Europe, the US and the Politics of Pissing and Being Pissed
Vienna -- As an American visiting Krakow, Poland, where I was last week, it felt weird to read about the inane latest chapter of the so-called culture wars being fought back home over whether states and localities should have the right to bar transgender people from using a public lavatory appropriate to their psychological identity, forcing them instead to use the one that accords with how many X chromosomes they have by birth in their cell nuclei.
After all, in Poland, except for the tonier tourist restaurants and hotels catering to well-heeled American tourists, bathrooms tend to be unisex: men and women enter such a toaleta through a single door into an anteroom, where they find a few stalls each containing a single commode. In some such facilities, there are also urinals along a wall in the anteroom, allowing men to relieve their bladders while not unnecessarily denying one of the limited number of stalls to any woman in similar need of relief. Meanwhile, women and men, without a blush, wash their hands side by side in the available sinks in the common anteroom.
Poland is a very conservative Catholic country, quite fundamentalist in its own way, yet somehow this system works there, and without any reported incidents of the indecency or sexual abuse that America’s squeamishly fundamentalist Christian folk apparently fear. (Then again, maybe I'm being unfair to Christian fundamentalists. After all, the irony of this whole bathroom discrimination brouhaha in the US is that it is being whipped up by Republican politicians, yet all the prominent cases of bathroom sex crimes in recent years have involved...you guessed it: Republican politicians! So maybe the simple solution would be to just require separate bathrooms for them.)
Now I’m not trying to suggest that Poles are necessarily better or saner than Americans. They do, after all, have a not terribly remote history of having largely supported the slaughter, by occupying Nazis, of the Jews who had lived in their midst for centuries. Indeed Krakow itself was the scene of one such particularly brutal and bloody extermination campaign (it was where the German conman Oskar Schindler set up his slave-labor factory, which allowed him to gain fame for eventually coming around to saving many Jews from a mass grave). And anti-semitism (along with other forms of xenophobia) is still alive and well in the country. But at least the Poles aren’t freaking out about transgendered people sneaking into the wrong loo.
While sanity regarding public restroom facility use in Europe comes as a welcome relief (the French too have a casual attitude towards sexual privacy in their public facilities, with women frequently stationed near the men’s pissoire where they collect tips for their janitorial services while men pee against a wall right beside them), other political storms in Europe can display a certain familiarity to a visiting American. In Poland a right-wing nationalist leader was recently elected and the country has distinguished itself from most of its European Union neighbors by simply closing its border to and refusing to admit refugees -- Middle Eastern or otherwise (even as its own surplus workers avail themselves of their visa-free right to move to the UK to find work).