Is the debate over gender-neutral bathrooms clogging up the real issue?
By Alison Miller, University of Texas at Austin
Once, when I was in seventh grade, I walked into the boys’ bathroom.
It was a complete accident. I had been sent by my English teacher to get some paper towels to clean up a spill, and as I walked to the bathroom my mind wandered to the boy I had a crush on.
Earlier that day, while talking with a group of classmates, I had said something funny and he had laughed. Like, really laughed, not just politely laughed. (I’d like to say that now it takes more than an attractive guy laughing at my jokes to get me twitterpated but unfortunately no.)
Awash in the bliss of my prepubescent romance and probably smiling moronically, I pushed open the heavy bathroom door and reached for the paper towel dispenser on the wall.
The sinks were on the wrong side, that was the first thing I noticed. For a split second, I actually wondered why someone would move the entire plumbing apparatus to the opposite side of the bathroom when there hadn’t been anything wrong with the first side. The second thing I noticed was that there was a boy standing at one of the sinks, frozen in the middle of washing his hands.
Even as realization sunk in and I blushed crimson, some small part of my brain retained command of its faculties. “Sorry,” I muttered, dropping my gaze and breaking eye contact. My hand, already halfway to the dispenser, hastily ripped out a handful of paper towels and, prize in hand, I bolted.
I will never, to my dying day, forget the look of surprise on his face—and not just because the that face belonged to none other than the supreme object of my affections, the young Adonis I’d been envisioning so rapturously only moments before, and with whom I had trouble making eye contact for a week afterward. (N.B. We ended up going out for quite awhile later in middle school but ultimately no dice.)
No, the reason I’ll never forget his expression wasn’t because of who he was, but rather how he looked. Pursed lips, raised eyebrows—it wasn’t just surprise, it was intrusion, violation.
But what if it hadn’t been? What if seeing a member of the opposite sex in the bathroom was no big deal? What if bathrooms ceased to be gendered or sexualized spaces at all, and were equally accessible to men, women and everyone in between?
These are the kinds of questions being asked at San Francisco’s Miraloma Elementary School, which has recently converted to a gender-neutral bathroom system for its kindergarteners and first graders. In explaining his motives, Miraloma’s principal Sam Bass said that the school has students all across the gender spectrum, and that its goal is to create a safe, supportive environment for them.
While California has a reputation of adjusting rules to meet the needs of an exceptional few, Principal Bass denied that this policy was geared specifically toward a minority: “[This policy] affects ALL [sic] students. Not only do we want ALL of our students to feel safe, supported, and comfortable to be who they are, we want them to understand systematic equality for everyone. We are teaching them a valuable lesson.”
And, while Miraloma is certainly breaking new ground, they’re not the only ones with gender-neutral bathrooms on the brain. Since Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner, the trans equality movement has rapidly gained both publicity and momentum.
This, in turn, has raised a host of new questions about how and where we pigeonhole trans persons in society. Do they use the boys’ or girls’ bathrooms? What locker rooms do they change in? Which sports teams do they play on?
Now, before anyone gets their respectively gendered panties in a bunch about schools overstepping bounds and taxpayer dollars funding transitions, let’s be clear about the fact that this isn’t really that big of a change.
Most kindergarten classrooms already have an adjoining, single-occupancy unisex bathroom. Miraloma is merely extending this pattern to first grade classrooms. The gender-neutral bathroom conversion will follow the present class of first graders up through successive grades until eventually the entire school has been converted.
Since the bathrooms are built to accommodate a single occupant at a time, boys and girls won’t ever be in the bathroom at the same time. The change is largely semantic more than anything else. It drops the possessive gender noun from the front of the restroom, meaning instead of the boys’ bathroom or girls’ bathroom, it will now simply be called the bathroom.
But trans equality is a big deal at the moment, right? And it can’t all be as simple as semantics, right? While any movement as complex as trans equality is bound to attract its fair share of naysayers, the predominant emotion emerging from the sociopolitical fray hasn’t been negativity or disagreement, but confusion.
It was one thing for America to accept the dichotomy between gender and sexuality proposed by the gay rights movement, and then another to understand that a person’s gender doesn’t dictate who that person’s attracted to.
But just when America had begun to recover from wrapping its head around that idea, the trans rights movement asks us to split our concept of identity one way further—into physical/chromosomal sex, gender identity and sexuality.
It’s like when Harry Potter discovered that Voldemort had created not one, not two, but seven Horcruxes: We keep discovering that our psychosexual selves are split in more ways than we could possibly have imagined.
For a lot of people, that’s a quantum leap. It requires that we accept that our genitalia don’t necessarily correspond to the gender that we identify with, and that neither of those necessarily have anything to do with whom we decide to have sex with.
Coming to terms with that idea then means disposing of our binary classification of gender and sexuality. Someone might not be male or female, but somewhere in between. And in that same vein, they might not be heterosexual or homosexual, but somewhere in the gray area.
Trans persons, in essence, defy the very classification system society has taught itself to use. The mere recognition of their unique status requires that we deconstruct the binary paradigm that we’ve used to sort people for so long. As such, that duality was one of the main objects of protest when the trans rights movement came out into the open.
And what’s a more quotidian, ubiquitous reminder of that duality than having to choose between two bathrooms, male and female, multiple times a day? Bathrooms are everywhere, and trans people are tired of being forced to choose between a boy stick figure and a girl stick figure when they don’t relate to either one.
