Tucson Progressive

Pamela Powers, a progressive voice for Arizona

Bathroom Politics: Preserving the Sanctity of the ‘Ladies’ Room’

Mad Men Joan's bathroom perfume sceneIn the 1950s the Ladies’ Room was a place of refuge, a wall-papered lounge with a couch, polished mirrors, fresh flowers, and often an attendant armed with fresh towels, perfume, and mints. As men have always suspected, we didn’t go there just to use the facilities; the Ladies’ Room was a safe gathering place.

We went there to talk, to primp,  to smoke, to cry, to adjust a poor wardrobe choice, to sneak away from a bad dinner date, or just to sneak away. The Ladies’ Room was a place where women could be women–a place with no men watching, commenting, judging.

The Politicization of Bathrooms

In the early 1970s, at the height of the feminist era, “Ladies” Rooms came under fire. We feminists were not “ladies” who needed fainting couches in restrooms because we didn’t have the fortitude to work an 8-hour day without a nap or a good cry. “Ladies” were well-behaved women; we early feminists were anything but ladylike. As a result, “Ladies” Rooms became the Women’s Rooms– or Womyn’s Rooms– and the couches all but disappeared.

Further politicization of public bathrooms came later in the 1970s. I remember my first trip to a gay bar with a couple of gay guy friends, George and Henry. As professional photographers, the three of us worked together and played together. The Kismet, a legendary downtown Columbus gay bar, was hopping the night we were there– loud disco music, flashing lights, dancing, plenty of booze, and other adult entertainment and harder drugs, if you knew who to ask. Not long after our arrival, I realized that there were two types of women at the bar  (three types if you count me– the only openly straight woman). All of the real women (AKA people with vaginas) were wearing jeans and weren’t wearing any make-up. All of the “women” who were decked out with slinky dresses, big hair, heels, and gobs of make-up were men… transvestites, as we called them back then. I noted my observation to George, and he validated it.

Then it dawned on me: If there are men dressed as women, which restroom do they use?

“They’re men. They use the Men’s Room,” George answered matter-of-factly. That solution worked at the Kismet but not so much in mainstream Columbus, I’m sure.

Papers to Pee Laws

Fast forward to Arizona in 2013, the City of Phoenix passed an anti-discrimination law that extended “basic protections to transgender people in housing, the workplace, and places of public accommodation.”  Since “public accommodation” includes public restrooms, this got the attention of Arizona Representative John Kavanagh who proposed legislation stating that people should use the bathroom assigned to their sex– not what  “they think in their head”. In other words, a person with a penis– even if it’s covered by dress– should use the Men’s Room.

From The Daily Beast

Going to the bathroom in a public venue can be a huge source of anxiety for transgender people, particularly those who are just transitioning and don’t yet “pass” as their true gender. According to a recent study conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 53 percent of transpeople report being ”harassed or disrespected in a place of public accommodation.”

There was a huge outcry over Kavanagh’s “papers to pee” bill, and it died in the Arizona Legislature.

The latest twist in Arizona bathroom politics comes after a Henry Elementary School girl who identifies as a boy used the Boys’ Room at the school. Shortly after that, Tucson Unified School District’s (TUSD) changed its nondiscrimination policy.

From the Arizona Daily Star

TUSD amended its nondiscrimination policy in March [2014], adding “gender identity or expression” to a list that prohibits discrimination based on disability, race, color, religious beliefs, sex, sexual orientation, age or national origin. While the policy does not directly address bathroom use by transgender children, the discussion that led to the change stemmed from an incident at Henry Elementary School, 650 N. Igo Way, in which parents raised concerns about a transgender student using the boys’ restroom…

Sanchez [TUSD Superintendent] said the policy revision is in line with case law that has gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and in line with other districts of TUSD’s size that have dealt with such circumstances.

This story and a similar one from Colorado about 5-year-old Coy Mathis, who is a boy self-identifying as a girl and who recently won a court case which allows him to attend school as a girl, or the little girl whose Christian school told her she looked too much like a boy because she self-identifies as a girl but prefers pants, t-shirts, and short hair.

The two stories about young children “self-identifying” as the opposite gender concern me. First of all, how can a 5-year-old know and express the belief that he feels more comfortable as a girl? I do believe that people can show signs of being gay when they are children, but in my opinion, the concept of gender identification is far more complex and beyond the intellectual capacity of an elementary school student. I wonder what role parents and psychologists have played in this “self-identification.”

