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Gender-specific Bathrooms Are a Relatively Recent Invention


Everyone goes to the bathroom, but not everyone can go into the bathroom they need. That's the issue making bathrooms a battleground in a movement to implement gender-neutral facilities in many U.S. cities.

Supporters of gender-neutral bathrooms point to examples of a gender-neutral bathroom's highest and best uses — a father who needs to accompany his toddler daughter, a transgender teen, a female caretaker who needs to assist a disabled or elderly man or a woman who opts not to wait in the long lines that queue for a women-only bathroom.

Critics say that unisex bathrooms will put children and women at risk for sexual harassment, molestation or rape, despite any reliable scientific evidence to support this argument.

The history of gender-specific bathrooms is a relatively young one.
The history of gender-specific bathrooms is a relatively young one.
Adam Gault/Getty Images

The idea of gender-specific bathrooms is a relatively new construct in our history. The first separate toilets for men and women probably occurred in 1739 at a Paris ball. Before that time, public restrooms throughout Europe were few, but those that existed were gender neutral.

By 1887, the concept had hopped the pond. Massachusetts became the first American state to legislate the provision of a women's bathroom in workplaces with female employees. By the 1920s, most states had passed similar laws.

Today, public bathrooms in the U.S. are regulated on a national level by the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees workplace facilities, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which develops workplace bathroom guidelines for states.

Non-workplace public bathrooms are nationally governed by the Department of Health and Human Services.

In addition, state and municipal building codes carry specific regulations that determine the number and type of bathrooms, including male and female facilities. In fact, in much of the U.S., these codes make it illegal to offer only unisex restrooms. But times are changing.

State and municipal legislatures are grappling with increased support for gender-neutral bathrooms. In North Carolina, for example, municipal leaders in Charlotte passed legislation in February 2016 that extends anti-discrimination protection to LGBT people by allowing them to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify. The following month, state legislators called a special session and passed a law that repealed the Charlotte ordinance by creating a statewide policy to ban people from using public bathrooms that do not correspond to their biological sex at birth. The North Carolina law also stopped cities throughout the state from passing anti-discrimination ordinances to protect lesbian, gay and transgender people.

In response, a federal lawsuit has been filed to overturn the measure amidst growing national support.

"Instead of focusing on adapting the behavior of the users," says Syrus Marcus Ware, a visual artist, transsexual man and community activist, "we need instead to change the way bathrooms are constructed and the way public toilets are understood. In short, bathrooms themselves need to be reconsidered and reimagined."



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