Having a gender-neutral option, they argue, would not only promote a friendlier, more sensitive environment for trans people but also provide a safe, ambiguous option for those trans persons who don’t, for whatever reason, feel comfortable outing themselves by choosing one gender over another.
They make it clear that this issue isn’t solely about the trans population, either. Gender-neutral restrooms would make life a lot easier for parents with children of the opposite sex and disabled persons with opposite-sex caretakers.
However, it’s important that we consider a few legitimate obstacles to the widespread institution of gender-neutral bathrooms—whatever those might look like. The first and most superficial of those are material limitations: space and money. Alan Duff, a graduate of Lawrence University and imminent law student, was dubious about the pragmatics.
“So, should entire parts of public facilities across the nation be changed with public funds to accommodate a few [people]?” Duff asked. “I would need to see the costs. If gender-neutral bathrooms can be constructed at realistically low costs then I’m all for it.”
It’s worth noting that the best estimates of America’s trans gender population put the number at around 700,000, or three tenths of one percent; for perspective, that’s one-tenth the size of the legally-blind population.
Idealism aside, at some level the numbers just have to make sense. The University of Texas for example, which already has 32 gender-neutral bathrooms, requires that a gender-neutral bathroom be constructed for every five floors in a new building. Still, Ixchel Rosal, who directs the Gender and Sexuality Center, understands that solutions need to be real-world friendly.
She told The Daily Texan, “I think, in an ideal situation, certainly every building would have at least one all-gender bathroom. But I’m also aware that it’s a process, so I would say that we are making steady progress on getting to that ideal situation, but there is still more work to be done.”
Unfortunately, the rest of Texas trends toward policies that are practically Victorian in their conservatism. Current pending legislation would make it a crime under the definition of “disorderly conduct” for transgender Texans to use bathrooms that do not align with their biological sex, a phrasing and perspective that brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s Indecency Trial and its retrospective absurdity.
On a deeper, darker level however, there are safety concerns to consider—both physical and psychological. Regardless of how supportive of trans rights they might be, women will inevitably be nervous about sharing a space with men because it subjects them to more opportunities to become victims of sexual assault and/or harassment.
And what about survivors of sexual abuse? For them, gender-inclusive bathrooms are fraught with potential psychological and post-traumatic complications as a result of their experiences.
Liz Fraccaro, an anthropologist who had plenty of experience with gender-neutral bathrooms while studying at University College London, accurately summed up the widespread apprehensions felt by females:
“Initially, I was uncomfortable and a little threatened [by gender-neutral bathrooms]. There were only stalls, no urinals, and other than it being very crowded, there wasn’t anything about the space that was inherently uncomfortable.
What was uncomfortable was the immediate realization that this space could be manipulated to be unsafe—being followed into the bathroom, easier sexual harassment, etc. The reality is, no one was acting aggressively or inappropriately, and I realized my fears were misplaced. Now, I don’t bat an eye at a gender neutral bathroom, but I still must consider when I enter whether the space is safe.”
While anxieties about sexual assault are undoubtedly a symptom of rape culture rather than a de facto complication of gender-neutral bathrooms, we’d be foolish to ignore them.
These potential problems could likely be mitigated if bathrooms were constructed on a single-occupancy basis, or if stalls had floor-to-ceiling doors to discourage peeping toms and forced entry. Gianna Colera, who has a BS in Human Development and Family Sciences from UT and who lives with her boyfriend (making her something of an expert on sharing bathrooms with the opposite sex), believes the trick is in the implementation.
“I don’t see a problem with single-stall gender-neutral facilities,” said Colera. “It’s exactly the same as your bathroom at home….If you want to discuss the implementation of multi-stalled gender-neutral bathrooms the topic gets tricky….To suddenly ask grown men and women to start sharing a restroom is asking too much. As much as I want to welcome trans-women into my restroom, I do not want to share a restroom with a cis-male.”
While such an arrangement (i.e., constructing a third, gender-neutral shared facility or reconfiguring existing facilities into separate single-occupancy unisex facilities) would undoubtedly be preferable to simply removing the “Men’s” and “Women’s” signs and declaring a free-for-all, it would also be significantly more expensive. And now we’re right back where we started at the issue of spatial and monetary constraints.
Being a more or less cis female, I’m neither privy to the motivations nor the subtleties of the trans equality movement. But I’d be willing to put money on the fact that it’s not really about the bathrooms. I mean, sure, the labels are obnoxious (and from an aesthetic standpoint, the stick figures are just plain depressing). But is using a gender-neutral bathroom really going to improve the experience of emptying your bladder? Probably not.
As with so many minority equality issues, it’s about the principle of the matter rather than the topic at hand. Remember Macklemore’s song about gay marriage, “Same Love”? (Of course you do.) With his impressive knack for perspicacity and conciseness, Macklemore sang, “…a certificate on paper isn’t gonna solve it all / But it’s a damn good place to start.”
Changing the sign in front of bathrooms or giving trans people access to gender-neutral options isn’t going to fix anything—but it’s a start.
It shouldn’t matter to trans people whether they use the toilets in the men’s or women’s bathroom—but it shouldn’t matter to the rest of us, either. When people stop noticing or caring whether trans persons are in their respective gender’s bathroom, the need for gender-neutral bathrooms will become obsolete.
But ultimately it’s not about the bathrooms. It’s not about the stick figure labels. It was never about those. It’s about creating safe space for trans individuals. Safe from judgment, safe from heteronormative/cis assumptions and safe to express themselves to the freest, fullest degree possible.