The smell is dissipating from what ultimately became a referendum on public potty policy in Houston, Texas, but this isn’t the last we’ll see of this type of issue.

The ordinance on the ballot didn’t specifically mention restrooms, but supporters raised the issue with a section (ultimately removed) that permitted transgendered individuals to use the restroom most nearly reflected by their gender identity.

Before we take up arms and pick our side, let’s dare to think about the public restroom experience.

Everyone knows that feeling you get when someone walks into the restroom stall next to you. You thought you had the place all to yourself.


Now you’re next to someone less than 2 feet away, and you can see their shoes. The sounds and smells only serve to compound the insane awkwardness. You hear them talking. They might be on the phone; they might even strike up a conversation with you through the divider.

The experience is so terrible that I’m shocked anyone is able to also contemplate the biological plumbing of the people in neighboring stalls. At the same time, I understand those who prefer not to have men identifying as a women joining their wives and daughters in the bathroom.

Voters saw the public potty problem as insurmountable and flushed the ordinance.

Oddly, Houston’s challenge is a perfect example of our increasing tendency to focus on polarized political combat rather than solving specific problems.

Supporters of the failed ordinance cast opponents as hateful bigots. On the other side, opponents attempted to terrify voters with an advertisement containing a scary man following a little girl into a bathroom stall.

Many people don’t like the idea of biological males in women’s restrooms and vice versa. It’s probably fair to say that people who appear to be of the opposite gender but who are biologically aligned with the sign on the bathroom door create the same type of panic.

To solve the problem, the good people of Houston and cities around the country buy into the false choice of siding with either a majority of the population or a discreet minority. That’s how we’ve come to define our problems: one team or the other in a winner-take-all battle.

On the other hand, we could try to develop solutions that work a little better for everyone.

Outside of the reality that most people already avoid public restrooms unless they’re an absolute necessity, gender-assigned facilities pose a number of problems. First, they create uncomfortable decisions for parents. When are little boys too old to use the women’s restroom under mom’s supervision? How about a father with a four-year-old little girl? Parents want to protect their children while respecting others in public situations, but that’s often a tough judgment call based on circumstance.

Men’s and women’s restrooms are also an inefficient use of space. How often have you seen a line for the women’s restroom next to an empty men’s room? In smaller businesses with single-user bathrooms, it’s not a bad idea to remove gender-specific signage altogether.

Larger stores usually have two sets of everything in rather spacious restrooms. Why not encourage floor-to-ceiling stalls with a communal area to wash hands as an alternative to playing games about who identifies as what. That’s just one idea. It’s different from what we’re used to, but it’s safer for parents with children, more private and not dependent on gender or identity guessing games.

I’d gladly trade away the visibility of my neighbor’s feet for the odd experience of washing my hands while a woman does her makeup next to me. In that scenario, I don’t care whether you’re questioning your sexual identity, gender or college-football allegiance; we’re simply washing our hands.

Gender-specific restrooms aren’t necessary in almost every circumstance. Why not encourage businesses and other public entities to help out everyone and make going to the bathroom in public places less awkward?

It doesn’t solve all the public accommodation issues in Houston—or anywhere else for that matter—but looking for small, direct solutions is a far better option than playing potty politics.

Featured Publications