This fourth of July, 2017, found my little nuclear family back for the third consecutive year in Arlington, Texas, for what is billed as the largest fourth of July parade in the state and one of the largest in the nation. As luck and a morning spent at home sipping on more than three large cups of coffee would have it, I had to pee from the moment we arrived and parked in a lot off Cooper Street on the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington. My wife had to go too, however, so once we had installed ourselves in a choice spot along the parade route, with camping chairs and plenty of bubbles and sidewalk chalk for the kids, the lady went first, slipping off across the street to the Starbucks adjoining the UTA Campus Bookstore about thirty minutes before the nine AM parade start.
After she had been gone for more than a quarter-hour or so—with the countdown to the start of the parade dwindling by the minute—I texted to ask why she was taking so long. I still had to go to the bathroom myself, after all! My wife texted back to say that the line was dauntingly long and that, true to her hyper-organized form, she had been observing and timing people as they went in and out of the restrooms and had determined that a single adult was taking on average one minute to do their business and an adult with child, three minutes, so she estimated she would return in seven. God love her! Well, unluckily for us, folks took longer than their temporal allotments, and Melissa didn’t come back until the parade had just gotten underway, quickly darting across the street only slightly ahead of the first band’s color guard. I would have to wait.
Three quarters of the way through the hour-and-a-half long procession, though, I simply couldn’t hold it any longer. My available mental focus had shifted entirely to just beneath my paunchy equator, off the floats and marching bands with their throbbing bass drums and onto the urgent, throbbing pressure on the inner walls of my own brimming bladder. I found a key moment of calm, when a stretch of the parade route was empty enough to permit crossing, and dashed over to the same Starbucks my wife had visited earlier. Of course, there was a line outside the facilities.
Like most Starbucks locations I have patronized, this one had two single-occupancy restrooms, one for men and one for women, both with handicap access. Because the potties were single-occupancy and the line to access them was long, folks were disregarding the gender separation implied by the signs and simply peeling off from the single waiting line to go to the first available open restroom, irrespective of their own biology. This seemed like an eminently sensible plan to me: first come, first serve; everyone gets their turn, in turn, at the loo, with the wait shared and distributed equally in a manner that is blind to gender or sex. Couldn’t be more democratic than that on this, the nation’s birthday. Or so I thought.
Well, the plan obviously didn’t seem so sensible and democratic to the fifty-something gentleman who came along after I had been waiting for ten or so minutes already. Clearly confused by seeing fellas waiting alongside women in a single file within a few feet of the entrance to a men’s room, the man sidled up beside our line, beginning to push his way into the narrow corridor that contained the final feet of our trial-by-patience, before asking: “Is there a line to get into the men’s room?”
“They’re all single-occupancy, so we’re just going in, first come, first serve, to whichever is open. The line starts back there,” I said, pointing to the tail of the queue some ten or so people back from the spot where the man was standing.
“Well who authorized that?” the man said, clearly miffed at the situation.
“Um,” I said, “It’s just what we’re doing. There’s a lot of people in line, and the restrooms are both single occupancy, so we’re using whichever one opens up first, to be fair.”
“Well who decided that? It certainly wasn’t the governor of the state of Texas, I’ll tell you that. Women should be in the women’s room, and the men in the men’s,” the man said.
I mentally flashed on Governor Abbott’s and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s signature legislative abomination, the so-called Bathroom Bill—S.B. 6, that would allow for open discrimination against transgendered individuals by dictating where they can and can’t potty according to the sex listed on their birth certificates, not their gender self-identification, and would undo local anti-discrimination ordinances that permit transgender citizens to choose which bathroom to use. Shades of the madness that gripped North Carolina back in 2016 and prompted numerous famous musicians and sporting associations, including the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, the N.B.A. and the N.C.A.A., to cancel concerts and drop plans to hold events in the state. In response, the NC Legislature had partially repealed their odious bill on March 30th of this year. Partly as a result of the uproar over the NC legislation, the Texas bill didn’t pass during the regular legislative session in May, so the governor, undaunted, called for a special session to begin on the eighteenth of July, so as to take the measure back up, along with nineteen or so other items of “business.” Those who don’t learn from history….
“Well, it’s what we’re doing here,” I said, looking the man straight in the eyes for the first time, trying to find the whites through his mirrored sunglasses. “The line starts back there.” I pointed again to the rear of our waiting crowd, now even farther away than before. The man said nothing in response, but he didn’t budge either, choosing instead to just stand there, glowering.
