To many feminists, myself included (until recently), switching over to gender-neutral bathrooms seems like a no-brainer. Mary Ann Case, a law professor at the University of Chicago, called restrooms a “fault line,” saying, “very few spaces in our society remain divided by sex. There’s marriage and there’s toilets, and very little else". However, is it possible that gender-neutral bathrooms might present as many issues as sex-specific?
First, allow me to highlight the issues with sex-specific bathrooms.
1. Male & female bathrooms force people who don't fit into societal gender norms to choose one of two bathrooms, both of which may be inaccurate at describing their identity. Forcing people to choose a bathroom when they may identify as androgynous or gender-fluid often causes them discomfort or frustration.
2. People who appear to be a different gender than their anatomy can receive various levels of harassment, intimidation, and violence in sex-specific bathrooms-often no matter which they choose, and in some places can even be arrested for 'disorderly conduct' if the bathroom they choose doesn't match their driver's license.
3. Sex-specific bathrooms also cause issues for families with children (such as mothers bringing sons, or fathers bringing daughters, to a restroom), and people with disabilities who need the assistance of an attendant of a different gender.
So, it would seem that switching over to gender-neutral bathrooms would solve a lot of problems, but what problems might this cause? Here are some issues with gender-neutral bathrooms:
1. Penises can be triggering to victims of sexual assault, of any gender. While direct sight can probably be avoided by only having stalls in these restrooms, the threat of sexual assault is still an issue in any space and being in a space where a person feels vulnerable can also be triggering.
2. If you replace sex-specific bathrooms with gender-neutral bathrooms: An important reason for gender-neutral bathrooms is comfort and security for non-cisgender individuals, but it is important to note that some cisgender individuals are more comfortable in gender-specific restrooms, even if they’re progressive, liberal, and/or open-minded. It can become an issue of whose comfort and security is prioritized, when it should be about creating a space where everyone feels comfortable and secure.
3. If you have a gender-neutral bathroom in addition to sex-specific bathrooms: Another issue with gender neutral bathrooms is it could impose a norm in which individuals who don’t conform to societal gender norms would be forced to use gender-neutral bathrooms. This would be an example of 'seperate but equal', which (if you remember your history lessons) is never equal, and is definitely not okay.
Colleges and universities are often the start for social change movements. The issue of gender-neutral bathrooms is being debated on college campuses across the country, as students ban together to pressure their schools into creating gender-neutral options. This past spring, UMD made the news when a student threatened to go on a hunger strike unless the school created gender neutral bathrooms. You can read more about this story here.
Minnesota Transgender Health Coalition has compiled a list of gender-neutral or family bathrooms in the Twin Cities, if you're interested in checking it out. This list currently includes UM-Twin Cities and MCAD. If your college has gender-neutral bathrooms you'd like added to the list, you can email MTHC here. I know Hamline University has a fairly new gender-neutral bathroom in Drew Fine Arts and also single-stall family restrooms in Drew Science Center.
It seems to me that having gender-neutral bathrooms is the 'white' to sex-specific bathrooms 'black'. Is there a middle ground between labeling for others and removing all labels? Where is the gray area? Is there a way in which we can let bathroom-goers label for themselves?
Personally, I think the best solution might be to have single-stall, all-gender bathrooms. While single-stall bathrooms tend to be inconvenient, they are also less likely to carry any of the cons a gender-neutral multi-stall bathroom might. I also personally don't really like the term 'gender-neutral' because it seems dismissive of gender or neutralizing, as opposed to inclusive, which I think is an important aspect to emphasize.
What are your thoughts/opinions? Do you have a relevant experience you'd like to share?