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Public toilets symbolize inequality

Publish Date: Saturday, July 15, 2000

By Derrick Z. Jackson

As if you didn't know, nothing symbolizes male privilege so obviously as do men's and women's public toilets. All it takes to be reminded of this is a mere two minutes of being blocked at the door of the men's room at the New Hampshire Liquor Store.

A store employee, who was taking a moment away from cheerfully ringing up chardonnay and Jim Beam to play a bouncer, told us that someone was sweeping the floor. This seemed like a minor inconvenience, except that this was Sunday evening, precisely when weekenders and vacationers were heading home on southbound I-95, just below the Hampton tolls.

Within seconds, a line of seven or eight guys snaked out the door. Never had you seen so many women smirking and sarcastically rolling their eyes in gleeful shock as they marched right past us into the line-less women's bathroom.

"Now you know how it feels," said one woman to us.

"Oh wow!" said another. "A guy's line! That's a new one!"

"You're kidding me! A wait on the men's line? What a lovely sight!"

"This is an amazing sight," said my wife, Michelle Holmes, who was one of the women who was able to go in and come out of the women's toilet to find the same guys still in line. My wife and such others all giggled and laughed. Another minute or two, and some woman would have shouted at us, "How's your bladder, girls!"

Now, women, I know that a backup of seven or eight guys is nothing like the pileups of 20, 30 and 50 women at concerts, sport ing events, state fairs, flower shows, and rest stops. I am quite aware that men rarely suffer such indignities.

Never once in our 21 years together has my wife had to stand outside a women's toilet, saying, "I'm sorry, could you wait a moment, my husband is in here because the men's line is too long. "

In the larger picture, times are changing. Over the last decade, ever since Denise Wells of Houston was arrested for leaving a hopeless women's bathroom line at a George Strait concert to burst into the men's room, several states have passed "potty parity" laws that require large halls and stadiums to have more bathrooms for women than men. In the mid-1990s, Massachusetts quietly changed its plumbing laws to reflect, roughly, a 2-to-1 women's to men's ratio in new toilets.

There was real science behind the ratios. University researchers found that women, who do not have the option of closely grouped urinals, take between two to four times longer than men to use the bathroom. That does not include other facts that may not be suitable for dinner discussion, such as that women are three times more likely to wash their hands than men after using the bathroom.

In the age of potty parity, there has been some male backlash. Men are complaining in Nashville at the new stadium for the football Titans that their lines are now far longer than the women's under Tennessee's 2-to-1 women's-to-men's toilet ratio.

There was Bob Glaser, who sued the city of San Diego in 1995 for $5.4million after fed-up women stormed the men's bathrooms to urinate at a Billy Joel-Elton, John football stadium concert. Glaser said he was "angered, upset, embarrassed, distraught, and (felt) violated." A federal judge called his case frivolous and the Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal.

But bathroom lines remain far from frivolous matters for women, particularly in older facilities that are often exempt from potty parity laws. Two years ago, Melissa Ruggieri of the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote, "I could have vacuumed my apartment, changed my cats' litter boxes and re-laced every sneaker in my closet during the time I wasted waiting for a stall at Garth Brooks's Richmond Coliseum show last year."

Last year the Fort Worth Star- Telegram reported how, at a George Strait and the Dixie Chicks concert at Texas Stadium, a men's bathrooms was nearly empty as 56 women stood in line next door to use their bathroom. Emily Nipps wrote last year in the Tampa Tribune that a real ladies night at a club would not be one of unlimited drinks but one of "free facials and massages to women who stand in long bathroom lines."

So guys, if you are ever in a backup for the toilet and women laugh at you, grin, bear it, and support your local potty parity laws. Women have grimaced and have borne unspeakable bladder discomfort for so long we were lucky they merely laughed at us instead of cussing us out. It was only a two-minute line. One could only imagine the anger of men had it been 20 minutes.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for The Boston Globe.