This weekend I was in one of those progressive spaces that tries really hard to prioritize identity-based issues and make their spaces safe for different kinds of folk. And usually it’s pretty easy to do. Keep food accessible to people with various dietary needs. Bring folks from different backgrounds to the table. Use inclusive language. Create a safe space for open conversation.
That last order proved to be critical, because the issue of gender-neutral restrooms was not so straight forward. It all started when a male-bodied individual asked if they should be using the stall instead of the urinal in the male-turned-gender-neutral multi-stall restroom. The response was to the effect of: we should be prioritizing safety over convenience, so male-bodied individuals should use the stalls to make other people feel safe. It was assumed that everyone would nod their heads and accept this. But another brave soul threw a wrench in the plans. The assumption was made early on in the weekend that everyone was comfortable in gender neutral restrooms and she wanted to know: who’s safety are we prioritizing if we overlook this?
So the debate raged one. And as we continued the conversation, we had to explain that penises could be triggering; that the threat of sexual assault is real even among those in progressive spaces; that it is not silly to feel secure behind a locked bathroom stall; that sexual assault does not only happen to women; that some men and women really are more comfortable in gender-specific restrooms, even if they’re progressive and/or radical; that the restroom is no more or less a site for sexual assault than anywhere else; that penises shouldn’t only be associated with male-identified persons; that the term “all-gender restroom” is more appropriate, as we are not trying to create a space that neutralizes or denies any gender but is inclusive to all of them, etc, etc.
These were all very relevant and important points that should have been put on the table before gender-neutral restrooms were introduced to the group. Because the brave woman was correct in asking whose safety are we reprioritizing? How effective is it to say “the restroom is open to all genders,” assume that everyone is comfortable with that, and then add later “but you may not be able to use the facility like you normally would?” Shouldn’t some of the beauty of a gender neutral bathroom be that a woman with a penis can have access to a urinal if she wanted to? But on the flip side, I understand why we always need to put people’s safety first. But we have to make an effort to consider a wide range of safety needs and not assume that everyone is on the same page about what those needs are.
Our solution was to create a single-occupant restroom that had urinals, in addition to a gender-neutral restroom. But I was appreciative of the honest, nuanced conversation. There was a great lesson in all of it: when creating gender neutral restrooms we have to consider everybody and every body.