The Politics of Bathrooms

Do you know what amazed me most about Taipei? The availability of bathrooms.

My American sensibilities were shocked by the availability of bathrooms in Taipei. And I thought, “how sad.”

How sad that we live in a culture where we regularly restrict access for people to attend to their bodily functions with dignity. How dehumanizing that we place barriers and gatekeepers between humans and their ability to get their human needs met.

We require people to be paying customers in order to use the bathroom in many places. Sure, you can find a gas station or sometimes a Dunkin’ (Donuts) that will let you use the bathroom. Sometimes it’s locked and you have to get the key from the counter, but it’s free. Even still, in that situation, there’s a gatekeeper between you and your ability to tend to your bodily functions. Will they give you the key? Are you going to be granted access?

We took public transportation, the Metro, to get everywhere around Taipei.

Taoyuan Metro single journey token

There are clean, free bathrooms at every station as well as water fountains (albeit unchilled). This was a welcome relief for a traveler with children whose bathroom needs are still unpredictable. We stayed hydrated and never worried about being stranded without bathroom access in a place where we don’t speak the language.

Do you know what we call that, when there are bathrooms available for anyone to use without barriers? That is called respect for our humanity.

The fact that bathrooms and water fountains are abundant, clean, and free to access means I don’t have to struggle to meet my basic needs as a human being. Someone (several someones, actually), somewhere had a clear vision that this is what their community should look like.

Making it difficult or embarrassing or unbearable for people to meet these needs is inhumane. Placing barriers between humans and their ability to handle their bodily functions is mean-spirited and spiteful. It is a denial of someone’s humanity.

There’s a deep respect for someone’s humanity when you make it easy and barrier-free for them to get their human needs met. In the state provision of public restrooms, there’s an implicit statement of beliefs that access to bathrooms and water is a human right. Meanwhile, in New York, people write blogs about their struggles to go to the bathroom in the subway.

When we returned to the States, we flew into O’Hare and drove back to Detroit. On the way, of course, we stopped at a gas station to refuel and go to the bathroom. Can you guess the state of the bathrooms in Michigan along 94? I should have taken a picture. There was a hole in the wall near the floor. It was only my luck that there weren’t rats coming in and out of it. The floor, walls, sink and toilet were all dirty. There was soap, but nothing to dry my hands.

Why, in the “most advanced country in the world” are our bathrooms in such a state of disarray? There were no fewer than three employees standing around while we were in the gas station. So, it wasn’t a lack of staffing. Is it a lack of resources? That couldn’t be, even though the USA didn’t make it into the top 10 “richest countries in the world,” we’re still in the top 15.

It’s simply not a value. That’s why.

The availability of clean, free bathrooms throughout the Taipei Metro means that at a high level, they are clear that bathroom access for all people is something they value. The people at the level where they make decisions about what features to include in the building of Metro stations are clear about their values. The people making budget decisions for staff and supplies to keep bathrooms clean are clear about their values. The people with the power to make and carry out these decisions affirmed that bathroom access for all people is what they value.

Something I periodically remind my kids is that everything we see in existence in our communities is a result of the values of the people in power. Are there video cameras on every intersection? That’s because of the values of the people in power. They budgeted for the procurement, installation and upkeep of those cameras. We wouldn’t have those cameras if the people in control of the budget didn’t want to pay for them. Simple as that.

Changing what we see in our communities is not just a matter of the #BlueWave or electing more people of color or electing more women. It is about a systemic shift in values. When the people in power hold the value that no one should experience homelessness in the “greatest country in the world,” then they will make the decisions necessary to make that value a reality.

If we don’t see bathrooms available in public spaces, that’s a direct result of the values driving the decision-making at the highest level. That means there are not enough people in positions of decision-making power who hold the value that clean, free bathrooms should be available for people in public spaces.

I started thinking about the politics of bathroom business in March 2017 in a stall in the women’s bathroom at the Royal Oak Public library. I took this picture of toilet paper on a holder that locks with a key.

Locked up toilet paper in Royal Oak Public Library women’s bathroom

I couldn’t believe what I was looking at.

Instead of addressing the real reasons why people are in a situation where they feel the need to steal toilet paper, we just put a lock on the toilet paper. Have we collectively lost so much hope? Have we been so efficiently brainwashed that we still believe poverty is the “fault” of the poor?

People feel good after volunteering in the soup kitchen for a day. They go home feeling satisfied after donating their old clothes. There’s nothing wrong with volunteering. But I’m mad every time I think about growing up within a culture that encouraged me to be ignorant of the circumstances of poverty and disdainful of the poor. It was always some kind of mystery and/or tragedy how poverty happened to people.

Instead of honest discussions about capitalism and exploitation, we talk about charity and helping the less fortunate. We talk about doing things that soothe our discomfort with seeing others suffer instead of doing things that address root causes of suffering.

No more. Cut that out.

Let’s be honest about our values and the values of the people in power. And let’s be honest about what we are willing to change about our society and how we live in it.

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