The United States has witnessed a sea-change in the visibility of the transgender community over the last few years. From the prominence of celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox to increasing acceptance of and accommodations for transgender youth, the fuller, more fluid range of gender identity is being expressed and welcomed in the public sphere more than ever. But in the midst of so many doors opening, there’s one, the bathroom door, that’s often awkward, unavailable, and occasionally risky to enter. A world where restrooms are typically broken down along a male or female binary (as opposed to just gender-neutral facilities) presents a privacy and safety challenge for transgender individuals, and a design challenge for architects and others.
“I usually go on road trips that go up north through Georgia,” says Haiden Baier, a 21-year old transgender man and a student at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. “As a queer person, I get nervous going to certain bathrooms. As a trans person, I can scare people, which makes them nervous and aggressive. The whole trans panic concept“—claiming the victim’s gender identity is to blame for their attacker’s violent reaction—is still a legitimate reason to kill people in some places.”
Access has historically been a challenge for transgender individuals. A study of community members in Washington, D.C., found that 70 percent had faced discrimination when trying to use a gendered bathroom, and a survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 26 percent of transgender students had been denied restroom access in educational settings. The situation doesn’t improve much in the workplace: 22 percent of transgender employees report a similar issue. It can be especially difficult for those in the midst of transitioning, who face embarrassment, discrimination, and occasionally violence in the course of addressing a basic human need.
Even as American culture becomes more accepting of transgender men and women, ordinances promoting transgender rights and non-discrimination, which would mandate bathroom access, have been labeled “bathroom bills” by opponents, who believe these laws leave women and children subject to possible attacks and assaults by pedophiles and criminals. Jim Campbell, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group that has opposed these ordinances, says there’s a privacy interest and safety issue involved in allowing more open access to gendered bathrooms. While studies have debunked claims that these laws cause any increase in crime, Campbell and other opponents point to isolated cases as examples of what could happen.
“These laws put public businesses in a position where they can’t question someone’s gender identity,” he says. “Obviously when that happens, you create a system that is rife for the potential for abuse for people who want to take advantage of it. These laws make it easier for people with bad intentions to access these facilities.”
Jacksonville, Florida, in the midst of debating an expanded human rights ordinance that would extend non-discrimination protection to transgender individuals and guarantee bathroom access, has become the latest battleground for the issue. The city’s debate comes after the November defeat of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which sought to extend the city’s anti-discrimination protection to transgender individuals. Its failure to pass was due in large part to opponents successfully branding it a “bathroom bill.” The same thing is happening in Jacksonville.
“This bill is metaphorically taking the doors right off the bathroom,” says Raymond Johnson, a conservative organizer for Grassroots Campaign Management and Biblical Concepts Ministries who sees the proposed Jacksonville ordinance as a threat to religious freedom. “Under this law, a man can go into a woman’s bathroom. You can’t provide an excuse to these predators and criminals. It’s like taking them on a trip to the candy store.”
It is a rare instance of a design question—how to make bathrooms, plumbing codes, and signage more inclusive—intersecting with a cultural flashpoint.
Bathrooms weren’t always gendered. Considering they’ve been with us since the beginning, the concept of separating restrooms by sex is a rather recent phenomenon. According to Terry Kogan, a professor of law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah who has studied the history of building codes related to restrooms, laws creating separate men’s and women’s rooms began appearing shortly after the introduction of indoor plumbing in the 1870s. Before then, everyone just used an outhouse, or perhaps a pail.
Laws segregating bathrooms, beginning in Massachusetts in 1887, were based on then-prevailing notions that men and women should be in separate spheres (men at work, and woman at home) as well as popular portrayals of women as the fairer, and weaker, sex, according to Kogan. These notions were out of touch with reality, since women were already working at factories and in offices, but society felt women needed their own restrooms, especially in buildings such as factories, because they needed privacy and were “more prone to hysteria.” By the 1920s, roughly 40 states had such laws, mostly related to factories and the workplace. When cities and states began writing building codes later that decade, adding separate restrooms became just another health concern to be addressed and codified.
“It’s a strange type of separate but equal,” says Kogan.
Historically, the transgender community has often dealt with the issues posed by gendered bathrooms by avoiding them. But that creates other problems: Jody Herman, a public policy scholar at the UCLA Law School who has studied the issue, found that avoidance can cause issues ranging from kidney infections and bladder problems to severe dehydration due to avoiding water all day. Almost 60 percent of the transgender people she studied said, at one point, they just simply stopped going out altogether. While avoiding the situation was never a solution, it’s especially untenable for the increased number of middle and high school-aged trans kids attending public schools.
