Every public restroom provides, at a minimum, a toilet, toilet paper, running water, hand soap, and either air blowers or paper towels to dry your hands after you wash them. Sanitation codes further require that employers provide “reasonable access” to bathrooms to ensure that workers do not suffer adverse health effects from toilets that are not sanitary and/or are not available when needed. And the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also requires that restrooms provide full access for people with disabilities, by using Braille and allowing adequate space and clearance for individuals who use wheelchairs.
Why? To promote public health, safety and hygiene, that’s why. So, public restrooms that meet these basic requirements provide reasonable access for everyone, right? Well, no. At least not for slightly over half the population. That is why the Town of Brookline is about to become the first municipality in the country to provide free tampons and sanitary pads in both women’s and men’s restrooms (because not all people who menstruate identify as female) in all public buildings and facilities, such as Town Hall, the libraries, and public parks. As one Brookline Town Meeting member said: “Tampons and pads are as necessary for public health and hygiene as toilet paper. They should be treated the same way.” A bill is also pending at the State House that would require all public schools serving middle school and high school students must provide free tampons and pads, as well.
Newton’s Mayor, City Council and School Committee should adopt these same policies. But they shouldn’t stop there. To ensure access for all, and in order to promote public health, safety, and hygiene, public restrooms should also have a baby changing table, a condom dispenser, and be gender neutral.
Baby changing tables ought to be a no brainer. Every parent of young children, regardless of gender or gender identity, needs a semi-private, sanitary place to change a dirty diaper, right? So everyone should be able to agree that having baby changing tables in all public restrooms is essential.
What about condom dispensers? Well, by senior year in high school, two-thirds of adolescents have had sexual intercourse at least once with one or more partners, and one-third are currently sexually active. Condoms are still the most popular and effective protection against the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unintended pregnancies among adolescents. Indeed, over half of American adolescents use condoms regularly during sexual intercourse. But that means the rest are at a heightened risk of contracting STIs and/or causing unintended pregnancies. Moreover, while a teenager may be too embarrassed or ashamed to go to the nurses’ office or a pharmacy to get condoms, having condom dispensers in school bathrooms ensures that they can obtain condoms without having to ask an adult for them. Having condom dispensers in public school bathrooms would therefore promote adolescent health and safety.
Finally, all public restrooms should be gender neutral. My church recently made the decision to have gender neutral bathrooms, so I understand that it can be a hard sell for some folks. But research has shown that nearly two-thirds of transgender and nonconforming gender students avoid school bathrooms because they feel unsafe or uncomfortable. They risk verbal and physical harassment, no matter which sex-segregated restroom they enter. And over half of transgender students report that they have been required to use the restroom of their birth sex, rather than the one that they feel most comfortable using. Providing separate restrooms for cisgender persons and transgender persons is neither a fair nor reasonable solution. Indeed, it is discriminatory and damaging to transgender persons, just like having separate bathrooms for “white” and “colored” people was to African Americans. And public support should not be an issue, since in November 2018, over two-thirds of Massachusetts voters supported laws protecting transgender persons in public accommodations, while less than a third supported the so-called “bathroom bill” that would have eliminated such protections. More importantly, in Newton, the margin was almost five to one in favor of protections based on gender identity.
So, Mayor Fuller, Newton City Councilors and Newton School Committee members (and candidates), I say it is time for you to make public restrooms accessible for all. What say you?