Laws Governing the Use of Bathrooms

Banning LGBT individuals, the “Shy Bladder Syndrome,” and other stuff.

Bathrooms are a matter of some significance in psychiatry. Some men, and a smaller number of women, feel uncomfortable in public bathrooms. They urinate with difficulty in the presence of others and are sometimes unable to urinate at all. This problem is called “paruresis” or “shy bladder.” The condition may loom very large in their daily lives. Sometimes, work outside of the home becomes impossible. The treatment is similar to that of the other anxiety disorders, namely, exposure. Affected individuals may start treatment by going into a particular public bathroom when it is not in much use. They are told to spend time “getting used” to being in that place. Initially, they can remain in a stall, where they are out of sight, and they can flush the toilet to obscure the sound of their voiding. They can play music through earphones so that they cannot hear other men in the bathroom. Most of the time, after increasing exposure, these affected men are able to overcome their problem well enough to use bathrooms at work. The disorder is very resistant in some patients, either because they do not practice enough or, simply, because their condition is more severe to start with.

In a real way, paruresis is an outgrowth, and an exaggeration, of a normal shyness that occurs in children in that setting. Even ordinary adults may retain a certain self-consciousness in public bathrooms. That such a condition can be overcome is illustrated by a common practice in the army. Recruits are assigned a certain time for bathroom use. I remember a number of young men who complained to me about having to defecate on schedule in stalls without a door while everyone else was waiting on line and staring at them. Still, in the end—out of necessity, I suppose—they were able to adapt to this routine.

Understanding that the use of public bathrooms is already uncomfortable for some, I was taken aback by the recent law passed in North Carolina that prevents local communities from protecting the rights of LGBT individuals. These men and women may now be prevented from using the bathroom of the gender they identify with. Instead, they will be required to use the bathroom of the sex assigned to them when they were born–what it says on their birth certificate. I say assigned because the sex of a newborn is sometimes ambiguous. Obviously, this law is a statement of disapproval of these men and women; but why bathrooms? What are these legislators imagining?

When I was a kid, I remember my mother warning me to “be careful” when I used the bathroom at Penn Station in New York City. I understand now that she was warning me against homosexual men who might be lurking in the bathroom in order to initiate a sexual encounter. But these disreputable men were legally entitled to use the men’s room. Of course, they were not entitled to assault children. Even a convicted pedophile is allowed to use public bathrooms because it is recognized that they are not any more likely to assault someone there than anywhere else. Yet, that is one of the reasons given for passing this new law—as if a young boy might be in more danger from a woman pretending to be a man than from another man. Similarly, a transsexual woman (really, in their minds, a man) would not likely choose a public place to assault another woman, assuming that was her inclination. The other reason is “privacy.” It is hard to know what is meant by “privacy” in a public bathroom.

How would such a law be enforced? Would women be allowed to challenge another woman who it might seem to them has unusually wide shoulders? Suppose that woman had muscular arms?  Suppose a suspicious man challenged another man at the door because that person had a slight build, or an effeminate manner. Is North Carolina anxious to promote altercations in its public bathrooms? How would such a disagreement be settled? Will there be an independent authority able to make an appropriate physical examination? Perhaps a physical examination would not be dispositive. Will citizens be required to carry around a copy of their birth certificates? Suppose a transsexual man, dressed as a man, was told he had to use the woman’s room because that is what he is according to his birth certificate. How will the other women using the bathroom react? Or is it the intention of North Carolina that these transsexual men and women should not be allowed to use any bathrooms?

Of course, this is a law that could not fulfill its purpose, even assuming that purpose was legitimate, which it is not. It is simply a statement of disapproval of homosexual and transsexual men and women. The legislators wish to appeal to their constituents, who they think are riled up about homosexuals being allowed to marry and, in general, to live their lives openly without being ashamed. It Is an ignoble purpose. (c) Fredric Neuman, Author of “The Wicked Son.”