Unisex restrooms needed citywide

mike koozmin/s.f. examiner file photoThe City’s recent efforts to expand equal toilet access are humane and decent

It was shocking — yes, shocking — when the TV show “Ally McBeal” introduced the concept of the office unisex bathroom into popular culture. That was nearly two decades ago. Yet apparently it's still an issue we as a society are not fully comfortable with.

Would you want to do your business or adjust your attire in close proximity to co-workers of the opposite sex? How about your fellow citizens? Either way, what criteria do you use to answer these questions? Modesty? Propriety? Tradition? How about equality? Freedom of identity? Or just plain, old practicality?

The issue of how we “go” really has not gone anywhere.

As Joe Eskenazi reported last week in The San Francisco Examiner, separate facilities for males and females are a rather recent notion, at least in terms of human history, coming about in the U.S. from an 1887 Massachusetts law requiring water-closet segregation. Within a few decades, most states had mandated that men and women be provided with separate facilities.

Eskenazi urged The City to follow the lead of West Hollywood, which last month became the first city in California to mandate unisex toilets, which came with the label “Gender Neutral Restrooms.”

Last month, the Board of Supervisors made the more modest but still common-sense decision to permit city gas stations to have unisex restrooms. Supervisors unanimously agreed to amend The City's health code to eliminate the requirement that gas stations provide separate toilet facilities for males and females, a law that began in 1986. The new policy was the idea of San Francisco State University student Liana Derus, who proposed it as part of Supervisor Mark Farrell's scholarship program ReImagineSF, which encourages students to update The City's legal code on outdated issues.

“I thought it was strange that it was an actual law that there have to be two restrooms,” Derus told The Examiner.

Indeed, in a city in which gender flexibility is not novel, rigid categories of restroom assignments can be problematic.

As Eskenazi wrote, “If calling yourself a man or woman is an existential question for you, this is a pretty big deal.”

So if it is gas stations today, maybe other city businesses (including your office) tomorrow?

Waiting in a line for a single-occupant restroom at a restaurant while the restroom assigned to the other sex is unoccupied — a universal experience — is maddening and silly. Not to mention that one's patience for observing such social mores tends to shorten perceptibly with a full bladder.

Bathroom politics in The City extend beyond sex equality. In much more impactful ways, they affect our neighborhoods and street cleanliness. In the Tenderloin — where complaints of human waste on sidewalks are so common that it would not be surprising to see mention of this in tourist guides — the introduction of streetside toilets this year was a huge hit.

As The Examiner reported in recent weeks, the portable bathrooms known as Tenderloin Pit-Stop, which have on-site monitors, are at three of the most frequent spots to defecate in public in that neighborhood. Daily use has reached 167 trips. The Board of Supervisors voted late last month to continue the program until the end of June and add another location. We hope the program, which will cost The City $353,200 this fiscal year, will continue in perpetuity and expand to other sensitive areas.

The clear message is that if we give people a bathroom to use, they will be used. They provide the service they advertise: giving people some privacy when nature calls.

Maybe it will take much more time for society to adopt unisex office bathrooms, but the The City's recent efforts to expand equal toilet access are humane and decent. Our city officials should be commended for their efforts, but they should not stop with gas stations.

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