I’ve been a Mom and a Grandma for decades. Besides my two children, my two grandchildren, and now my two step-children, I’ve known many young people since they were little kids. Four of my children’s friends grew up to be gay. The girl was a tomboy who liked sports, but she also wore make-up and dated guys all the way through high school. There was no indication (to me, anyway) that she would be a Lesbian later in life. The three boys were a different story. By the time they were 10-11 years old, my gaydar was picking up the signal; the one little boy showed signs of being gay much younger and enjoyed “playing dress-up” with my daughter’s large collection of frilly dress-up clothes. I never said anything about my observations to the parents, to those children, to my children, or to anyone (except my husband in private). Then and now, these four young people were accepted by the neighborhood gang that played together and went to school together.

What About the Women?

Women wearing burkas. (Photo Credit: Second City Style.)

Women wearing burkas. (Photo Credit: Second City Style.)

Women have suffered a long history of discrimination and violence at the hands of men.  The statistic above says, “53 percent of transpeople report being ‘harassed or disrespected in a place of public accommodation.’” Welcome to our world.

How many times have women heard the establishment (ie, straight men, including some elected politicians) say that rape victims “asked for it” with the way they dressed? How many times are women told, “If you don’t want to be jeered at, harassed, fondled, or raped, don’t dress that way.”  In other words, sexual violence can’t be controlled, so potential victims must curb their actions. Don’t walk alone at night. Don’t go to those parts of town. Drive with your windows up and doors locked. Don’t wear that. Don’t wear shoes you can’t run in. Carry a gun. Society’s message for the “weaker sex”: You are vulnerable. Get used to it.

Straight men are in power. Period.

Bringing this back to the bathroom question, there are lots of solutions floating around the Internet. There are stories like this one about the City of Philadelphia, which recently passed a law saying that all new or renovated city buildings should include unisex bathrooms, in addition to traditional men’s and women’s restrooms. This is a good solution, in my opinion, because it provides a safe space for everyone– including transgender people and families. (It bothers me when my son has to take my little granddaughter into the Men’s Room because most restaurants don’t have unisex or family bathrooms.) I also agree with converting all of the one-seaters out there to unisex bathrooms.

Others– primarily activists and academics aligned with the LGBTQQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Androgynous, Allies) community– advocate for all public bathrooms to be gender neutral, no gender-specific restrooms.

From The Ethics of Gender-Segregated Bathrooms

Avoids Marginalization

One of the most often-cited arguments in favor of gender neutral bathrooms is that on a societal level, adhering to a binary system with only two choices (male or female) “others” people who do not fit into or subscribe to this dichotomy, with consequences that extend beyond the immediate discomfort of having to choose which bathroom to use.

This group of marginalized people includes people who identify as transgender, transsexual or intersex, and people who do not identify within the confines of these categories.

In “Coming Out of the Water Closet: The Case Against Sex Segregated Bathrooms,” (Texas Journal of Women and the Law) Alex More discusses the extent to which having male and female bathrooms excludes people. More writes “Sex segregated restrooms force people to choose “male” or “female”—those who refuse to accept the dichotomy become defined out of existence. People who do not identify with their socially assigned sexual category represent the remainder of sexual division—the leftovers, sexuality’s refuse…”


A concern for safety motivates people on both sides of this debate.

In the article “Embodiment, Elimination, and the Role of Toilets in Struggles for Social Justice,” Judith Plaskow, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, raises the issue of how to reconcile the “need of transgender persons for safe and accessible restrooms” with some people, primarily women’s, desire “for the privacy and safety they associate with women-only space.” [Emphasis added.]

At Harvard, the Co-Chair of the Harvard College Queer Students and Allies wrote in an opinion piece titled “Safe Bathrooms for All” that a Crimson editorial arguing against gender-neutral bathrooms on safety and modesty grounds ignored “that gender-neutral bathrooms are a matter of dignity and safety for those in our community who don’t conform to traditional gender norms,” and “…treated unsubstantiated risks of sexual harassment and assault against women as though they were facts, without offering any evidence for their claims.”

Why Not?

On the other side of the issue are people who believe that the creation of gender-neutral bathrooms would make bathrooms more dangerous, and make people feel uncomfortable in terms of privacy and modesty.

A Concern for Safety…But Safety for Whom?

One of the biggest concerns raised by people who are against the implementation of gender-neutral bathrooms is safety.

When Harvard University was considering building gender-neutral bathrooms, the editorial board of the Harvard Crimson student newspaper argued against the creation of gender-neutral bathrooms on-campus. Much of the editorial “Rethinking Privacy” focused on safety: “Gender-neutral bathrooms could provide opportunities for verbal harassment and even unwanted attention that perhaps could be avoided in gender-specific bathrooms. We understand that assault and harassment can occur anywhere; we simply believe that gender-neutral bathrooms would make it easier.”

