Everyone poops, as Taro Gomi's children's book by that title has long reminded us, and everyone pees, transgender and gender-nonconforming people included. That's nature. Sex-segregated public toilets, on the other hand, are unnatural social constructs — human inventions that organize our bodily functions according to cultural scripts. They are built environments that change in response to shifting mores, economic considerations and political pressures.
Since the Supreme Count ruled in favor of same-sex marriage last year, we have seen a significant backlash against LGBT rights. The recent passage of discriminatory legislation in North Carolina has received the bulk of media attention, but in the first few months of 2016, legislatures in 22 states introduced bills that seek to roll back equal rights, with transgender people often singled out for especially harsh treatment. Prurient fantasies of men masquerading in dresses to stalk sexual prey in the ladies' room are trotted out in support of laws preventing transgender people from using restrooms that match their appearance and identity.
Our culture is in the midst of a profound reevaluation of how we understand gender, and public toilets have long been sites for staging anxieties about such social change. In 19th- and early 20th-century cities, the proliferation of gender-segregated public toilets depended not just on the development of modern sanitation infrastructure, but on the movement of women into the public realm as wage-earners, consumers and voters. Jim Crow laws segregated public toilets by race until the civil rights movements of the 1960s abolished that practice. The Equal Rights Amendment went down to defeat in the 1970s in part because of the non-existent threat of “unisex toilets.” In the '80s, the AIDS crisis provoked alarmed visions of straight men becoming infected with HIV by sharing public toilets with gay men. In the '90s, the Americans with Disabilities Act mandated equal access for the disabled. The latest “bathroom bills” are simply another front in the battle over who will be accommodated in the public sphere.
Unjust laws like those passed in North Carolina and elsewhere must be challenged, but they also invite us to consider long-term solutions. With Joel Sanders, a New York-based architect, I've been documenting existing gender-neutral public-toilet strategies and proposing even more radically accessible facilities.
One simple and already common approach is to designate the few single-stall toilets in a building or a public space — facilities originally meant for the disabled or for families — as “gender neutral.” But this solution still leaves traditional men's and women's rooms intact. It segregates transgender people, and we all know separate isn't equal. Changing the signage on single-stall restrooms is easy, but it doesn't address the underlying social structures that created unequal bathroom access in the first place.
Another strategy that's catching on in some places, including the Cooper Union art school in New York, is to designate all restrooms as gender neutral, and distinguish them only by signs that describe the plumbing fixtures behind the closed doors — “restroom with stalls,” or “restroom with stalls and urinals.” But this, too, is more a stop-gap measure than a long term solution.
In the restaurant at New York's Museum of Modern Art, the public restroom is entirely gender-neutral and desegregated. It is a single space, divided by a central circulation corridor into two parallel zones: one dedicated to washing, with sinks and mirrors, and the other dedicated to eliminating, with private stalls fitted with floor-to-ceiling doors that have no peek-a-boo cracks. Gender nonconforming people are not forced to choose between two ill-fitting options; no one need worry about being in the “wrong” bathroom.
Other inventive gender-neutral designs place washing-up areas in plaza-like open spaces rather than behind closed doors, with water-features inspired by Roman fountains and semi-screened areas for adjusting clothing, styling hair and fixing makeup at mirrors of varying heights. The toilets are in private enclosures of various sizes, some for individuals, others for dads who need to change their daughter's diapers or disabled people who need the aid of their attendants.
Contrary to popular fears, mixed-gender restrooms, which increase bathroom occupancy, are safer than single-sex ones. They reduce the chances of someone ending up alone with a predator in an out-of-the-way ladies room. Some contemporary public toilet designs take the safety-through-visibility strategy even further by abolishing any clear boundaries between open space and secluded chambers. New pissoirs in San Francisco's Dolores Park block public view of the act of elimination while allowing the person performing that act to remain in sight.
These new concepts accommodate emerging expressions of gender as well as a variety of other needs. They challenge outdated ideas. There is no reason public toilets should enforce gender norms that serve some but oppress others. Just as we ended the racial segregation of public toilets in the past, and expanded access for a wide range of physical abilities, so too can we design truly inclusive public restrooms that serve gender diversity and justice, safety and sanitation.
Everyone poops, and everyone pees, but no one should be stigmatized or criminalized when they answer nature's call.
Susan Stryker is director of the Institute for LGBT studies and associate professor of gender and women's studies at the University of Arizona. This essay is adapted from a longer article on gender neutral toilets she co-authored with Joel Sanders, forthcoming later this year in South Atlantic Quarterly.