A Place for Everyone to Go by Rebecca Lehman

“The bathroom, as we know it, actually represents the crumbling edifice of gender in the twentieth century.”

-Halberstam Here, 1998

In my every day work, I’m one of many engaged in a very practical pursuit: Making sure everyone has a place “to go.”  The area on which I focus most greatly is bathroom accessibility and safety around gender, though there are many great motivations that intersect and align together around the topic of bathroom accessibility.

Bathrooms & Gender Construction

As Spencer Cahill noted in 1985, “Every time we enter a sex segregated bathroom…we display our sex-identity to the audience-at-large and reaffirm its importance.”  A nearly global norm is for there to be two kinds of public bathrooms:  Ones for men and ones for women.

We are taught there are two kinds of bathrooms for only two genders which should remain apart; these lifelong lessons then become the foundational argument for the “natural” need for these two kinds of bathrooms.  As Matthew Kopas describes, “The existence of two – and only two – separate bathroom spaces props up the cultural fantasy that all persons can be neatly categorized as male or female, and forecloses the possibilities of alternative identifications.”

So much of how we shape gender in culture can be learned by paying attention to our bathrooms.  A powerful survey of this is provided in Sociological Images’ collection of bathroom signage – we see that not only is the male-female binary reinforced, we see how colors, clothing, genitals, body shapes, body language, body position for urinating, and even animals are coded by gender.

Where your gender “should” wear bows lets you know which bathroom to use…

Barriers Created by Binaried Bathrooms

Our current mode of bathrooms that are gender segregated by a male-female binary does work for a group of people: Those who are perceived to fit this binary.  For all other folks, bathrooms become a place of potential and real social hostility, harassment, expulsion, being reported to security, police arrests, and physical violence.

A study published in 2008 found that almost half of trans women, 71% of trans men, and 89% of genderqueer participants experienced discomfort with having to choose a gendered bathroom (Factor and Rothblum).  This discomfort was driven by the accumulative impact of social hostility, threats, harassment, and violence commonly experienced by trans* and gender non-conforming people generally in public and in gender-segregated spaces like bathrooms in particular.

The Gender-Neutral Bathrooms Campaign at the University of Chicago explains well the issues people face trying to find a place to go in male-female binary-only spaces.  In particular, it highlights the dilemma that some people will oppose every choice a trans* or gender non-conforming person makes in regards to which bathroom to use.

The National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that a quarter of transgender and gender non-conforming people have been denied access to bathrooms in educational settings and over a fifth have been denied access to appropriate bathrooms at work (Full ReportExecutive Summary).

Resistance to Change

In 2012, Sociology masters student Matthew Kopas examined resistance to change to creating more gender-inclusive bathroom arrangements.Gender segregated multi-user bathrooms were described as preferable to single-user bathrooms because they were seen as more efficient, more practical on a wide scale, and the home of important (gendered) social interactions.  Gender inclusive multi-user bathrooms were met with great resistance:

Whereas single-stall gender-neutral bathrooms can be easily explained via a comparison to most home bathrooms, the multi-stall option is extremely unusual and potentially frightening – not just due to its novelty,  but because it presents the possibility of interpersonal interaction between genders in a space that is simultaneously coded as private and public.

Arguments against mixed-gender multi-user bathrooms boiled down to:

  • Arguments about the safety of children and women
  • Heavily gendered notions of “privacy” – particularly what men and women should not expose to each other (defecation, menstruation)
  • “Unnatural” and “improper” mixing of genders that is unacceptable due to moral, social, and/or religious codes

A Variety of Solutions

As alluded to above, there are many solutions proposed to create more bathrooms accessible to all.A common one is single-user bathrooms being open to all.  This is particularly popular as it provides a great example of how building inclusion around an issue can benefit many – these bathrooms are a boon to parents and people with aids, are usually built wheelchair accessible, and afford all users greater privacy and space than multi-user bathrooms.

Signage for unisex bathrooms usually use gender binaried and ableist imagery.