At that point, a mother several people behind me spoke up to ask whether I and the the lady in front of me would mind if her eight-year-old son, clutched by the shoulders in front of her, went ahead of us because he really had to go. I could see the boy was obviously squirming a bit. No problem from either of us there. The boy went ahead. Then the woman in front of me marched off into the open ladies’ room a minute or so later, and I to the men’s a couple of minutes after that.
As I exited and strode out of the corridor and into the main body of the store on my way to rejoin my family outside, I passed the impatient gentleman who was still waiting, roughly on the spot where I had been standing when he first came up. I wanted to shoulder-check him as I passed, but restrained myself from doing so. “Happy 4th of July,” I said instead, beaming a broad, satisfied smile.
Of course, afterwards I brooded on my interaction with the impatient fellow—on his body language and demeanor, in addition to what he had actually said. It occurred to me that what had gotten him bristling was not simply the felt impropriety of our rebellious line’s collective breaching of the gender segregation spelled out in the restrooms’ iconic signs. Rather, it was likely the fact the for the first time in his genteel little life, this fifty-some-odd-year-old man had had to wait in line to use the bathroom alongside—and BEHIND—women.
I have no doubt but that he spent the entire time replaying in his mind scenes from sporting events, concerts, and public festivals where, even though the line to enter the women’s restroom stretched for proverbial miles, men like himself could march right on in and up to a waiting urinal. At most he would have had to pause for a moment in a short queue safely behind the door to the inner sanctum of the bathroom until a urinal was freed up for his use. He likely considered those times when he had had to linger outside while a wife, girlfriend, or daughter endured a Bataan death wait to relieve herself at a movie theater following the let-out of a show, all the while thanking his maker he had entered the world as a male, unburdened by the necessity of mustering such patience with societally imposed restraints on the free and immediate exercise of basic bodily functions. Little did the man know, however, that in some cases—such as at sporting venues in Houston, Texas, constructed before the mid-nineties, for example—his entitlement to pee without undue waiting around had a little help from city plumbing code, which since the 1980s had mandated more men’s restrooms than women’s in new construction of public sports facilities on the reasoning that males would attend sporting events and conventions in greater numbers than females. Local ordinance insured that the bathroom’s was one more of the many doors in society that male genitalia opened faster and more readily than female. Before the era of Civil Rights, the man’s white skin would have had a similar effect.
In Houston in 1990, the city’s built-in inequity in so-called “potty parity” finally took its toll on one thirty-six-year-old woman named Denise Wells, who, when faced with a line that stretched for fifty to a hundred feet outside the women’s restroom at a George Strait concert, saw a gentleman escorting a girl into the men’s room for which there was no wait and followed them in. Wells had already attempted to use the ladies’ room once before that evening, when she faced a line of some thirty women abiding patiently. So she decided to postpone her business until the star act had taken to the stage, when she would leave her third-row seat for a second time, thinking that the lines would probably be shorter by then for fear of missing the show. But, to her dismay, Wells found that the line had only grown longer! Adding insult to injury, Wells had paid $125 for the good seats at the concert but was missing the main attraction while waiting in an even longer line to pee.
As she exited the men’s lavatory, an off-duty police officer working security at the concert, who had also been using the same restroom, accosted Wells and wrote her a $200 ticket for violating a city ordinance prohibiting anyone from entering “any public restroom designated for the exclusive use of the sex opposite to such person’s sex…in a manner calculated to cause a disturbance.” The officer also escorted his offender out of the venue in tears.
In November of that year, during a trial dubbed “Pottygate” in the press, a jury of four women and two men acquitted Wells after just twenty-three minutes of deliberation. They apparently agreed with the defendant’s assertion that she didn’t enter the men’s room to cause a disturbance, but simply because there weren’t enough women’s toilets and she really had to pee. One witness—a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force—testified via video deposition that the desperate intruder had exercised appropriate demureness by shielding her eyes so as not to catch sight of any unsuspecting man’s…well…manhood, all the while apologizing profusely. Wells obtained instant celebrity as a result of the case, including interviews by both Johnny Carson and Joan Rivers.
Wells’ ordeal, combined with the plight of an aide to Texas State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, who had to spend forty-five minutes waiting with his girlfriend in line for the loo at a nighttime festival, inspired the good Senator to sponsor a bill for potty parity in the state, requiring that all new construction for public venues after 1991—and all renovations of over 50% of the space of existing venues—include twice as many women’s restrooms as men’s. Barrientos’ bill passed the Senate but died in the House, where attempts to change the ratio from 2:1 to 3:2 failed to garner compromise. A new bill sponsored in the Texas House by Representative Nancy McDonald and requiring the old the 2:1 ratio passed in 1993 and was signed into law by then governor Ann Richards, who noted at the signing ceremony “what a pleasure this is” and called Barrientos, who had again sponsored the legislation in the Senate, “my hero.”
