What We Need To Know About Bathrooms

What We Need To Know About Bathrooms

Bathrooms. We are actually having a national political conversation about bathrooms, following passage of HB2 in North Carolina prohibiting local governments from passing LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination protections with special language about bathrooms. Mississippi is in the process of enacting even more repugnant legislation. I never thought I’d write a post about bathrooms, but that law in North Carolina has forced me to address the issue. (By the way, you can sign a petition to repeal the North Carolina law on the ACLU website. Be on the lookout for one for Mississippi.)

Okay, so let’s talk about bathrooms.

You are welcome to share a public toilet facility with me. I’m happy to live in a world filled with a diverse group of people whose identities — gender, racial, religious, political, geographic, national, and more — make life so rich and interesting. My only requests are that you wash your hands, deposit your trash in the receptacle, treat the cleaning staff with respect, and not say hateful things about our fellow humans. Also, if you are visiting or living in my house, please pick up your towels off the floor and hang them up after showering.

Most of the people cleaning our public bathrooms are low-wage immigrant and undocumented women workers who face terrible conditions on the job. The folks cleaning our restrooms need a union, a minimum of $20 an hour, full medical and retirement benefits, paid sick leave and paid family leave, and protections from sexual assaults and sexual harassment. This is what legislatures should be doing.

One of my friends is a global health WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene) specialist, who works in refugee camps, post-disaster relief programs, epidemic outbreak response, and on development projects. He has taught me so much about what we all need to know about bathrooms. Forgive the pun but here’s the bottom line: 2.4 billion people in the world do not have access to proper sanitation. That is the real toilet problem we need to discuss. Instead of keeping people out of bathrooms, lets keep people from openly defecating on the streets by building more toilets. And let’s make sure there are accessible toilets for people with disabilities. (Links are to organizations engaged in those efforts).

Wash your hands. Yes, this is a vital piece of public health prevention. If you need help in the proper method just watch Elmo and Raya.

As my friends know, I’ve always wanted to see the beaches of North Carolina. As soon as that law is repealed and replaced with a non-discrimination law, I’ll be heading down there.

Janet Golden is a historian and author of Babies Made Us Modern: How Infants Brought America into the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and Message in a Bottle: The Making of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (Harvard University Press, 2006). She coedits the blog, The Public’s Health. You can also find her work on her website.

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