I went to college about 90 minutes from where my parents lived. It was just close enough to visit during special occasions (acapella concerts, award nights, out to dinner, etc) but far enough that you had to plan on visiting. I loved my college, and my parents felt welcomed by my hall mates and friends. During every visit, there came a time when my dad would turn to me and say, "I have to use the bathroom. Can you stand outside?" Let me explain.
I went to a college where every bathroom in the residential spaces was co-ed. Yes, co-ed. There was anywhere between 3-5 toilet stalls and 3-5 shower stalls. That means I went to the bathroom next to a man. I often showered next to a man (in a different stall). I brushed my teeth next to a man. Even though I lived on an all-women's floor my first year, the bathroom was still considered co-ed.
This freaked out my dad. Even though the official college policy stated that it was fine that my dad used the bathroom (and it would have been fine if a woman then entered that bathroom), he couldn't do it. I had to wait outside of the bathroom and ask my hall mates if they could wait until my dad came out. And, because my dad was, again, so uncomfortable by this practice, he usually was only in that bathroom for less than a minute.
It's been over 12 years since I last used (with any frequency) a co-ed bathroom. While I'm pretty sure I am comfortable with the practice, it would probably feel a little strange to me the first few times if I had to be in that environment again. I'd get used to it, of course, but I'd be foolish to say that it wouldn't throw me off the first few times.
The past few weeks, my work life has been consumed with facilitating conversations about differences, respect, civility and inclusion. Along with my colleague, Donna, we've been in classes, hosted dialogue groups, and had conversations with students, faculty, staff, and administrators. While most are open to the conversation, we always get a handful who bring up this point: "Why do we have to talk about differences? Why can't we just treat everyone the same?"
Seems like a decent request, right? I mean, didn't we learn in kindergarten that we should "treat people like we want to be treated"? Golden rule.
At this point in our careers, that question doesn't throw us off anymore. Here is our response:
Golden Rule. Yes, we should treat one another the way we would want to be treated. No doubt.
Differences. Unfortunately, so many of us have been socialized to believe that being different is a bad thing. We need to start embracing that being different -- different from one another -- is a good thing.
The Golden Rule of Differences? Treat me the way you'd want to be treated -- like a person with your own unique personality, character, experience, identity, family, religion, ability, etc. I have a different set of finger prints, a different shade of eye color, a different height, body shape, and shoe size than you. I have a different family structure, favorite food, favorite song, and favorite shampoo brand than you do. I have a different car, size jeans, and number of siblings than you do. And, all those things say something about me. They don't define me, no. However, they all impact who I am, decisions I make, and how I move around this world. None of those aspects make me better than you, nor you me. Yet, they make me who I am.
You probably don't want to be just like me. In fact, you'd likely not want to use my pomegranate scented shampoo, drive my beat up old minivan, nor wear uncomfortable heels all day. You probably enjoy the scents you like, the car you drive, and the shoes you wear. So, wouldn't it be odd if I told you I was going to start treating you as if you were "the same as me?" Sounds so simple. Yet, when we substitute those basic interests with words like race, sexual orientation, religion, etc., individuals get tripped up over wanting to just "treat everyone the same."
I agree that we sometimes perpetuate these differences. After all, why should my dad feel strange entering into a public bathroom where there is a woman, especially when the college rules -- and that college's cultural norms -- explicitly say that it is okay? He felt that way because he sees a difference. He grew up socialized that men and women shouldn't share the same public bathroom. In fact, if a man walks into a women's bathroom in a public space, he likely would have security escort him out of the building (after being detained and questioned).
Differences aren't a bad concept. Differences allow us to find our unique soul mate. They allow us to be attracted to one person over another. They allow us to mix up the genetic pool. In my family's case, differences in genetics have given my children a 50/50 chance of inheriting any combination of genetic mutations. Differences allow us to be interesting, intriguing, and insightful. They allow us to argue, disagree, and reshape our experiences. Calling attention to our differences is only negative if we can't see the value in being different from one another.
My Golden Rule of Differences: Treat others as you would like to be treated; like an individual who can contribute in ways that make our world a better, brighter, and more interesting place to live, learn and grow. Be different. Embrace difference. See the importance of difference. Learn from difference.
POST NOTE: I'm actually a big fan of gender neutral bathrooms for a few reasons: 1) gender neutral bathrooms often have a baby changing table which means my cute husband can't use the "there is no changing table in the men's room!" excuse when baby has a poop-diaper; 2) gender neutral bathrooms means hubby and/or I can take all of the kids into the bathroom (boy/girls) without worrying about comments, and 3) gender neutral bathrooms allow for an option for individuals who identify as transgender to use a bathroom without fear of judgment about their gender identity.