“…when they willfully ignore the concerns of LGBT people,
they not only limit opportunities for these individuals, but
also stifle our community as a whole. In the end, it is the
community that loses, as dynamic, intelligent, and highly
skilled people move on to places that value and respect them.”
–National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
Recently I have been thinking quite a bit about the value of gender neutral bathrooms. As a cis-gender gay man (who on occasion may like to dress a little more feminine) I have never had to think about the bathroom I needed to use. In all honesty If you had asked me a year ago if I thought gender neutral bathrooms were an important issue for the queer community I would have said “no.” I understood that this was an issue that trans* folks and gender non-conforming folks were dealing with, but I would not have put this issue above the dozens of other issues the queer community was working on.
Some public places (such as facilities targeted to the transgender or LGBT communities, and a few universities and offices) provide individual bathrooms that are not gender-specified, specifically in order to respond to the concerns of gender-variant people; but this remains very rare and often controversial. Various courts have ruled on whether transgender people have the right to use the bathroom of their gender of identity, but again these rulings are not identical.
Transgender advocacy groups in the United States and elsewhere have taken up the cause of gender neutral toilets. They see de-gendered toilets as a solution to eliminate harassment and other inconveniences for trans* people in using conventional toilets. In 2005 there were 5 American cities, including San Francisco and New York, with regulations for public restroom access based on person’s perceived gender identity rather than their birth sex, but again this does not take into account a person’s identity and not just perceived identity. Various TV shows like Ally McBeal depict gender neutral bathrooms, but this did not come without controversy.
It wasn’t until I got into a pretty heated discussion with a friend that I realized that this is actually a really big issue that actually seems pretty easy to fix. The discussion came up when I walked into the “women’s” restroom at a conference and once inside didn’t want to make an issue of things so I just used the bathroom like I normally would. When I came out my friend asked if I felt safe using the bathroom or if I was afraid anyone would call security on me. I replied that I didn’t actually think about it and just wanted to use the bathroom. Out of convenience I used the bathroom I had already entered.
My friend (Trans* identified f2m) told me that they had to think about those two things (among others) every single time they use a public bathroom. That using the restroom was more difficult than just finding where they are located and choosing one, unlike how it might be for me. My friend would in most cases plan their bathroom usage based on where they were. For example, they would use their home bathroom before traveling somewhere or find a single occupancy bathroom and always be aware of where the nearest handicapped bathroom is (these bathrooms tend to be gender neutral so that anyone in a wheelchair etc can use the bathroom).
I can’t imagine always having to plan my next bathroom usage, there are plenty of other things I have to worry about in a day to add something like this to the list. It’s really kind of ignorant of me to have never thought about this while being part of the Queer community, especially with how engaged I am in this work. Over the past year I have thought a lot more critically about gender neutral bathrooms and have come to this conclusion. I believe every human being (regardless of gender identity, or sexual orientation) should have access to bathrooms that are safe, clean and meet their needs or privacy.
“Bathrooms segregated by sex are potentially unsafe and
intimidating places for a variety of people.”-University of Chicago
I understand the valid concerns of a female bodied person saying “I don’t feel safe using the bathroom with a man in the same room” or “I need privacy and need a closed bathroom.” I think having single occupancy bathrooms that are open to anyone is a simple solution to this problem. I don’t think it is imperative that all bathrooms are gender neutral, but that any place that has public bathrooms should also have a gender neutral option. At the risk of making a few people uncomfortable, we have a simple solution to make many trans* and gender non-conforming folks comfortable using bathrooms, wherever they may be.
A great resource, safe2pee.org, helps you find accessible bathrooms for you to use by entering your address. If you know of any bathrooms that aren’t added to this list, please add them so that others who need access to these bathrooms can find them. Interesting anecdote: I also found an iPhone app that uses geo-location software to find the nearest public restroom to your location. It doesn’t however tell you where gender neutral bathrooms are which I think would make the app even more fantastic. (Any iPhone app developers want to make some quick cash and develop it?)
I am interested to know what you think. Why should bathrooms be gendered or gender neutral? What are the implications that you see? Would you feel comfortable with having only gender neutral bathrooms?