Skip to main content

Urine-Nation: Restrooms as a Catalyst and Symbol for Civil Rights

Helping New Yorker's in navigating the city's public and private restrooms.

Historical Overview

Civil rights history within the U.S. is fraught with concerns over bathroom usage. Beginning with racial desegregation during the Civil Rights Movement to the current fight for trans-inclusive gender neutral bathrooms, the right to who can use restrooms and when directly reflects the overarching tolerance (or, more importantly, the rampant intolerance) in our country. This page will provide a brief history and referrals to select academic articles that educate on these facets of history.

The Civil Rights Movement

This country was founded on racial inequality and, although the civil rights movement brought essential legal and social change, these rights are still being fought for to this day. The movement began in the 1950's with the landmark U.S. supreme court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education and effectively ended shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.

Brown v. Board ruled that racial segregation in schools is unconstitutional and effectively overturned Jim Crow laws mandating separate facilities for black and white people. This ruling largely addressed educational facilities and the racial integration of bathrooms became another issue onto itself. This movement is a nuanced, radical part of United States history. For further reading on the movement itself and how the politics of restrooms intersects with it please refer to the resources listed below. 

Trans Bathroom Rights

  • In the article “Opening Doors," author and educator Jelani Cobb equates trans restroom rights to that of civil rights struggles in the 60’s. This perspective frames our own thinking about the current struggle for basic bathroom rights for transgender people.
  • Timeline of notable legislature passed affecting the bathroom rights of transgender people, retrieved from the website:
    • March 2016 North Carolina legislature passes House Bill 2 banning transgender youth from using the bathroom aligned with their gender.
    • May 2016 Departments of Justice and Education state that discrimination of transgender students violates Title IX and that schools who do not uphold the Obama administration’s trans-inclusive interpretation of Title IX risk lawsuits or loss of funding. 
    • August 2016 Judge O’Connor in Texas halts enforcement of Obama administration’s statement allowing transgender students to use the bathroom aligning with their gender identity. Trump does not intervene later.
    • February 2017 Trump revokes Obama era interpretation of Title IX in direct conflict with several federal court rulings protecting trans students. 
    • May 2018 A federal judge sides with Gavin Grimm, a trans student in Virginia who sued the school board for prohibiting him from using the boys’ restroom. 
    • July 2018 Federal courts rule in favor of transgender students in two cases: Drew Adams in Florida and Doe v. Boyrtown in Pennsylvania.
  • The National Center for Transgender Equality has vast resources and information about transgender rights, struggles, and resources. Crucially, the National Center to Transgender Equality joins experts in asserting that transgender inclusion in bathrooms does not compromise the safety of other students.
  • In 2016 New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a law requiring all single-occupant bathrooms in the city to be designated gender-neutral.