The ideal solution, offering gender-neutral facilities, preferably with single-stall restrooms, isn’t as simple as swapping out signage. Within the patchwork of city and state bathroom and plumbing codes, there usually isn’t a provision for gender neutral bathrooms, much less transgender access. Most states follow the guidelines of the Uniform Plumbing Code, which stipulates that “separate toilet facilities shall be provided for each sex,” which means a blueprint showing a men’s and women’s room is acceptable, yet one with two unisex bathrooms in the same space violates the code. Currently, there’s no overarching federal response, though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued guidance forbidding employers from placing “unreasonable” restrictions on restroom access and urging employers to provide single-occupancy, gender-neutral facilities, and the Department of Education said that discrimination against transgender students is equivalent to unlawful gender discrimination per Title IX.
“Trans kids in school wasn’t something we talked about 15 years ago,” says Herman. “These ordinances are about children’s safety, and parents are much more active about it.”
Not surprisingly, college campuses have been on the forefront of designing buildings with the transgender population in mind. Baier lives in a gender-neutral dorm the University of North Florida established last year. (The university also has a gender-neutral locker room and bathrooms around campus.) According to Kaitlin Legg, the Assistant Director of the school’s LGBT Resource Center, the suite-style dorm, which gives transgender and trans-positive students a safe space, resonated with the school’s stated goals for diversity and inclusion. After a transgender student was attacked in a campus restroom in 2013, the need for gender neutral bathrooms, and a separate dorm, became urgent.
“LGBT kids have felt stressed and concerned, and they have no idea who they’re going to get as a roommate,” Legg says. “If that person is homophobic or not accepting…we want to help them avoid that problem so it doesn’t change how they interact on campus.”
Legg says now that the public is more comfortable with sexual orientation, and is grappling with gender orientation and identity, the debate ends up being about the bathroom. “If you use one restroom you’re going to get beat up, and the other one, people will look at you like ‘why are you in this bathroom?'” says Legg. “Providing gender-neutral bathrooms allows for safety and space. We can raise awareness just by having the bathroom.”
Several campuses have set best-practice standards for gender-neutral bathrooms, but those standards haven’t quite been established for other building types. Stephanie Lan, a technical director at Gensler’s New York office, has been working on a number of projects for clients in the city who want more gender-neutral facilities. Since, like the Uniform Plumbing Code, the city code requires a certain number of single-sex male and female restrooms for public buildings, adding gender-neutral bathrooms is another expense and robs space from the building floorplate.
“Adding seems to be the easiest way to address the issue right now, at least until New York updates its regulations,” she says. “People are going about it different ways, and a lot of it is signage related. Bottom line, if New York wants to officially address implementation of gender-neutral restrooms, the plumbing code would need to be revised to reflect that.”
The Whitman-Walker Health Center. Courtesy of Perkins+Will / © Eric Laignel
Even in municipalities, such as Washington, D.C., that have progressive legislation on the books addressing transgender bathroom access (since 2006, every new building must contain a gender-neutral bathroom), building codes pose issues. When David Cordell, a Senior Associate at Perkins + Will, designed a new interior layout for the 40,000-square-foot Whitman-Walker Health Center, which specializes in LGBT and HIV care, he was aware of the discomfort some patients had with transgender individuals. He chose to design each floor with four single-stall, gender neutral bathrooms to provide privacy and reduce the stigma of labeling a bathroom a transgender-only facility. But Cordell lost real estate in the core of each floorplate by adding the additional single-stall bathrooms. Since the design technically didn’t provide enough bathrooms for the population expected to use the space, he needed to run the plans by code officials to explain his methodology.
The bathroom layout has made a huge difference for the center’s transgender population, according to Shawn Jain, Director of Communications at Whitman-Walker. Before the redesign, transgender patients often found themselves in uncomfortable situations—having to choose a gender when going to the bathroom, or getting misidentified due to incorrectly labeled health records. Since the redesign, and the adoption of more accurate recordkeeping, traffic from transgender patients has increased. “We have patients who come from as far away as Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia,” Jain says. “People come from very far away because they really feel great about getting care here.”
