, “Sorry, it’s against store policy.”
The only places where attitudes are shifting slightly are in college dormitories, where students consistently vote on desegregation of dorm restrooms, says the New York Times. Everywhere else, progress is moving slower than the girl’s room line at a Justin Bieber concert.
So, ladies, I’m gonna need your help with this one. Stage a personal protest. Next time you find yourself about to get stuck in an monstrous line outside the ladies room, while there is virtually no line in front of the men’s, do me, Peter and your bladder a favor and walk right in.