Somewhat predictably, two organizations concerned with “gender equity for men’’—the National Coalition of Free Men and Fathers for Equal Rights—emerged to ride the coat-tails of concern for potty parity, turning the issue to one of “men’s rights.” They argued that men’s rooms needed to be enlarged with increased numbers of stalls and other provisions for privacy, because, in the words of a spokesman for the NCFM, “We don’t want to be treated like cattle. No longer will we stand for having to urinate in herds at troughs.”
I remember troughs like the ones he was referring to from my younger days as a kid growing up in Columbus, Georgia, where I would hang out in the local baseball stadium for seemingly endless Columbus Astros games, never having to wait in line to pee largely because of the open troughs lining the floor in the men’s room where fellas could stand shoulder-to-shoulder and urinate by the dozen. It was precisely such arrangements for peeing quickly in large numbers, combined with the greater convenience of being biologically capable of peeing while standing without unduly soiling oneself and only having to undo a zipper in order to do so, that rendered the men’s restrooms there usually so wait free. I have seen those arrangements replicated in numerous stadiums and bars over the years.
The potty parity laws in Texas and, around the same time, in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, based themselves in part on university studies that showed that women need twice as much time to get in and out of the bathroom as men largely because of the more complicated architecture of their natural peeing arrangements, as well as that of their clothing. Fathers for Equal Rights, though, suggested that women’s increased bathroom time stemmed primarily from their need to primp and gossip in the restroom, as though they considered public facilities “a part of their own boudoir to use at their leisure.” The FER demanded that men’s rooms come equipped with couches and full-length mirrors to mimic the alleged accommodations in ladies’ rooms.
To promote their cause, the two men’s organizations placed stickers in public bathrooms for both genders, enumerating the “equalizing features” they were seeking. A spokesman for the NCFM noted of the two groups’ motivations: “We don’t want to inconvenience or discommode women, though we would like to unzip their consciousness just a little.” Cheeky. The website for the NCFM provides a comprehensive list of the things from which the “Free Men” would like to be and remain free. That list includes, among many other hoped-for liberations, the men’s desire for freedom “from conflict between their polygamous sexual conditioning as youths, and society’s expectation that they will overcome that conditioning after marriage,” as well as “from preoccupation with sexual technique and from imperatives to concentrate on satisfying their partners sexually, seemingly at the expense of their own sexual pleasure.” Cheeky and self-involved are apparently how this particular organization rolls. It’s ironic that the pair of groups would choose the metaphor of unzipping to express their peculiar objective, when in reality their true aim lay more properly with keeping male dominance and privilege fastened firmly in place in the face of a perceived onslaught of challenges from feminism, which the NCFM’s present-day website still claims “is killing young boys” and “wants to dismantle the family.”
In all seriousness, though, now that Obergefell v. Hodges has opened up equal marriage rights to all consenting adult couples, restrooms remain one of the last surviving bastions of accepted segregation in American society. The 1964 Civil Rights Act granted African Americans equal access to public restrooms, while the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act did the same for individuals with physical disabilities. In the mid 90s, controversy over potty parity rested largely on a simple gender divide, while in the second decade of the twenty-first century the fulcrum has shifted to the divide between transgender and cisgender individuals.
The ability to put and keep someone in his or her place by exercising control over the locus and autonomy of his or her body and bodily functions is one of the most primal and complete forms of domination and control. To that extent, keeping bathrooms as settings for discrimination is a kind of power play not unakin to immigration bans or to rape, which, not coincidentally, figures prominently in the boogeyman fears fomented by those seeking to keep transgendered individuals out of the bathrooms corresponding to their gender identities. And the reason that both bathroom parity and immigration are once again so much in vogue as causes célèbres in conservative circles boils down to one and the same pair of pressing concerns: changing societal mores and demographic shift.
Taking a bird’s-eye view of things, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries alike stand witness to the essential porosity and fragility of borders, narrow categories of thought, and pre-defined roles, all of which are both manmade and products of their times and places. Women’s Lib, Civil Rights, Globalization, Deconstructionism, Decolonization—every pigeonhole, sentry station, and traditional role has been somehow overwhelmed in modern times by new and unruly counter-cultural Visigoths who insist on submitting all authority, order, and tradition to intense (and usually hostile) cross-examination, finding them all ultimately wanting in one way or another.