Once gender-neutral or gender-inclusive restrooms are in place, identifying them as such can also present challenges. Like buildings codes, new bathroom signage that has grown out of the increasing awareness of transgender issues and efforts to be accommodating present a visual hodgepodge, from text-only signs to those that try to visually portray a mix of genders, such as the half-man, half-woman hybrid that could also just be someone outside on a particularly windy day.
Sam Killermann, a social activist and graphic artist, was bothered by the lack of coherence and convention, both in terms of image and language. “All-gender, gender-inclusive, gender-neutral…there’s not really necessarily a winner on the language yet, either,” he says. The confusion inspired him to design a sign free of gendered representation last year, simply a toilet that says “All Gender Restroom.” Since he’s released it without copyright, the design has attracted press attention, and it now appears across the country, including the airport in Austin, Texas, where Killerman lives. While it was done in the spirit of inclusion, he’s been amazed at the positive feedback he’s received for ostensibly just drawing a toilet.
“I have received more emotional reactions to this sign than any other work I’ve ever done,” he says. “I mean people writing 3,000-4,000-word emails. There’s this thread of the importance of tiny things that can mean everything, how much visible recognition can mean to a transgender person. And it’s still something I take for granted. I have no idea how great it is to be able to use a restroom anywhere I go.”
Sam Killermann’s bathroom sign.
While the transgender community values the increase in awareness and access in many parts of the country, there’s an equally strong backlash, especially from some parents and school administrators worried about the implications of more gender fluid bathrooms and locker rooms.
Jeff Johnston, Issues Analyst at Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian public policy organization, said via email that his group believes that when state, local, and federal government ignore male-female distinctions in favor of modern gender theories, it creates policies that affect many areas, including education and public accommodations.
“These policies threaten the privacy and safety of individuals, but especially that of women and children,” he says. “There are a number of instances where these ordinances have negatively affected the freedom of speech and religion of Christians.” (When asked to clarify, Johnson pointed to these cases, including a Macy’s clerk in San Antonio, Texas, being fired for not allowing a transgender women to use the women’s room.)
Carlos Maza, LGBT Program Director for Media Matters, studied the local media coverage of the Houston debate and said conservatives were “wildly successful at hijacking the debate” by labeling it a bathroom bill. When voters were polled about the ordinance, many said it was just about restrooms, not other civil rights concerns. TV news coverage overwhelmingly focused on a single facet of the bill, and continuously repeated the assertion that increased access would be a public safety risk; Maza recalls watching segments where the background was just b-roll of bathrooms.
“The bathroom talking point is the trump card these groups have to win the debate,” he says. “For the most part, supporters haven’t had a great strategy to respond to it.”
But when Maza and his organization dug into the claim that passing human rights ordinances granting transgender individuals access to bathrooms would lead to increased sexual assaults and attacks, their research found no evidence that any such law led to any increase in crime.
After the Houston ordinance was defeated, the “bathroom bill approach” appears to have entered the playbook. Gina Duncan, director of transgender inclusion at Equality Florida, who supports the Jacksonville human rights ordinance, has seen the same argument repeated in similar battles across the state.
“In reality, it’s bigotry wrapped in a cloak of public safety, based on no facts whatsoever,” she says.
Jacksonville’s Mayor, Lenny Curry, hasn’t taken an official stance on the ordinance, but has organized a series of three community meetings over the issue, with a vote expected sometime early next year. Both sides of the issue have geared up for an emotionally charged battle, seeking to influence the city council vote. Johnson, who points to a recent case in Boca Raton, Florida, where a 79-year-old woman was attacked in a Cracker Barrel restroom, as evidence of what could happen and what’s at stake, believes the human rights ordinance is an example of a small group forcing their agenda (and additional expenses) on public businesses.
“Whether there’s statistics to prove it or not, it’s just common sense,” he says. “[With this ordinance] I know have the legal right to choose to go into the women’s restroom for spite if I want to.”
Transgender individuals point out that they have no plans to go into restrooms for spite, and, like Baier, can feel incredulous that they have to jump through so many hoops to simply wash their hands and use the facilities. “Unless they’re harassing someone, it’s none of my business what they’re doing in the bathroom,” he says, “just as it’s none of their business what I’m doing. I’ve actually had friends get harassed and asked ‘what’s in your pants or under your shirt? The fact that people think they can push us and not give us basic human rights, that’s not OK.”