Organizations all across the country are also using and advocating for multi-user gender inclusive bathrooms.  These include both permanent ones and ones that are created temporarily for conferences, meetings, and other gatherings.  (The ACPA CSJE printed a reflection on one of these temporary ones on page 2 of the Summer Semester 2012 Newsletter.)

Bathrooms Aren’t Enough

It’s important to note that bathrooms are only one piece of building gender inclusive campuses.  As Brett Beemyn, Andrea Domingue, Jessica Pettitt, and Todd Smith outlined in their 2005 “Suggested Steps to Make Campuses More Trans-Inclusive”, colleges and universities must also work intentionally to address structural exclusion in health care, residence halls, locker rooms, records & documents, public inclusion, and programming, training, & support.

Keshet provides an overview of their growing experience and practices as a broader organization.  Along with bathroom accessibility as a larger look at facilities, they point out the need to address language, ritual, education, political & social action, and outreach.

My Organization’s Story

I currently work with a social justice education program at a large public university that’s actively working along the lines described by Beemyn et al above.  Students, faculty, and staff are actively engaged in systemic and social change action.  While we have a building policy that mandates single-user gender inclusive bathrooms being built in all new and renovated buildings and exponentially increased the number of these bathrooms in the last few years, many of our 60,000+ community members restrict their bathroom trips due to having to go several buildings away from their work, study, and classroom space to safely use the restroom.

When I first became involved as a member and leader, we didn’t have this on our radar.  We met in buildings with only male-female gender segregated multi-user bathrooms.  On our three retreats per year we used mixed gender multi-users – but we did so without reflection and comment.

Around 2008, several students involved in our program also became involved in a campus trans* and genderqueer organization, GenderBloc.  We began reflecting on the bathrooms at retreats, but didn’t address the bathrooms in our meeting space.

Throughout 2009-10, we converted both multi-user bathrooms on the floor we met on to “non-gendered” and said that anyone who needed a gender-segregated bathroom had to go to the nearest one (we later realized this meant leaving the building – which locked after exit).

Realizing that this practice could overwhelm students new to the practice and be prohibitive for students with religious needs around gender segregation, in 2010-11 we began our current practice.  Students demonstrate this – our “spinny wheel” that creates an intermittently segregated restroom in addition to an all-gender bathroom:

With these current practices, we’ve found that students and others in the space adapt well to the expectations when they’re outlined clearly and repetitively, that this provides a powerful learning experience in privilege and accountability for our cisgendered students, that these signs are great conversation starters and educational tools with the groups we share spaces with, and that we as a program must continually learn and adapt our practices as we encourage individuals to do.  I’m excited to continue learning and growing to create better inclusion.

Academic References (web references linked above):

Cahill, Spencer. 1985. “Meanwhile Backstage: Public Bathrooms and the Interaction Order.” Urban Life 14(1):33-58.

Factor, Rhonda and Esther Rothblum. 2008. “Exploring gender identity and community among three groups of transgender individuals in the United States: MTFs, FTMs, and genderqueers.” Health Sociology Review 17(3): 235-253.

Kopas, Matthew.  “The Illogic of Separation: Examining Arguments About Gender-Neutral Public Bathrooms.” Thesis. U of Washington.  Web.

Rebecca Lehman is Program Coordinator of the University of Cincinnati Racial Awareness Program, which offers a 9-month social justice education co-curricular intensive, a 5-day racial justice and inclusive leadership summer program, a social justice peer educator development program, and workshop, trainings, & retreats for campus and community organizations.  She is an UC alumna with a BA in English Literature and MS in Community Health Promotion & Education, was “raised” professionally in residence life, and spent a few years overseas working in publishing and educational management.  Rebecca participated in the Social Justice Training Institute June 2011 and SJTI 2, participates in the National Association for Multicultural Education, and is currently in training to be a yoga teacher planning to apply this through work with the Prison Yoga Project.  She dreams of one day owning this toilet.

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