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Zachary Crockett / Vox

It’s not just transgender people: public restrooms have bred fear for centuries

Shortly before midnight on January 3, 1966, Samuel Younge Jr. pulled his bus into a Standard Oil gas station in Tuskegee, Alabama. A college student and civil rights activist, he had spent his day registering black voters in neighboring Macon County.

Now he simply had to pee.

The station’s 68-year-old, white attendant flatly denied the black man’s bathroom request, and heated words were exchanged. Words erupted into an altercation — and moments later Younge lay dead in a pool of blood, a bullet lodged in the back of his skull.

Samuel Younge Jr. (upper left), and the gas station at which he was murdered.
Jet (1966)

Younge was a victim of bigotry, of racial intolerance. But he was also a victim of fear — in particular, the fear of sharing a deeply private architectural space: the bathroom.

But where did this fear come from, and why does it still exist today?

Fears over sharing bathrooms with those who are different from us have roots that extend back more than 150 years: Fear created the gender-segregated bathroom and the race-segregated bathroom — and today, fear continues to govern our uncertainty with transgender-friendly facilities.

How fear created the gender-segregated bathroom

There was a time when every bathroom in America was gender-neutral. Pre-19th century — before industrialization and the gender ideologies that came with it — men and women both worked out of the home. They would share, without bias, an outdoor "privy": a single-use, free-for-all stall.

But beginning in the early 1800s, technological and cultural changes turned the simple act of going to the bathroom into serious business.

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, men increasingly shifted out of the home and into factory jobs. A "separate spheres" ideology emerged — the belief that public spaces were for men and private spaces were for women.

This ideology was rooted in biological determinism: Women were considered to be mentally and physically weaker — prone to bouts of hysteria and unable to control their bodily functions. At the core of these ideas was a male-prescribed fear over the fragility of female physiques.

"Indecency" (Isaac Cruikshank, 1799)

In the 19th century, women were frequently shamed for what men perceived to be a lack of bodily control. ("Indecency" by Isaac Cruikshank, 1799)

In the 1820s, many women began taking on textile jobs in the public realm, where they worked in close proximity to men, in a shared space. These changes came at the onset of the Victorian era: Lawmakers, legislators, and the male workforce became inordinately concerned with privacy and modesty. When sewage technology begat the rise of the public, multi-user restroom, this all came to a head.

"The factory restroom became a locus that raised serious social anxieties," says Terry Kogan, a contributor to the book Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing. "The solution was to cordon off a separate architectural space for women."

How fear was written into bathroom legislation

As women increasingly joined the public workforce, fears over female fragility persisted. To address this, lawmakers mandated a number of separate spaces for women in factories — including restrooms.

What followed was a rapid, systematic passage of bathroom laws governing female bodies. In 1887, Massachusetts became the first state to pass a law that separated public restrooms by sex. It was a workplace regulation that made the following mandate:

Section 2 from the 1887 Massachusetts Act to Secure Proper Sanitary Provisions in Factories and Workshops that first separated public restrooms by sex.
State Library of Massachusetts

By 1920, more than 40 states had some variation of this law on the books — and sex-separated public restrooms became the mandated social norm, codified in building codes.

These building codes — which focus on things like the number of units that can be built per floor or the allocation of stalls for each sex — were conceived using societal values that prioritized a Victorian sense of morality rather than any sound architectural principle or urban planning rationale.

"Though in a sense it looks like a neutral provision that bathrooms shall be separated by sex, the title of the statute would often be something like ‘Protection of Women in Factories,'" says Kogan. "It is clear that the intent was not gender-neutral."

As a result, there is perhaps no social space more anxiety-inducing than a public restroom. Unlike a grocery store or a shopping mall, the toilet is semi-sacred: It is a place where intensely private acts are carried out in the presence of strangers.

"There tends to be a feeling of shame that accompanies bodies," says Sheila Cavanagh, a professor of gender studies at York University. "And our fears about gender and sexuality get projected onto the space of the bathroom, and so we have a history of using bathrooms to organize and reproduce prejudice against people."

And over the years, this fear of sharing bathrooms has reared its teeth under the veil of racism, homophobia, and, most recently, transphobia.

