Andrew Fiala

Restroom politics: All need clean, well-lit place to heed call of nature

Current issues about transgenders’ use of public toilets point toward larger questions of bathroom ethics, says colulmnist Andrew Fiala; equality, access, justice and basic hygiene are important issues.
Current issues about transgenders’ use of public toilets point toward larger questions of bathroom ethics, says colulmnist Andrew Fiala; equality, access, justice and basic hygiene are important issues. Detroit Free Press file illustration

Our political conversation has ended up in the toilet. Transgender people want equal access and respect for privacy. Some states and politicians have flushed the idea. This issue should lead us to reflect on restroom morality.

Transgender people appeal to a basic principle of excretory equality. We build special stalls for the handicapped. Why not also help transgender people? A bathroom revolution would help trans people and the rest of us as well.

Lavatory access is far from equal. Those long, slow lines for the ladies room at public events are not fair. Women suffer from a toilet deficit. The men who wait for these ladies suffer also.

Unisex bathrooms would solve these problems. This works at outdoor festivals, where the port-a-potty lines are gender neutral. Our home toilets are not segregated by sex. A unisex bathroom revolution seems like a no-brainer.

Critics worry about public safety. The Rev. Franklin Graham opposes transgender bathroom access, warning that we need to “protect young girls, boys, and women from sexual predators and perverts.”

Of course, perverts can haunt mono-sex facilities. One solution is bathroom attendants. Unisex toilets in European cities are staffed by attendants. That might deter the predators. Attendants also keep the place clean. This is as important as equality and safety. After we solve the transgender issue, let’s move on to basic hygiene.

You can judge the quality of a culture by the cleanness of its commodes. I’d love a politician to promise an unsoiled seat for everyone and soap in every dispenser.

While we’re at it, here are some reminders of toilet etiquette. Be discrete, be quick and be clean. Flush when done. Keep the seat dry. If you use the last piece of paper, change the roll. And don’t forget the most important imperative of lavatory virtue: wash your hands.

As we reconstruct our toilet culture, I suggest eliminating urinals. They are messy and, frankly, a bit weird – especially the open-trough variety. In the meantime, some men need lessons in urinal decorum. Leave a space, where possible, between yourself and the next guy. Stand as close to the device as you can. Don’t look at what the other guy is doing. Please don’t start up a conversation. And stop pretending that using a urinal absolves you from the need to wash your hands.

The challenges of excretory ethics could be solved with proper education. Universities are leading the way. Unisex bathrooms already exist on some campuses. In dorms on some campuses, there are co-ed bathrooms where men and women attend to their needs side by side – yes, even showering in closed stalls.

I’ve heard that this helps keep things clean. Men do a better job of cleaning up after themselves when they share the facilities with women. After all, that’s how it works at home. A gentleman always puts the seat back down.

Basic bathroom justice should also be considered. The transgender issue is an important reminder of the need for access. But there are fewer transgender people than there are poor, toilet-less people. About 700,000 people in the U.S. are transgendered. Nearly three times that many Americans do not have a working bathroom. 1.6 million Americans live in homes that lack indoor plumbing. Another half a million are homeless. That means that about 2.1 million people lack a private, indoor toilet.

Meanwhile, the affluent enjoy luxurious facilities. The number of toilets per house is growing. It used to be standard to have one bathroom for an entire family. Newer homes now have three and even four bathrooms. The average person goes to the bathroom once every four hours. In some houses you could use a different toilet each time the need arises, while just down the street homeless people can’t find anywhere to go.

It must be tough to be transgendered, homeless or toilet-less. Imagine the indignity of finding yourself locked out when nature calls. We all need a clean, well-lighted place to heed the call of nature.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: