Leave a comment

In all-gender restrooms, the signs reflect the times

Before the Whitney Museum of American Art moved to its new location in Lower Manhattan, it hosted a discussion about what it means for a museum to be a safe and welcoming space.

Providing restrooms for everyone on the gender spectrum was near the top of the list.

“We invited artists of all gender identifications in,” said Danielle Linzer, the director of access and community programs, “and we heard loud and clear that it was something they really needed access to. Rather than being euphemistic, we decided to be direct.”

The signs at the new building say “All Gender Restroom,” and Ms. Linzer has observed women wondering aloud, “You mean I can go in the men’s room?”

The Whitney isn’t alone in being challenged to rethink one of the most basic uses of public space. With the issues of serving openly in the military and same-sex marriage now largely resolved, the fight for all-gender restrooms has emerged as the latest civil rights issue in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (L.G.B.T.) community — particularly the “T” part.

Schools and universities (including Johns Hopkins and Michigan State), museums (like the American Folk Art Museum in New York City and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City), restaurants both trendy and modest (such as the Pass & Provisions in Houston and the Midtown Cafe in Santa Cruz, Calif.) and even the White House (in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building) are recasting the traditional men’s/women’s room, resulting in a dizzying range of (often creative) signage and vocabulary.

Part of the reason is legal. Seattle, Berkeley, Santa Fe, Austin and Philadelphia are among the cities that have passed laws requiring single-user all-gender restrooms. Philadelphia has an online Gotta Go Guideshowing the location of such facilities, and there’s an app, Refuge Restrooms, that does the same nationwide.

Philadelphia businesses will have 90 days to become compliant, said Helen L. Fitzpatrick, director of the mayor’s office of L.G.B.T. affairs. “But the goal is that nobody should ever receive a fine,” she said. “I will be going out and using the law as a teachable moment.”

Introducing a new lexicon is part of the process. In September, Ms. Fitzpatrick visited a bar with an offensive sign about Caitlyn Jenner in the window. After she spoke to the owners, a new sign went up: “Cis-gender white men learned something new today!!”

The legal sanction hasn’t gone unchallenged, even after a landmark case in Maine last year, when Nicole Maines, a transgender high school student,successfully sued the school district that had denied her access to the restroom of the gender with which she identified. (Her story is chronicled in a new book, “Becoming Nicole.”)

In September, the school board in Elko County, Nev., voted to keep transgender students out of restrooms corresponding to their gender identity. In Wisconsin, two state legislators want to require school boardsto designate restrooms as exclusive to one gender, and gender is defined as the “physical condition of being male or female.” (In neighboring Minnesota, the Democratic-led State Senate defeated a similar bill.)

And on Tuesday in Houston, voters rejected a measure known as the bathroom ordinance, which would prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.

But some change is taking place because organizations believe it simply makes sense. Samuel Bass is the principal of Miraloma Elementary School in San Francisco, where restrooms for the younger grades are now all-gender, and the remaining facilities will be converted.

“For too long in K through 12, we have asked every single student to conform to one or the other binary,” he said. “We had several students on the gender spectrum, and decided it was the right thing to do. It doesn’t affect other students. Children don’t know gender norms until we as adults teach them. With any change, parents have questions. When they realize that it’s just like it is at home, it’s not a big deal.”

Many transgender people report planning their days around where and when they can go, enduring bladder infections if they hold it in, risking harassment or violence if they don’t. Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center, an L.G.B.T. resource group at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, recently completed the first national study of college students who identify as something other than male or female. Guess what almost everyone named as the biggest issue?

Even when the intention is inclusivity, the reality is complicated. Under the New York City Human Rights Law, people must be allowed to use the single-sex restroom consistent with their gender identity.

But strict plumbing codes or landmark status mean that businesses can’t just change the signage and then be in compliance. Multiple codes regulate the requirements, depending on the type of building, the year it was built and occupancy. In some cases, the code stipulates that a venue is allowed to have all-gender facilities rather than being required to do so, reflecting a shift from economic to societal considerations.

Broadway theaters are still grappling with the issue, but the Theater at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles had all-gender restrooms for the red carpet premiere of the Emmy-winning television series “Transparent.” (The digital series about a father transitioning to being a woman introduced a guerrilla campaign in the lead-up to the awards in which the production company covered up gender-specific signs on the doors of single-stall restrooms in restaurants, replacing them with signage that said “Be Transparent.”)

Public restrooms didn’t become commonplace in this country until the late 19th century. A cholera epidemic during the Civil War made people realize that it was inappropriate to throw the contents of a chamber pot out the window, and generated a deep commitment to public hygiene.

