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The odd history of our gender-separated public bathrooms

Debate is raging in North Carolina and around the country about public restrooms and gender identity.
Debate is raging in North Carolina and around the country about public restrooms and gender identity.

A national civil war has erupted over gender-separated public bathrooms.

Defenders of tradition say it’s been that way forever and there’s no need to go changing the rules for the few transgender folks who feel uncomfortable. Progressive activists say transgender women are placed at risk by current norms requiring people to use the restroom corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate, rather than the one fitting the gender with which they identify.

An interesting article on Livescience.com sheds some historical light on the evolution of gender politics surrounding public restrooms in western society. Here are a few points to ponder:

▪ Ancient Rome had multi-seat bathrooms where people sat side-by-side without partitions.

▪ Western nations’ public restrooms were male-only until the Victorian era. Women had to make do, sometimes urinating in gutters.

▪ The first gender-segregated public bathroom on record occurred at a ball in Paris in 1739 – and people thought it was “eccentric and fun.”

▪ Massachusetts passed an 1887 law requiring workplaces that employed women to have restrooms for them, and by the 1920s such laws were commonplace.

The tradition of gender-separated bathrooms is long-standing. But it would be a mistake to say it’s always been this way, or that our ideas about bathrooms, privacy and gender haven’t evolved over the centuries. --Eric Frazier

 

North Carolina repealed HB2 in 2017 but left intact some of its provisions. But with Charlotte’s reputation tainted, the city is still paying to market itself to visitors.

 

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