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Most People Have All-Gender Restrooms at Home. Why Not Have Them Everywhere?

We can change our cities’ municipal codes to require gender-neutral bathrooms.

(Photo: Stephen Martin; Edited: LW / TO)

Just in time for holiday shopping, the retail giant Target absorbed some boycotting noise from a conservative website calling for a boycott of the stores because of its policy of allowing transgender customers to use the bathroom of their choice.

The website, 2nd Vote, has been shut down by its web hosting company for having “hateful” and discriminatory content.

The debate over the use of public bathrooms by transgender people is raging across the country.

In Texas, State Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) has spoken out against the local school district for its decision to allow a transgender girl to use the girls’ bathroom in a local elementary school.

In South Dakota, the 2018 ballot may include a question about banning transgender students from certain bathrooms and locker rooms, an initiative spurred by the governor’s veto of a controversial bill that would have required students to use the bathroom and locker room matching their biological sex at birth.

But while the conflict rages, the reality is that more US lawmakers have been arrested in public bathrooms for inappropriate sexual behavior than have transgender people. Transgender people are more likely to be victims of violence and harassment in this country than they are to be perpetrators of violence. According to a new report from the National Center for Transgender Equality, close to 60 percent of transgender people in the US have avoided using a public bathroom out of fear for their safety.It is they who are not safe in public bathrooms.

Right-wing media and politicians have consistently sought to portray transgender people, especially transgender women, as potential “sexual predators” in bathrooms. Those claims were used to justify controversial bills in North Carolina and South Dakota that restrict their access to public bathrooms. LGBTQ advocates have debunked those claims, and the backlash against the North Carolina bathroom bill seemed to bolster the emergent transgender rights movement.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s administration is threatening to further institutionalize transphobia on a national scale, curtailing the civil rights of transgender Americans. Trump’s election may also mean that the Supreme Court will not hear the transgender bathroom case, Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., as it had planned to do.

Since public bathrooms are a significant site of violence and harassment for transgender and gender nonconforming people, it is not surprising that many transgender and gender nonconforming people avoid using them.

Students who don’t feel safe using the restrooms in their schools and campuses are “holding it.

Imagine not being able to use a restroom for hours when needed. Over time, this can lead to significant chronic physical and mental problems, ranging from urinary tract and kidney infections to distress and anxiety.

A 2007 study for the Virginia Department of Health found that 11 percent of transgender and gender nonconforming people cited lack of safe restrooms as a barrier to accessing health care. More disturbing, a 2016 study by Dr. Seelman at Georgia State University found that “both denial of access to bathrooms and denial of access to campus housing due to being trans* were statistically significantly associated with a higher incidence of suicide attempts over a lifetime.”

This is a public health problem and a civil rights problem.

The first step needed is to increase the number of public bathrooms that transgender and gender nonconforming people can use without fear of harassment or violence. A simple solution is to change the municipal building codes to require all public accommodation businesses to make their single-stall bathrooms gender-neutral.

Requiring Single-Stall Bathrooms to Be Gender-Neutral

Most codes mandate that a business with two single-stall bathrooms make them gender-specific. But the concept of a single-stall gender-neutral bathroom is not new. Most of us have one in our homes — a bathroom with a toilet and a sink and a door that locks, and that can be used by people of any gender, regardless of how they identify. The White House has one.

Given that single-stall bathrooms are used by one person at a time, they eliminate interaction with other people, thus reducing the likelihood of the harassment and violence that trans and gender nonconforming people face in gendered multi-stall public bathrooms. This type of bathroom also serves the needs of other groups. Parents or guardians of any gender who need to use the baby-changing station or help their opposite-sex child to the bathroom benefit from gender-neutral bathrooms, also known as family bathrooms. In their absence, parents must send their opposite-sex children to the bathroom alone.

People of any gender who assist their loved ones or care for disabled or elderly people in the bathroom would also benefit.

My own parents are an example. My father helps my mother, who uses a wheelchair, when she needs to use the bathroom. Put the toilet that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in a women-only bathroom, and my father cannot enter it to assist my mother.

Additionally, designating two gender-neutral bathrooms side by side in a bar or restaurant will eliminate the ridiculous waiting line that women often endure while the men’s bathroom is empty.

Cities that have implemented this change include Washington, D.C., New York, Philadelphia, Austin, Seattle, Santa Fe, West Hollywood and more recently, San Francisco. In these cities, all businesses and city buildings are required to designate single-stall bathrooms gender-neutral.

Changing the building code regulating single-stall bathrooms is a simple and inexpensive but powerful change that municipalities across the country can implement to significantly improve the health and safety of transgender and gender nonconforming people, and that allows all people, regardless of how they identify, to use the restroom in peace. This proposed legislative change only requires an inexpensive change in a bathroom’s sign. LGBTQ organizations like the Chicago Restroom Access Project (CRAP) are ready to donate gender-neutral signs that businesses can hang on their bathroom doors as soon as the building code is changed.

Redesignating Multi-Stall Bathrooms

However, single-stall gender-neutral bathrooms are only one step toward an inclusive solution. While they are becoming more and more common in new businesses and new constructions, a phenomenon called a “gender-neutral revolution” in the design world, the majority of buildings do not have single-stall public bathrooms.

The most logical solution to this problem is to build public support for the redesignation of certain multi-stall bathrooms as open to all genders — a change that requires no architectural interventions beyond a change in signage. The Santee Education Complex, a high school within the Los Angeles Unified School District, is just one of the many institutions nationwide that have embraced this solution.

UC Berkeley is working toward all-gender multi-stall bathrooms. Missouri State University has one, as does LaGuardia High School in New York. The Center on Halsted in Chicago, the most comprehensive LGBT community center in the Midwest, provides its visitors and staff with plentiful all-gender multi-stall bathrooms, while complying with code by offering two gender-specific single-stall bathrooms.

Large institutions have an advantage in that for them to redesignate a multi-stall bathroom, it’s not necessary for all people in the institution to feel comfortable using an all-gender multi-stall restroom. Invariably there will be only one or two of these in a building or on a campus, with the rest remaining traditionally gendered and available for anyone who prefers them.

To address lingering public anxieties about all-gender bathrooms, however, some designers are also implementing architectural changes to create more privacy within multi-stall bathrooms redesignated as all-gender spaces. These architectural changes include replacing shorter partitions between stalls with floor-to-ceiling walls and a real door that locks, essentially creating a row of gender-neutral, single-stall bathrooms that share a sink area, with one or more of the bathrooms ADA accessible.

This solution provides both access to an all-gender bathroom and a higher level of privacy and safety than a regular multi-stall bathroom.

To be sure, this solution requires broader revisions to the municipal building codes, allowing these all-gender bathrooms to be counted toward the bathroom fixture count, so that they don’t need to be created in addition to gendered bathrooms but can instead replace some of them. This solution also requires some construction costs. Many businesses, already highly regulated, are likely to be resistant to expensive changes.

This can be a multifaceted and gradual process. Municipal codes can be changed in regard to single-stall bathrooms — a quick and inexpensive change. Institutions that are able to mobilize community support for the redesignation of certain multi-stall bathrooms as all-gender spaces can also make that change quickly and inexpensively. And the codes can be changed to address wider redesignation and architectural updates of multi-stall bathrooms, with a provision for a longer timeline.

The bottom line is that going to a public bathroom is a basic human need and as our society evolves, the codes regulating our lives need to evolve with them.