Gendered restrooms and Aunt Gert’s two-holer outhouse

“There are two types of people in the world: those who divide the world into two types of people and those who don’t.” – Anonymous

I have long held that if you can turn an ethical dilemma into a binary choice, it either isn’t much of an ethical dilemma or you are not thinking too hard. And when it comes the current conservative freak-out over transgendered folks and public toilets, our societal insistence that sex assignment is a binary thing, counter to all scientific reality, has dug its own “First World Problem” latrine.

I wish this were a debate about the civil rights of non-binary people, but realistically we are living in a court-packed period of retrenchment on not just this issue, but also on supposedly long-settled race-centered civil rights issues as well. Fasten your seat belts as the ride will be bumpy. The struggle must continue, however.

Let me suggest a different way to approach this bathroom freak-out: Toilet privacy in different cultures and in different points through history has always been a complex social dance about who gets privacy and who does not, who gets handed a “crappy” experience and who gets relative comfort. This social debate has thus far always been moderated by unseen, mostly male, forces that decide how much we are going to spend on those various classes of privacy, right down the quality of the toilet paper in the stall. The transgender issue has simply highlighted a larger, long-standing problem in how we Americans do public toilets.

So, pardon an indelicate post about how our society decides the rules of public bodily waste management. But first, indulge me in a relevant memory.

Great-aunt Gertrude and the two-holer outhouse

My grandmother’s sister Gertrude and her husband Emil owned a riverside cottage in the Michigan woods that my family would frequently visit during the 1950s and 60s. Aunt Gert provided the ample hugs while Uncle Emil mostly sat on the bank with a fishing pole in one hand and a Stroh’s beer in the other, smoking a pipe of Prince Albert tobacco, and listening to the Detroit Tigers baseball game on the radio.

Accommodations were rustic, to say the least. “The little brown shack out back” curiously had two side-by-side holes open to an untreated pit below. We young boys were instructed that certain bodily elimination options could be done in the woods behind the shack. The girls did not have that privilege, the biological and theological mysteries of that being beyond my sphere of expertise.

I never did figure out, however, the sociology of those two holes. Was this a days-gone-by common family ritual? Or maybe the practicality of delaying the inevitable filling up of one of the holes? Sixty years later I still don’t get it.

Deciding there would only be two bathrooms

Equally mystifying, the more you think about it, is how our public facilities such as schools, shopping malls, and airports were built in those 1950s and 1960s. Likely in the name of fiscal efficiency, my school only had one “boys’ room” and one “girls’ room.” The indelicately-named “handicapped” toilets did not yet exist, and at some still-later point “family rooms” (again an odd word choice) began popping up in shopping malls and other public places.

If privacy were the key issue, the “boys’ rooms” in America usually had, and still have, little of that. The common row of urinals is anything but private, and in the past (not so much today) that was often just an open trough. While doors on the toilet stalls in much of modern Europe, as I learned while living there, are more often sealed, floor-to-ceiling private affairs, American toilet stalls still often have short doors with wide gaps between stall walls. In the basement of the old classroom building where I first taught college, there were not even doors on the stalls.

Start by asking yourself why that was, and often still is, the case. These privacy standards, or lack thereof, were financial and sociological decisions by some person or persons at some point in time. Most of us, most of the time, had to accept them as “normal.” It could be worse; I have been to countries where there is just a hole in the floor over which you straddle.

Speaking of Europe, my cultural norms were tested there as toilet attendants (usually female, even in the men’s room) in crowded tourist locations often send women past the line of standing men to use those more private European stalls, a solution to a too-common “potty parity” problem worldwide caused by mostly-male architects.

Bergen airport men's room

Bergen, Norway airport men’s room. Photo by author.

Let me be clear. I want as much privacy as anybody and likely more. My point is that American institutional managers have made price-privacy decisions for decades that value the privacy of some over others in public accommodations, and those standards have gradually changed over time. Transgender people have always existed, but we have lived in a pretend world where they were not visible. In this sense, they are “out of time” in becoming visible in places where social norms and toilet standards were set in brick during 1950s or earlier. However, in my view, they are just people who want some better privacy, as would many of the rest of us. We have to ask why we all, in a civilized society, can’t have a little more discretion here in this modern world.

“Male and female he [sic] created them”

To be pedantic, sex generally refers to biological differentiation, while gender refers to the societal distinctions in place. However, a big part of this problem is that this is “a distinction without a difference” to the very people raising a “stink.”

The Bible’s book of Genesis includes, in one of its two creation stories [1], the assertion that “male and female he created them,” with “he” referring to the Hebrew Elohim. To the Biblical literalists usually at the core of anti-transgender legislation, that is sufficient justification for deciding who plays what sports and where they relieve themselves. Genesis itself is silent, however, about the nature of the toilet facilities in Eden, as well as how the third generation of humans were conceived.

Many American religious fundamentalists have little patience with established science in areas that challenge their world view such as evolution, disease transmission, or climate change. It is no wonder that the biology of “XX” and “XY” chromosome pairs, the most common sets found in humans, is our primary proxy used to differentiate the sexes. If there were only two options here, then there might be some justification for those people, such as Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who seem creepily fixated on determining when a young student is “born male” or “born female.”

Except that clearly “God” did not create a binary gender system. If we are only talking about a chromosomal “XX” versus “XY” distinction, our “God-created” babies sometimes pop out with different genes from that binary, in a near-continuum of genetic and hormonal states we call intersex. Just to name three, there are XXY, XXX and XYY people, but there are additional genetic combinations as well. Because it is such a complicated mix, we can’t even put an exact percentage on that occurrence, but if you went to a large school, the odds are that there was at least one biologically intersex person in your grade whether you knew it or not – Horrors! – sharing your restroom.

Add to that the still-unknown number of ways in which the dozens of other sex-related characteristics, epigenetic effects, and “God’s dice” of life’s randomness impact our brain development as we grow. These differences sometimes emerge into the very broad continuum that we term transgender, or other too-categorical labels that we place on the growing spectrum of the “LGBTQ+ rainbow.” Most of us growing up in the 1950s or before lived in a fantasy world where homosexuality and other gender/sex-related biologies and psychologies just did not exist in “our people.” Our building of public toilets in those decades simply echoed that non-reality.

Confronting the choices

As a Jesuit mentor of mine liked to say, “Morality must, at some point, be based on reality.” I am enough of a realist to accept that many people, especially fundamentalist religious types, will always have a hard time accepting non-binary conceptions of sex and gender. As I have noted in the past, even the word morality itself, in common use, is more often than not about sex. But non-binary sex and gender differences are also a reality in this world.

My take: Let’s spend a chunk of this potential infrastructure spending pot to modernize American public toilets in order to give all of us some more privacy, starting in our public schools.

By the way, we personally have two private “unisex” toilets in our modern American home, neither of which is a “two-holer.” Perhaps your home is different. The Amish school not far from our last rural Iowa home, on the other hand, still has two “little shacks out back,” so America still retains it potty diversity. Billy Edd Wheeler wrote the definitive ode to the little brown shacks:


  1. There are actually two creation stories in Genesis. Merging them into one story takes a bit of literary license.

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