When we were kids, our mother had a friend who had a daughter who was around the same age as my younger brother and me. When they came over, the three of us kids would head off to our bedroom to play. One day in the middle of playing my brother said he had to go to the bathroom, so Michelle and I went with him. He sat on the toilet and Michelle and I perched on the edge of the tub. Vernon cracked a joke and Michelle leapt to her feet and laughing nudged his shoulder—a bit too hard. My brother who was, at the time, extremely thin, fell bottom down into the toilet. Unable to free him, we called for our mothers. Once they had extricated him, Michelle’s mother looked at Michelle and asked her what she had been doing in the bathroom anyway.
“We were playing,” I explained reasonably, “and Vernon had to go to the bathroom, so we came with him.” I remember Michelle’s mother repeating she shouldn’t have been in the bathroom with us before abruptly leaving our apartment.
When I started grade school, I was struck by the stridency with which each teacher would explain boys went to the Boys Bathroom and girls went to the Girls Bathroom. It was never explained to me why this had to be though. Nor did anyone ever explain the difference between the two bathrooms. Finally, by fifth grade I’d had enough; curiosity was, if not killing me, then at least consuming an inordinate amount of my imaginings. Mr. Fassler was our teacher. One day each week, we would have lunch in our classroom instead of the big lunchroom downstairs. He’d play guitar and we’d all sing along. That was when opportunity presented itself, at last. I borrowed the bathroom pass—a rugged piece of wood that looked as if it had bene hewn from its mother tree by the sharp teeth of Paul Bunyan—and went down the hall. Making sure all the classrooms and halls were empty, I bypassed the Boys Bathroom and slipped into the Girls Bathroom. And was disappointed; aside from the abundance of pink tiles (the boys room was sheathed in blue), and absence of urinals, it looked exactly the same as the Boys Bathroom. I was nearly crushed by the disappointment.
A couple of years ago I walked into the men’s room at work and two guys were in there having a loud argument. There were three urinals and one guy was using the middle one. The other guy was yelling at him because now he couldn’t pee because, “you have to leave a urinal between you and the other guy,” he explained, vexed, “Everyone knows that!” By standing in the middle he’d made it impossible for the other guy to pee and he looked like he was about to wet his pants. I was afraid to add to the confusion by using one of the other available urinals, so I just slipped into a stall.
As a gay man who was quite frequently the only one, or at least the only one who was out at most of my jobs, peeing became an issue. Straight guys for the most part made standing at a urinal extremely tense. Maybe it was me; maybe it was them. It was uncomfortable for all of us. I usually just found a bathroom on another floor. I had one friend, a straight guy I’ll call P. He had more pee issues than I did. He would wait until his eyeballs were practically about to float out of his head before going to the bathroom. Inevitably as he was about to relieve himself, someone would walk in to use an adjacent urinal. Then he would lose his ability to pee. He took pee shy to a whole other level. We often met in the same bathroom two floors and a wing away from our office space.
I now work for an LGBTQ nonprofit. We have 18 single occupancy gender neutral bathrooms. After my first day at work, I texted P a photo of our bathroom sign. “I’m in heaven,” I crowed.
At least I was in heaven until our annual gala last week. The only thing worse than trying to pee in a men’s room full of straight guys is trying to pee in a room full of A-list queens and pretenders to the throne. I found the one gender-neutral bathroom and stumbled in. There was a woman adjusting her makeup in the mirror and another one waiting outside the stall. They both greeted me cheerfully. I went to the urinal and we started to have a conversation. A woman peeing in the next stall called out, “Larry is that you?” It turned out to be one of my coworkers. When she finished she came out and gloated because she had peed faster than I. A woman complimented my evening jacket. We talked clothes as I washed my hands.
Later, I returned because I had to change clothes. “Hey,” I said to the two women who were in there, “I have to get out of these pants, do you mind?”
“No, “they said, “go right ahead.” As I hopped about in my underwear, we started chatting about the event. Dressed, I bid them goodnight and left, thinking that had been the best, most fun bathroom experience of my life. And it brought me back to my original childish question—why do boys and girls have to use separate bathrooms?