Privacy and Modesty Concerns

While the potential for increased danger for bathroom users is a major deterrent for people in favor of maintaining sex segregated bathrooms, The Crimson raises another issue in its editorial advocating against the addition of gender-neutral bathrooms, that of modesty, a concern often brought up by religious groups as well.

The Crimson asserts that although a small minority of students may feel discomfort at having to use sex segregated bathrooms, many students would also feel discomfort if forced to use gender-neutral bathrooms.

From No More Women’s Rooms: Why Bathrooms Should All Be Gender Neutral, published by Slate

The foremost reason for being anti-bathroom-neutralization involves the sensitive issue of sexual assault. Many people who believe gender-neutral bathrooms would benefit society in both providing for the needs of trans* people and helping to alleviate severe separations between the genders don’t want to be insensitive to the needs of sexual assault survivors. That said, conceding the fight for neutralization solely based on this concern ignores the fact that sexual assault can—and more importantly does—occur among members of every gender, and all survivors of assault deserve the same sensitivity. Choosing not to rid society of the bathroom divide because of an assumption that sexual assault survivors are all women who have been assaulted by men perpetuates a culture that embraces this as inevitable. This opposition also minimizes the existence of sexual assault that is not male-on-female.

On the grounds of safety, I completely disagree with the idea of making all public bathrooms– including those with multiple stalls– gender neutral, and thus allowing anyone to go anywhere. The Slate author misses the point. This may come as a news flash to some, but women don’t trust men. It’s not just about sensitivity to assault victims (although that is part of it) that I oppose “neutralizing” bathrooms. It’s about common sense and safety for everyone– especially the vulnerable, which includes women, the young, the elderly, and, yes, transgender and transsexual people. Would I want my little granddaughter or my 90-year-old Mother to be forced to use a gender neutral bathroom with men? No. 

A third “solution” is what TUSD and Sunnyside School District have adopted: Allow transgender students to choose any bathroom where they feel comfortable. I call this the capitalist or bureaucratic solution because it is the cheapest and easiest. No remodeling. No new construction. No new signage. Just force everyone to deal with the embarrassment, the lack of privacy, and the safety risks. There are definite privacy issues surrounding this solution– not the least of which is the deplorable conditions of many public school bathrooms. Having attended many Democratic Party State Committee Meetings in high schools around the state, I can attest to the horrid conditions of many girls’ bathrooms. Yes, they’re basically clean, but broken or misaligned door locks and missing stall doors abound. At one high school, out of six stalls, only one or two had both a functioning door and lock.  And the school districts want to allow transgender girls (boys who identify as girls) to use these facilities with the girls? I trust teenage boys less than I trust grown men. (Seriously, how hard is it to align a latch? Misaligned, broken, or missing bathroom stall latches are everywhere–even in swanky hotels.)

Is it wrong to long for the bygone days of the Ladies’ Room? Is it wrong to long for a sanctuary where men are not allowed? A place where women can be women? A place where women can feel safe? No.

My opinion…

1- All one-seater public bathrooms should be unisex. This would help everyone whose life doesn’t fit neatly into the “men go here” and “women go there” paradigm, including but not limited to transpeople. It will solve one problem women have everyday– standing in line outside of a women’s room while the men’s room is empty or at least has no waiting. This solution also helps family members who have to care for others of the opposite sex (ie, a Mom with a son, a Dad with a daughter, a spouse who has to help his/her partner, a nurse and patient).

2- New construction should include building codes for family bathrooms, in addition to multi-stall men’s and women’s bathrooms. The Phoenix Convention Center is a good example of this. It has large multi-stall traditional men’s and women’s rooms but also has many family bathrooms throughout the facility.

3- Transpeople should be able to use the bathroom in which they are comfortable. I am not afraid of transwomen in the women’s room. I totally get why they don’t want to use the men’s room; it’s the same reason why I oppose full gender neutral bathrooms.

4- For safety and privacy reasons, I oppose multi-stall gender neutral bathrooms. Existing multi-stall bathrooms are sealed up for privacy, often with heavy doors. Putting men and women into the same bathrooms  when they are designed in this way sets the vulnerable up for assault. This also goes back to my original concern: privacy and sanctuary for women.