Public restrooms as a space of social inequality

In the wake of Samuel Younge Jr.’s death in 1966, his murderer claimed the young activist had requested to use the women’s restroom. He was acquitted of all charges by an all-white jury.

Younge, like all African Americans during the civil rights era, was subject to a variation of the same bathroom segregation laws that cordoned off women. And again, these laws were created out of fear.

Segregated restrooms in 1960 (Getty Images)

Segregated bathrooms in the 1960s. (Getty Images)

"There was this idea that black men were ... oversexed predators, that all they wanted was access to white women," says Gillian Frank, a visiting lecturer in Princeton University’s gender and sexuality studies department. "White men felt that [white women were particularly prone to this] in bathrooms — and they felt it was their role to police that space."

Many segregation laws — including those that governed bathrooms — were born of a fear of the susceptibility of womanhood to blackness.

At the same time, many white women maintained a fear that "contact with black women in bathrooms would infect them with venereal diseases."

clipping from a police raid on gay men in the 1980s ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post, April 22, 1988

Police frequently raided bathrooms in the 1970s and '80s, with the intent of arresting gay people.

After World War II, fear was used again to regulate gay people's bathroom rights.

A "predator myth" was formulated by predominantly cisgender, straight, white people: that gay people used public restrooms to solicit sex and molest children. Because public restrooms were often places gay men could pick up other gay men during the 1950s and later (often referred to as "cruising"), pamphlets and films such as Boys Beware depicted gay men as mentally ill and sick. From this narrative emerged a growing hysteria that public restrooms were unsafe spaces for children.

Somewhat ironically, these fears were exacerbated by passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s, which fought for equal rights for women.

"Anti-ERA rhetoric [glommed onto] gay men," says Frank: "Gays and lesbians are predacious. They can’t reproduce, so therefore they need to recruit people."

Zachary Crockett / Vox

Most recently, we’ve seen these fears reemerge in relation to transgender people. Currently, 11 states are suing the federal government for its mandate that transgender students in public schools should be able to use the public restroom that matches their gender identity rather than their sex at birth.

Transgender bathroom legislation has, in part, been motivated by fear. Jeff Landry, the attorney general in Louisiana (one of the 11 states suing the federal government), has said that the federal government’s decision "puts the safety and security of all our children in jeopardy."

Experts who study gender politics argue there is something else motivating these fights, too: a desire to preserve power.

"When we talk about fear or anxiety we need to see it as a strategic tool of governance and regulation rather than saying it occurs spontaneously," Frank told us. "Fear [is] this sort of accompanying rationale to reinforce already existing social relations, and to police them."

But here’s the problem with this. These fears aren’t just unfounded. They are backward. The subjects of our fear — black people, gay people, transgender people — are the true victims.

Public restrooms are sites of violence — but only for the marginalized

Perhaps one of the most damaging repercussions of fears surrounding public restroom use — and its greatest fallacy — is that the people who are most often hurt are the very people mainstream society has fought to exclude.

Across the country, transgender people’s struggle to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity has been met with backlash. The prevailing logic is predicated on fear: that by granting them access to the public restroom of their choice, they will prey on us, harm us.

But the sad reality is that the people at greatest risk of assault and harassment in public restrooms are transgender people themselves.

A 2013 study found that 77 percent of transgender respondents had experienced some form of harassment, whether physical or verbal, while trying to use the restroom. Eighteen percent reported being denied access to the restroom they were trying to use altogether.

Zachary Crockett / Vox

"What we’ve seen over and over again is even people who support the anti-trans bill, like the governor of North Carolina, admit there has never been a trans person who has assaulted someone in the bathroom," says Chase Strangio, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. "There’s really no evidence, [in any jurisdiction] where protections have been extended to trans people that there’s any increase in public safety incidents."

This has been the case at Cooper Union, a small liberal arts college in New York. Earlier this year, after mounting protests by students, the university opted to remove gender identifications from every bathroom on campus and open single-occupancy restrooms for everyone’s use. Students, as well as the school’s president, Bill Mea, tell us that no incidents have occurred.

But perhaps, as Cooper’s LGBTQ coalition president, Asante Mills, tells us, it’s much simpler than that.

"I don’t see why this is an issue," he says. "It’s a bathroom. You go in, you use it, you get out."

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