Ever since their introduction, restrooms have been a curious ground zero for civil rights, whether for African-Americans or people with disabilities.

Discrimination against transgender people has brought the issue into sharp new focus. But the idea of shared restrooms is not new, as fans of “Ally McBeal” will remember (even though the facilities at the Cage and Fish law firm often seemed to be commandeered for frolicking with Jon Bon Jovi or Robert Downey Jr.).

That fictional multi-stall restroom gets more complicated in real life, especially if it’s the only option; some places are taking the less controversial route of single-user facilities, and some are covering their bets by continuing to provide traditional male or female restrooms, too.

As with gender self-identification, even the language is tricky: gender-neutral, all-gender, gender-inclusive, gender-open, unisex … all are in the mix. Barnard College uses the term “Gender Inclusive” on restroom doors that also show icons of toilets and dripping faucets. (Barnard’s efforts to educate the campus included a flier that proclaimed, “We want everyone to be able to pee in peace.”)

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas chose a colorful commode and the words “Gender Neutral” and “Unisex,” although these terms meet with less than enthusiasm in the transgender community.

“To me, saying gender-neutral is like saying colorblind,” said Genny Beemyn,of the Stonewall Center. “We see gender. To deny it is to deny people’s reality. We’re trying to increase recognition of the diversity of gender rather than to erase it.”

The term “all gender” seems to be in favor. That’s what it says on restrooms at the New School in New York City, along with pictographs of the plumbing inside. “I never thought I’d be talking so much about urinals,” said Gail Drakes, director of social justice initiatives.

In a state not generally regarded as a bastion of progressive thinking, there are all-gender restrooms at the University of Utah. Illinois State University also decided on that signage, with a somewhat prolix addendum: “Anyone may use this restroom regardless of gender, gender identity or expression.” “We’re not changing the purpose of the facility,” said M. Shane McCreery, director of equal opportunity, ethics and access at the school, “just acknowledging that we recognize everyone and want them to be included.”

It’s unsurprising that college students are pushing the agenda of all-gender access. The tectonic plates of corporate America shift more slowly. The policy at Target is that “family” restrooms suffice for now. Starbucks issued a boilerplate assertion that “a coffeehouse should be a welcoming, inviting and familiar place.” (Translation: Some locations have all-gender restrooms, and there may be more.)

But Nike World Headquarters in Oregon is using a simple black-and-white image of a toilet, created by a 28-year-old self-described social justice advocate named Sam Killermann. He was motivated by the prevalence of a “Victor/Victoria” stick figure wearing a divided skirt/pants that is widely loathed by those who identify as gender nonconforming and stress that they don’t feel like half of anything.

“People were terrified of this idea,” Mr. Killermann said, “and the conversation kept coming back to: What do we put on the door? I kind of snapped, not in a bad way, and did a blog post making fun of the half-woman/half-man sign, hoping it would illustrate how absurd it was and the very real issue of people being safe.”

A Brooklyn company called SmartSign, which used that hermaphrodite-ish graphic, contacted Mr. Killermann, offering to buy the rights to his toilet sign (and, by the way, he’s perfectly O.K. with being known as the toilet sign guy). He said the company could have it free. “They took that sentiment,” he said, “and one-upped me, and started giving it away.”

So far, the company has donated the toilet sign to churches, hospitals, libraries, public school districts, food co-ops, one circus and 128 colleges.

In many parts of the world, W.C. (water closet) is already a well-established all-gender sign, but there are new variations from as far away as Kenya, where the door to each restroom at the Angama Mara Safari Lodge shows boy and girl Maasai warriors.

The White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia had an original solution: two restrooms designated for Democrats and Republicans, another two for Pointers and Setters. (A little joke about anatomy — get it?) “Customers loved the idea,” the former owner Judy Wicks said, “although it was confusing to foreigners. Tourists from Japan, where the culture is so polite, would stand there trying to figure out where to go.”

(Alas, the new owners removed those signs. The four restrooms now have decals of dogs with no mention of gender.)

There is no mistaking who can go where at the Founding Farmers restaurant in Washington, D.C.; its restroom doors read Men, Women and the Rest of Us.

“Men are generally pigs in restrooms, and women are nice and sensible,” the owner Dan Simons said. “That’s where I started. I have two restrooms right next to each other, so I labeled one ‘Women’ and the other ‘Everyone.’ Then I received a letter saying that the restrooms were discriminatory because women had their own.

“I realized that for some people this is a stressful topic,” he added, “and I thought: ‘Why don’t I make it clear? We need a label that says no label.’ ”

Source: The New York Times

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: