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Gender-Neutral Bathrooms: Some Ways to Meet Everyone's Needs

Updated 10/05/2016*


As laws in Kansas, North Carolina, and Mississippi plunge the nation deep into ethical chaos over the civil rights of transgendered individuals and others, states such as Illinois, South Carolina and Kentucky are also considering similarly oppressive legislation. Amidst the controversy, NCCJ wanted to present an op-ed written by former contributor Amanda Siskind on Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter signing into law legislation that requires all new or renovated city-owned buildings to have gender neutral bathrooms three years ago.

On October 24th, 2013, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter signed into law legislation that requires all new or renovated city-owned buildings to have gender neutral bathrooms. The number and location of these bathrooms is dependent on how the building is used. The new law does not mandate any change in the current bathrooms of any buildings unless they are legislated.

The law has not passed without controversy. The most common concerns are comfort and safety. Having gender neutral bathrooms, it is said, will make many people who are now forced to use the bathroom with people of other genders uncomfortable, and will increase verbal harassment or even physical assault (these hypothetical scenarios often place women as the victims) in these bathrooms.

Let’s be clear about this issue. Whose comfort and safety is being prioritized in these arguments? Gender-neutral bathrooms can provide comfort and safety for transgender and gender non-conforming people. Does this mean we ignore their needs to satisfy the rest of the community?

That’s not to say we are ignoring the needs of everyone else. The law does not provide any instructions for how the gender-neutral bathrooms should be constructed, so these bathrooms will most likely be a third bathroom, probably single-stall, alongside the current bathrooms. As for safety, from my personal experience, the only security at most bathrooms is a sign reading “Men” or “Women."

Heated debates over gender-neutral bathrooms are becoming more and more common. With increased focus on bullying of transgender and gender non-conforming kids in schools, school administrators have felt a push to make a gender neutral bathroom available if needed, often a staff bathroom or a bathroom in the nurse’s office. Gender-neutral bathrooms are actually frequently found in public spaces, they’re just usually labeled “Family Restrooms,” and are typically single-stall spaces often used by caretakers or parents of someone of a different gender.

In colleges and universities across the country, there are many student-led movements to make bathrooms more inclusive and available for transgender, or gender non-conforming students. Over 150 colleges and universities have gender-neutral bathrooms already, with many more on the way. Many of these bathrooms are single-stall, in addition to some gendered multi-stall restrooms. But there is a growing movement of gender-neutral multi-stall restrooms, especially in co-ed dormitories.

There’s been a lot of debate about how to implement gender-neutral bathrooms in co-ed dorms, where sharing a bathroom with many people is already something that could take a while for many to get used to.

One option is to make the sink space gender-neutral, and then have gendered stalls and showers with a single occupant bathroom available somewhere. Other schools could have students vote on their bathroom options at the beginning of each academic year. College officials and RAs who coordinate the voting process could rearrange the bathrooms to suit everybody’s needs based on the vote-count.

If someone wants a gendered bathroom, but others voted for gender-neutral facilities, the closest bathroom can be made gender-neutral with the knowledge that there is a gendered bathroom further down the hall - or perhaps one floor below. Depending on how the bathrooms are set up, there can also be separate voting procedures related to the placement of sinks, showers, and stalls.

Students at Oberlin College in Ohio have come up with a creative solution. A third option alongside gendered and gender-neutral bathrooms; also be separated by sinks, showers, and stalls, called the “E-System”; replaces any signs on the bathroom with a capital E. The letter can be rotated and each rotation means something different:

  • If the sign looks like an E, everyone can use the bathroom, regardless of their gender. This is the default setting of the sign, so it must be put back in this position when the person leaves the bathroom.
  • If the sign is rotated to the left to look like a W, only women can use the bathroom.
  • If the sign is rotated to the right to look like an M, only men can use the bathroom.
  • If the sign is rotated halfway around to look like a 3, it stands for “Me, Myself, and I” and the bathroom becomes single-occupancy.

My current hall voted to have an E-System bathroom, knowing that there is a women’s bathroom down the hall and a men’s bathroom on the floor below. I like that the E-System empowers students to make their own choices about the bathrooms and fosters a sense of respect and trust in others to follow the sign.

Everyone in my dorm has been respectful of the sign system so far, and we recently re-voted to continue using the E-system again this semester.

Obviously, the E-system is better suited to more closed environments such as dorms or private office spaces, and it might require some modifications if it were to be used in public spaces. But as a frequently in-use dorm bathroom, the system’s ability to provide a variety of options to suit everyone’s needs and comfort levels is definitely a huge plus.

(LA Times) OPINION Think 'bathroom bills' and other anti-LGBT legislation don't impact you? Think again

(TIME Magazine) OPINION How North Carolina’s #LGBT Bill Is Hurting Parenthood   

(National Catholic Reporter) LGBT advocates protest Kansas bathroom bills

(NBC) News article about Philadelphia’s new law

Info about the E-System and being trans* at Oberlin

Discussion about the ethics of gender-neutral bathrooms at Brandeis

Transgender Law & Policy Institute’s guidelines on accommodating the needs of college students of all genders (includes issues other than bathrooms)

About the National Conference for Community and Justice

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Tue, 21 September 2021