Why All Public Bathrooms Should Be Gender Neutral
It’s time for lawmakers and business owners to realize that gendered restrooms just don’t work.
Alok Vaid-Menon, who works for the Audre Lorde Project and uses gender-neutral pronouns, explained that deciding whether to use the men’s or women’s restroom “depends on the day and the mood.”
“In a given day, I can look like a lot of different things,” Vaid-Menon told The Daily Beast. Their daily wardrobe is incredibly eclectic—ranging from plaid bow ties and vests to bright purple lipstick and long, flowing dresses.
According to Vaid-Menon, using the restroom is “a combination of assessing my safety and asking how much I want to push people’s buttons…I try to be very responsive and aware of all the other people in the room,” they said. “I’m thinking: ‘Are other people staring at me too long? What do I do? What’s going on?’ I try to leave as quickly as possible.”
Devin-Norelle, a genderfluid trans activist and writer who lives in New York, has a full beard and a man bun, which often looks like a women’s hairstyle from behind. That combination doesn’t make going to the bathroom in public an easy task.
“In general, I hate using the restroom because I’m such a feminine- or androgynous-looking person,” Norelle told The Daily Beast. “I get a lot of looks. There was a time where I was very concerned about my own safety…I’m putting myself at risk when I’m walking into the men’s restroom and I’m putting myself at risk when I’m walking into the women’s restroom.”
The 26-year-old has been repeatedly stopped, denied entry, and kicked out of both bathrooms. “As soon as someone can’t read your gender, they are afraid of you,” Norelle said. “People don’t like it if they don’t know if you’re a man or a woman. There’s no gray area for anybody.”
Last week, 16-year-old Ny Richardson found that out the hard way. Richardson, who is a cisgender lesbian, was thrown out of a McDonald’s in Hull, England, after using the women’s room. This incident is very similar what transpired last year at a Fishbone’s in Detroit, when a security guard mistook Cortney Bogorad for a man and pulled her out of a stall in the women’s room. He proceeded to bodyslam her against the wall. She’s suing the establishment.
These cases prove something that should be obvious by now: Gendered restrooms don’t work.
For trans and gender nonconforming people, they justify harassment and abuse. For restaurants and private businesses, playing gender police could open proprietors up to a costly lawsuit. For everyone else, dividing bathrooms by gender is an unnecessary vestige of the 19th century that leads to longer lines and bigger headaches for everyone. It’s time to banish them back to the dark ages where they belong.
Where do gender-segregated restrooms come from? In “Unisex Toilets and the Sex-Elimination Linkage,” Emory University professor Sheila Cavanagh explains that the earliest instance of this phenomenon dates back to 1739 at a Parisian ball. Signs at the fete directed patrons to “Men Toilet” and “Women Toilet.”
Before this time, public bathrooms were commonly designated for men only, but as women began to emerge in the workplace, reforms increasingly became necessary. Nearly a century and a half later, urinary segregation came to the United States. “In 1887, Massachusetts was the first state to pass a law mandating women’s restrooms in workplaces with female employees,” Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown writes. “By the 1920s, most states had passed similar laws.”
Since those states initially passed legislation codifying public facility use, these laws have gone virtually unchanged. According to Slate’s Ted Trauman, neither have the politics behind them.
The advent of urinary segregation was part of a push for total gender division in public life, as a means of “[protecting] women from the full force of the world outside their homes.”
Trauman writes that this led to “ladies’ reading rooms at libraries, parlors at department stores, separate entrances at post offices and banks, and their own car on trains, intentionally placed at the very end so that male passengers could chivalrously bear the brunt in the event of a collision.”
Since the Roaring Twenties, many of these divides have been torn down. Today, men and women share apartment buildings. They sit side by side on public transportation and in church. The sexes absolutely do not, however, pee together.
This is both a matter of social custom and the laws themselves. Nolan Brown states that part of the problem is that “businesses are legally prohibited from offering only gender-neutral restrooms” in many states and many of those “potty parity” codes mandate a certain ratio of women’s to men’s restrooms, but that is slowly changing.
That effort is being led by cities like Berlin, which has led a push toward unisex bathrooms across the city, starting in government buildings.
