EDITORS NOTE: After reading the daily paper while enjoying a cup of coffee at his neighborhood cafe, WGBH News contributor Harvey Silverglate sent us the following email. We reprint it with Harvey's blessing.
The brouhaha concerning North Carolina’s legislation requiring that transgendered students use restrooms designated for their birth gender reminds me of an interesting tale from my past.
In the summer of 1962 I got a job in Paris for the whole summer, through a Princeton program that got jobs for students in foreign cities so that they could have an immersive experience and become fluent in that country’s language. I had taken two semesters of accelerated French and had a passable command of French. I’d never been abroad before, and I was eager to see a culture other than Brooklyn and Princeton.
So I got a job with the large French bank, Credit Lyonnais, and my first posting was in the bank’s central office on Boulevard des Italiens, the main tourist thoroughfare in Paris, a kind of Fifth Avenue. I noticed that on all floors of the bank’s multi-story office, there were unisex bathrooms, for use by men and women. A man standing at a urinal would be passed by men and women going to use a closed toilet stall. None of the men seemed uncomfortable having women pass behind them.
But on the bank’s main floor, an ornate large marble-clad lobby, there were signs for separate men’s rooms and women’s rooms. I asked a colleague how come there were unisex toilets throughout the bank except on the first floor. He explained to me that many Americans, mostly tourists, came into the bank (e.g., to buy travelers checks) to transact business in the lobby, and that the Americans balked at using a bathroom with members of the opposite sex coming in and out.
I went into the men’s room to take a pee. I was standing at the urinal, surrounded by only men, until, suddenly, a woman custodian holding feather-duster walked in, came over to the row of urinals, dusted around, then left! Somehow, nobody had communicated to the custodial staff that they had to be careful in dealing with the squeamish “les Americains” in the men’s room on the main floor of the bank.
Moral of the story: This country is much too concerned with the nonsensical question of who is around when men are standing at urinals, with their privates not really visible since they’re facing the wall. Our national history of Puritanism causes us much grief.