15 comments on “Bathroom Politics: Preserving the Sanctity of the ‘Ladies’ Room’

  1. Jenny
    May 7, 2014

    Transgender girls are girls and not boys – Girls use the girl’s room. There is no issue with a transwoman using a woman’s room. Its only about peeing. No one who is a transgender woman cares about anything but peeing or fixing their makeup. So what’s the issue here? Women who refuse to be open minded and diverse. Freaked out over change or being open to the fact that trans women are indeed women.


    • Pamela Powers Hannley
      May 7, 2014

      I am going with the biological definition of man and woman. The only other biological body type would be hermaphrodite. I have no problem with transsexuals, since they have had plastic surgery. Transgender — I am torn about. My big issue is gender neutral bathrooms.


      • Jenny
        May 7, 2014

        I am intersexed many are. What then? It can never be about you being given creeper out. It is all about a woman who sits to pee because she must. You have most likely used the restroom with many trans people and never knew it.


      • Kim Teague-Schroeder
        November 25, 2015

        It comes down to looks. Acceptance is easy when you are pretty as you indicted. However, please understand not all transexuals had or needed plastic (facial, breast and hip implants) surgery. The fortunate ones are those who are just pretty naturally. Most MTF’s cannot afford anything more the Hormone Replacement Therapy. They do not necessarily need to pass, just look good. It is both a sad reality and a sad commentary on our priorities as a culture. Both men and women are more prone to accept when they see a good amount of exposed cleavage. Most women reading my words will think, “That’s just the way it is for any woman don’t think you’re all that unique.” So they make my point Transexual women are just women in all the ways that really matter and are treated no differently than any other woman except that the extremes are amplified. Pretty can make one practically a celebrity if they are discovered after a long time of ‘passing.’ Women who cannot pass no matter what and do not fit our culturally determined standards of female beauty can be treated cruelly. Often they are the target of fear induced hatred. I can’t count how many times i heard the phrase, “He” was 6’6″, at least 260lb in heels, a dress and did not look good at all. This is often said to me as a compliment because I fit the norm. I take it graciously, but know such sentiment is extremely hurtful as it would be to any woman who doesn’t have a bikini body. However, because they are trans-women such statements are not considered at the very least something that should have been left behind in Jr High. Attractiveness is all most seem to care about when it comes to acceptance.

        “Transgender” can mean just about anything from an occasional desire to present as female to post op persons with full surgical reconstruction. The term “Transsexual” is considered obsolete and even offensive by some. For others it is a preferred self identification to signify distinction from the transgender panacea.


        • Pamela Powers Hannley
          November 25, 2015

          I appreciate your thoughtful and lengthy comment. I don’t have a problem with transwomen in the women’s bathroom. My problem is with straight men who are predators and who would use open bathrooms to prey on the young or the elderly. (Transwomen fear violence from straight men also– right?)

          I do believe that we need new bathroom designs and revised building codes for new construction of public buildings. I was in the MOMA restaurant bathroom in New York City in the spring. It is a totally unisex bathroom, but it had been designed to be safe for all. The hand washing area was totally open (no door); it could be seen from the hostess desk. The stalls all had WORKING LOCKS– something that most women’s rooms lack. (How hard is it to line up two parts of a latch?) The stall doors went all the way down to the floor, so no feet showing. I do believe that all one-seaters should be unisex, and that there should be family bathrooms.

          Regarding the use of transgender or transsexual, I used to teach public health, and any references to these terms in my text are consistent with the health ed text book definitions.


  2. celiathaxter
    July 31, 2015

    People who say that single stall sharing isn’t an issue are missing the point. Let’s say you have two bathrooms, both are single stall. One is for men, one is for ladies. You see this a lot in restaurants. Now, proprietors will be forced to take those signs down. Let’s say a man who happens to be a predator sees a teenage girl heading to the back hall to use a bathroom. He also goes down the hall and follows her. No one would even notice that he was waiting for her by the bathroom door, because it is GENDER NEUTRAL, not the ladies room. Thus, the whole idea of a predator hanging around the ladies’ restroom has been eliminated.

    Say you are a grown man, and you go to use the gender neutral bathroom. Some kid is in there who forgot to lock the door. You walk in and find the girl or boy in a state of undress. They start screaming and before you know it, you have a lawsuit on your hands.

    If there is truly only ONE restroom in an entire establishment, then it must by nature be gender neutral. But many establishments have two single stall restrooms. This policy is not meant to protect 2/10ths of 1 percent of the population who are “trans,” but to wage war on our cultural identity, to break down the notion of men and women, male and female, so the very family unit itself and the complementarity of heterosexual normalcy is erased, extinguished. That is the agenda.


    • Kaitlyn
      January 14, 2016

      THANK YOU. Celia! This is the smartest thing on here. I am a sexual assault survivor and I do have a problem with all of this.


