‘Comfort Stations’ Are Gone (OK???) But How About Building More Public Bathrooms?
"I'd rather there be more public restrooms than a name change."
3:19 PM EDT on March 29, 2023
On Tuesday, Gothamist reported that the Parks Department is dropping the term "comfort station" as a descriptor for its public bathrooms, due to its "association with the 'comfort women' conscripted into sexual slavery during World War II."
In a March 16 memo obtained by Gothamist, Mark Focht, the chief operating officer for the Parks Department, further explained the agency's reasoning: "The term 'comfort station' has a negative connotation for some in the Asian American and Pacific Islander Communities." Instead, Focht wrote, "comfort stations" will now be referred to as "public restrooms" or "public restroom buildings," a move that is part of the department's "conscious effort to champion and support human dignity."
Who doesn't support efforts to champion and support human dignity? One could however reasonably argue that a better way to champion and support human dignity might be for the Parks Department to both renovate and build more public bathrooms. Still, this move seems in line with other, similar ones made by the Parks Department in recent years to be more responsive to calls for racial inclusivity, like its efforts to rename parks after Black leaders and artists, worthwhile changes that tend to be fairly cheap to do while addressing few of the systemic issues that plague our parks.
But I was struck by Focht's assertion that "comfort station" has a "negative connotation" for some Asian Americans. As a member of the "Asian American and Pacific Islander Communities" (lol), I had never, until Tuesday, linked the Japanese military's WWII system of forced sexual slavery with our public bathrooms. Was that just me, though?
When I reached out to the Parks Department to ask who specifically asked for this, the agency's Director of Media Relations Meghan Lalor told me, "Comfort station is an outdated term and this change is responsive to feedback we’ve gotten from the public and staff." (She added that this move also was meant "to make our facilities more accessible and easier to find.")
It turns out that at least two of the city's Asian Americans did request, in August 2020, that the Parks Department reconsider its use of the term "comfort station":
In a letter that then-acting Queens Borough President Sharon Lee co-authored with the Korean American Association of Greater New York President Charles Yoon, the two invoked the nationwide racial justice protests in cities around the country after the police killing of George Floyd in asking the City to "reconsider its use of the term 'comfort station.'"
"One of the clear lessons emerging from this moment has been that language matters, in that certain words can trigger transgenerational trauma even unintentionally," Lee and Yoon wrote.
They continued: "We understand that the City's use of the term 'comfort station' predates and is unrelated to its parallel usage as a euphemism for the sites of those atrocities of mass sexual slavery." But, they added, "We worry that the use of this term unnecessarily invokes the horrors experienced by the Comfort Women. For others, the very fact that the term 'comfort station' does not call to mind these horrors of sexual slavery betrays a widespread public ignorance of the Comfort Women and the systematic, relentless and prolonged sexual violence they endured."
Was this true? I reached out to all of the East Asian New Yorkers I know, including several Chinese and Korean American activists who are well aware of the history of comfort women and whom I trusted to have an informed opinion on the matter, and asked a simple question: Have you ever associated the term "comfort station" with "comfort women"? (I granted anonymity to my friends so they could speak freely.)
"I've never made the association and it's not an issue to me," a friend, who is a longtime Chinese American organizer, wrote, adding, "Changing it to 'restrooms' makes sense without all the politicking that is happening with this change." Another Chinese American friend wrote, "I had never in a million years associated the phrase 'comfort stations' with 'comfort women,' and while I guess it’s good that they’re changing the name to avoid offense, I feel like that association is a stretch."
No one, in fact, shared that they had ever used a public bathroom and thought, Damn, this is reminding me of the atrocities of the Japanese military during WWII. But a Korean American political organizer had quite a bit more to say. "I was like what the fuck, these mofos are patting themselves on the back for BS rebranding nobody asked for, while they should be putting more public bathrooms on these fucking streets," she wrote. "NOBODY has associated it. Some shitfuck probably saw a movie about comfort women and then was like, 'Oh we shouldn't use comfort station.'"
"Huh," wrote one Korean American friend of mine, perplexed, adding, of the Parks Department's move, "That's dumb lol."
Added another, "I'd rather there be more public restrooms than a name change."
In any event, the Parks Department said they won't have to replace any signage at their 1,400 public restrooms. The agency began swapping them out for "restrooms" in 2019.
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Prior to Hell Gate, Esther was a senior politics reporter at Jezebel and a columnist for the New Republic.
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