“Initially we were laughed at for this, but now that people are discovering that unisex toilets are just normal bathrooms, we are experiencing rather broad acceptance,” Simon Kowalewski, a German Member of Parliament, told The Washington Post.
In the United States, New York, Washington, D.C., Austin, Texas, and San Francisco have all championed the desegregation of public facilities. The nation’s capital has long led the way on the issue: Back in 2006, the D.C. Office of Human Rights mandated that all single-occupancy restrooms across the city be accessible to all genders.
Philadelphia passed a similar law last year, offering an online guide for those seeking a safe space to use the restroom. According to Helen Fitzpatrick, who serves as the director of the mayor’s office of LGBT affairs, the resolution was meant to serve as a “teachable moment” about the need for inclusivity.
For Sofia Nelson, an attorney practicing in Detroit, Michigan, this legislation is common sense.
“I think if you are a business—or any place with public accommodation—that has single-stalled restrooms, they should be gender neutral,” Nelson told The Daily Beast. “There’s no reason that a one-person bathroom needs to be gendered. It’s great to have the option of a gender neutral restroom and also gendered restrooms.”
Many businesses, however, are even pushing to make multi-occupancy bathrooms open to everyone. At New York’s MoMa PS1 in Long Island City, museum guests might notice long lines of men and women both waiting to use the same restroom.
Moss, an architecture firm in Chicago, believes that every public restroom can—and should—be gender neutral. In a 2015 design proposal, their answer to the problem of gendered bathrooms is similar to PS1’s: clusters of single-occupancy stall that look like closets and share a common sink space. You’ve likely used facilities like these before and not even realized it.
Such solutions might make those worried about the threat of sexual assault in a public restroom squirm. That’s a more than understandable fear, but statistics show that most rapists aren’t lurking in the bathroom. According to the National Institute for Justice, an estimated 6 in 10 “sexual assault victims…were assaulted by an intimate partner, relative, friend, or acquaintance.” Many of these incidents take place at a private residence or at home.
This number is even higher for female college students: 9 in 10 survivors knew their assailant prior to the assault.
In Houston, Texas, critics of a nondiscrimination bill voted down last November attempted to brand trans people as “dangerous bathroom predators,” ready to attack other restroom users if given the chance. That myth, however, has been thoroughly disproven. Currently, 190 cities around the country allow trans people equal access in public accommodations, and there has yet to be a surge in violence in any of those areas.
In fact, multiple independent studies have shown that there’s never been a reported case of a transgender person attacking someone else in a public facility.
The opposite is true: Disproportionate numbers of trans people have been the victim of violence or harassment in public restrooms. According to UCLA’s Williams Institute, 9 percent of transgender folks report being sexually assaulted in a bathroom.
States including North Carolina have put transgender people at greater risk for harm by passing laws denying affirming bathroom access to trans people. In March, Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law House Bill 2, which forces the state’s transgender residents to use the facility that matches the sex they were assigned at birth.
South Carolina, Kentucky, Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri are among the 14 states considering similar legislation.
But while we should be fighting for trans people to be able to use the bathroom that most closely corresponds with their gender identity, it’s also about providing better, safer options for everyone. If legislation like HB 2 essentially outs transgender folks every time they go to the bathroom, some folks—including Devin-Norelle and Alok Vaid-Menon—have no choice but to be out whenever they use either facility.
This will prove especially true for Millennials: In a 2015 Fusion poll, the network found that half of young people no longer believe in a binary concept of gender. For a new generation radically thinking gender boundaries, the status quo isn’t enough.
Even for non-trans folks, there are a number of reasons to champion greater adoption of gender-neutral and inclusive restroom options. If you’re tired of endless lines at the women’s room, unisex facilities will help reduce your wait time. For people with disabilities, single-occupancy bathrooms save the frustration of the only accessible stall being occupied by a mother changing her newborn.
According to Nelson, shifting nearly four centuries of societal norms might sound complicated, but it’s actually not. She said, “We’re just talking about people—who could be your child, your friend, or your co-worker—wanting to do something super basic that we all have to do: use the bathroom.”