  3. Kat
    April 3, 2016

    #1. I’m sure there are male pedophiles just salivating at the thought of new and easier hunting grounds.
    #2. Just the other day I wanted to try on clothes at our local WalMart and a transgender was in charge of the dressing room. Obviously a man, he/she had a 5 o’clock shadow, the broad shoulders, tiny hips, etc. Excuse me, but I wasn’t raised to allow this. Are we going to teach our kids differently?
    #3. I think the idea of a 3rd bathroom is the best idea. If it makes “them” feel uncomfortable? Well, welcome to our world. Get over yourselves.
    #4. I am also a past victim of sexual assault and any man other than my husband does makes me nervous.


    • Danny
      May 24, 2016

      Kat, I see your angle. Thing is, not only men are sexual predators. Women can be too, and by saying ‘males pedophiles just salivating at the thought’ is in a way, quite sexist. I understand your concern, but seriously, open your mind a bit.


      • Paul Dirks
        April 22, 2017

        I’ve done significant research into sex offenders and the relationship to gender. 98% of sex offenders are male. Those that are female follow certain patterns- female teachers towards male students, mothers towards their children. Of that extremely small group of sexual predators who are female, it is almost always towards males. And of the almost non-existent group of female sex predators who offend against other females, it almost never strangers or adults. All this to say that the pattern you are responding to here – a predatory sex attack on a stranger who is a woman ALMOST NEVER occurs by women. So to say, “open your mind” to a generalization that is true 99.8% of the time is pretty ignorant, in my opinion.


    • Kelli L
      March 9, 2017

      I understand your fear. I am a transgender woman and have been the victim of assault in a restroom. A GENDER neutral bathroom. I am completely recognized as who I am: a woman. I need to use the women’s restroom for my safety.
      I do understand why it bothers you that some transgender people are obviously not passable as women. It actually bothers me too. Why? Because it makes it harder for me to be grouped into that category. And yet, besides the fact that I have breasts, wide hips, a pretty feminine face with no facial hair, and my own long blonde hair, many people group me into the same category as you described. I am torn, because no matter what I do, I can not escape the fact that I am transgender. Then I have to ask, are only the pretty ones allowed in, or the passable ones? I seriously don’t have the answer. I am not afraid of sharing the bathroom with a non passable transgender person. I AM afraid that a cis-gender person may be alarmed by the appearance of one of my sisters and then judge both of us as invalid. So I tend to avoid hanging around anyone who has not been in transition long except for limited time. Hate to say it, but attitudes like yours put us both in danger. A man doesn’t belong in the women’s restroom. I agree. But I don’t consider myself a man.


  4. lee vantruce
    April 25, 2016

    I do NOT want to use a unisex bathroom. Fine for those that do. I wish to use a clearly marked Female/Women bathroom.
    With that said Kat you do sound a bit challenged using the term ‘them’ feeling uncomfortable…

    It doesn’t help the dialogue or solution. More and more people are just ridiculous on both sides of the debate. Makes me want to punch some1. We act like lunatics


  5. Pingback: Bathroom Politics: Preserving the Sanctity of the ‘Ladies’ Room’ | jamerz37

  6. jamerz37
    April 27, 2016

    Reblogged this on Getting To Know The 'New Me'.


  7. Kelli L
    March 9, 2017

    Thank you for sharing. I am a transgender woman. Thank you for recognizing I have the same concerns for safety and privacy as any other woman. I am very scared about what is happening in Texas. I may be forced to use the men’s room September 1. I won’t take a chance at a 15 year prison sentence for peeing while trans. I’ll put up with whatever comes my way if and when I use the men’s room.


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The Tucson Progressive: Pamela J. Powers

I stand on the side of Love. I believe in kindness to all creatures on Earth and the inherent self-worth of all individuals–not just people who agree with me or look like me.

Widespread economic and social injustice prompted me to become a candidate for the Arizona House, representing Legislative District 9 in the 2016 election.

My platform focused on economic reforms to grow Arizona’s economy, establish a state-based public bank, fix our infrastructure, fully fund public education, grow local small businesses and community banks, and put people back to work at good-paying jobs.

In the Arizona House, I was a strong voice for fiscal responsibility a moratorium on corporate tax breaks until the schools were fully funded, increased cash assistance to the poor, expansion of maternal healthcare benefits, equal rights, choice, unions, education at all levels and protecting our water supply.

After three terms, I retired from the Arizona Legislature in January 2023 but will continue to blog and produce my podcast “A View from the Left Side.”

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