And the really annoying part for those who would struggle to maintain the status quo—or, worse yet, set the societal clock back to an earlier era—is that every last stand for tradition proves futile in the end, no matter how vicious or vociferous it may be. Even in arch-conservative organizations like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, where desegregation didn’t breach the race barrier surrounding the all male priesthood until 1978 (now the Church faces the challenge of the Ordain Women movement to break the priesthood open even more widely), the proverbial Berlin Wall ultimately falls. Not even the National Coalition of Free Men has escaped this overarching tendency of the present and previous centuries: the first seven or so of the freedoms for men stated on the philosophy page of their website involve their desire to liberate themselves from traditionally conceived male gender roles and traits like competitiveness, physical violence, fear of emotional vulnerability, and the necessity to act as protectors and breadwinners within families. To paraphrase the character of Dr. Ian Malcom in Jurassic Park: freedom, uh, finds a way. And this essential truth is nothing new.
The late-first/early-second century CE Roman satirist Juvenal testified to similar sea changes in the society of his day through his testy, satirical responses to them in verse. Of immigration, the poet had this to say:
“I cannot abide, Roman Citizens, a Greek city. Yet how small a portion of the shit we have to deal with do the denizens of Homer’s land comprise? Long has the Syrian Orontes emptied into the Tiber, bringing with it its Syrian language, mores, flutes, and shrill Oriental harps, not to mention the national hand-drums of the cult of Cybele and girls made to turn tricks beside the Circus by their oily-haired pimps” (Satire 3.60-65).
Of the place of women, he wrote the following:
“An even worse pain is the female who, as soon as she sits down to dinner, opens up a disquisition on the Aeneid, matching and comparing poets, weighing Vergil against Homer on their respective sides of the balance. Schoolmasters yield; professors are vanquished; everyone in the party is silenced. No one can speak: not a lawyer, not an auctioneer, not even another woman. Such an avalanche of words falls, that you’d say it’s like pans and bells being beaten…. Since she wants to seem so learned and eloquent, she ought to hike her tunic up to her knees, sacrifice a pig in the all male cult of Silvanus, and go clean up in the baths with the philosophers afterwards. Don’t let the woman who shares your marriage bed adopt fancy rhetoric or make your head spin with pretentious words and lofty arguments. Don’t let her know all the histories. Let there be something in books she does not understand. I hate the woman who is continually poring over highfalutin grammars, who never breaks the rules or principles of proper speech and quotes verses I never heard of, ancient stuff that men ought not to worry about” (Satire 6.434-455).
The jury is still out over whether Juvenal the poet actually shared the particularly opinionated and strident take on Roman life expressed through his poetic persona or whether he was just using the acerbic voice to parody others on his society’s conservative edge. We’ll likely never know.
In his sixth satire on the role and place of women and marriage, though, Juvenal poses a strikingly modern indignant question: “What brought this monstrous behavior about?” (Satire 6.286). In so doing, he sounds, over the span of almost a millennium, just like the impatient man I met in Starbucks on the fourth of July who demanded to know who had “authorized” his fellow citizens’ disregard for the gendered specificity of the restrooms. And to both disgruntled questions I would respond simply that no one authorizes social change and no single factor or event brings it about usually. It just happens, organically, because people want to live and be free, free of societal restraint and both their own and others’ prejudices and preconceptions. The very icons on the doors to the restrooms whose multi-gendered use my interlocutor that day found so threatening stand as silent witnesses to the temporal and cultural specificity of such conceptions as tiny dresses on recognizably “female” figures, as well as to the invisible expiration dates such figures always bear stamped indelibly within. At other times and in other places, the signs would and do look entirely different.
Like the writer of a piece in a recent issue of the New Yorker, who was using the restroom at a Willy Nelson concert in Houston in the mid 1980s when a dozen women entered and “laid siege to the stalls,” I find the invasion of the men’s room by a battalion of women desperate to relieve themselves quickly “a rather jolly moment.” I feel equally jolly at contemplating the relief and comfort a transgendered individual might feel upon not being challenged by another patron or, worse still, a law enforcement officer upon entering or exiting the restroom of his or her gender identification. Freedom brings joy.
The history of discrimination in America shows that public restrooms can prove problematic for more than just their uncleanliness and lack of hygiene. Yet for someone whose bladder is full to bursting, the restroom will forever be a place of liberation and satisfaction, however dirty it may seem. Freeing oneself of unnecessary and toxic burdens feels good, as it should. For that same reason, writing this piece as a way of laying to rest the burdensome memory of my interaction with a toxic individual this past July 4th also feels really good. I wish the man peace and, more than that, freedom: freedom from his own narrow conceptions of what is acceptable in a society where other people just want to pee freely when and where they most need to let it go. I hope he can let it go too, for all our sakes. Amen.