Gender-neutral restrooms are every BODY’s business

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.

Feministing's resident "sexpert", Sesali is a published writer and professional shit talker. She is a queer Black girl, fat girl, and trainer. She was the former Training Director at the United States Student Association and later a member of the Youth Organizing team at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She received her bachelors in Women's and Gender Studies from Depaul University in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master's in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A self identified "trap" feminist, and trained with a reproductive justice background, her interests include the intersections of feminism and: pop culture, youth culture, social media, hip hop, girlhood, sexuality, race, gender, and Beyonce. Sesali joined the team in 2010 as one of the winners of our So You Think You Can Blog contest.

is Feministing's resident sexpert and cynic.

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  • Sam Lindsay-Levine

    It seems like if you’re really having a discussion about safety you need to be considering things like what attacks your security measures will protect against, how quantitatively common those attacks are, and the costs of your measures, a la Bruce Schneier’s Beyond Fear, a book on security that I seem to be constantly recommending.

    The conversation you describe seems more like a conversation about people’s feelings about safety – in particular, it does seem completely incorrect, viewed objectively, to feel secure behind a locked bathroom stall.

    That’s not to say that such a conversation is necessarily not worth having – feelings are important – but a lot of the time (most of the time?) when people talk about “putting people’s safety first”, they really mean putting their feelings about safety first, which depends a lot more on those people’s biases and preconceptions than anything else.

  • pancakelanding

    To me the conversation seems to have gone off the tracks. The reality of people who don’t “fit” into societal gender norms are facing an almost impossible choice of which restroom to use due to their own identity and the identity being forced upon them. The solution of unisex restrooms is best not just because it solves that issue, but philosophically attacks the concept that human beings are essentially different and deals with the weird taboos and tribalism that develops from youth onward due to this segregation.

    Of course some people maybe feel this to be “triggering”, but this screams to me as an excuse to keep the status quo, and if the mere presence of a ‘male’ is violence then how does that not reenforce the stereotype of the “weak woman” needing protection from “uncontrollable men”?

    Our goal should be to have everyone not only feel safe with being themselves but feel safe with others being themselves as well. That means we should be able to walk into a restroom and not care what gender or identity those around us have/present.

    • Eva

      Please be careful with your assumptions here. For myself and many many other women (cis and trans), penises can be triggering. Period. It most definitely not an excuse to keep the status quo when you’ve been repeatedly traumatized by it. It also does not reinforce the stereotype of a weak woman needing protection from uncontrollable men. It’s a trigger. So in order to protect myself, I stay away from certain triggers as much as possible. In doing so, I’m not relying on a man or male-body to protect me. I’m protecting myself by myself.

      I understand that the reality of people who don’t fit into traditional gender norms is incredibly harrowing, and when it comes to choosing a bathroom, it’s next to impossible. Unisex might be a solution for some of these individuals, but it is not a solution for everyone, and that is not necessarily because “everyone else” wants to subscribe to traditional gender norms. We all have our experiences. Let’s not assume those who are against this are simply trying to salvage harmful, negative, and traditional norms.

  • John

    I suppose there are guys who would want people to see them, but to me that would be embarrassing. Being seen when I don’t want to by a stranger of the other gender feels like sexual assault. It’s a violation, a gross invasion of privacy, and it doesn’t matter if I’m worried about being raped or not. The violation already occurred.

    Did he mean that men should use a urinal to keep the lines short? Why wouldn’t they include modesty dividers for the urinals if they were changing a man’s bathroom to coed? Did the designers make an error because they don’t consider male modesty a concern or do they believe that the existence of the stalls addresses that problem and men should give up modesty if they want convenience? Should there even be urinals in a gender neutral restroom? I’d feel violated if a woman was staring at another guy’s junk. I guess sexual harassment of third parties is only a concern if women are the third parties.

    • Sam Lindsay-Levine

      This is just me making assumptions, but I’m almost completely certain that they were using existing bathrooms that were built as sex-segregated, and didn’t have the resources (or even the permission) to make physical renovations.

      Likewise (although this may be me projecting) I’m almost completely certain that the original questioner didn’t necessarily care about being seen while peeing, but didn’t want to be rude or offensive to anyone else – if he did care he would have just used the stall.

      I don’t think there’s a need to be so quick to presume bad faith here!

  • fyoumudflaps

    Using urinals is very awkward for me. Generally I’ve always used stalls, and whenever I use a urinal I’m hypervigilant about not being seen by others. Any man that would not be the same I’d worry about.

  • JT

    I just wanted to second what Sam had to say.

    And I also wanted to chime in with my own 2 cents regarding your use of the term “male-bodied.” I see the terms “male-bodied” and “female-bodied” bandied about a lot by folks who are trying to avoid making assumptions about how a person identifies. But “male-bodied” and “female-bodied” are problematic in that they assign gender to certain types of bodies and body parts, usually making the assumption that penises are “male” parts and vulvae are “female” parts. Terms like “male-bodied” may seem like convenient shorthand, but they invalidate the bodies, identities, and experiences of a lot of people.

  • Marlene

    “Male bodied” Really? That’s some ciscentric shit right there.

  • Robert

    If unisex bathrooms become common I would hope there are urinals. They are much more convenient. In Sweden, which happens to be the most feminist country in the world, they have unisex bathrooms everywhere. I was annoyed having to go to a stall every time I only wanted to piss when I could be in and out much quicker using a urinal. Some Swedish people believe if women have to use a stall to do their business then men should also, there are no special accommodations. I heard there are activists there that want to force men to sit since women have no choice but to sit when in the bathroom. That’s extreme to me but they go all out for equality. I know this sounds fucked up but I felt women weren’t in their assigned roles there because of their “male” behavior. For example, when walking into a community shower they didn’t cover up and leave in fear and women didn’t give me extra space I am used to at bars. I expect initial fear and caution from women that don’t know me and in a way it makes me feel like I have power over them.

  • Eva

    Thank you so much for this. I am a white cis, bi woman who has been repeatedly traumatized by men throughout my childhood and adolescence. It’s part of the deal when you grow up in a female body in a low income part of a city. The trauma from men was just part of daily life, to varying degrees.

    I got out of that neighborhood but the trauma hasn’t left me, despite years of therapy. I don’t care who it is attached to, penises trigger me. I feel so angry when people talk about this as if no progressive person has any excuse to be against gender-inclusive bathrooms or dressing rooms. Though I do realize there’s pain for everyone involved. To reject this as a cis woman can be upsetting, even triggering for a trans woman, with or without a penis. So I really appreciate you having this conversation and now opening it up to all of us, recognizing all experiences involved.

  • Paul

    I have been to outdoor concerts and festivals which featured trough urinals marked MEN. As the lines for women’s toilets became longer, some women would just duck into the enclosure with the trough (whether it was empty or with several men in there) and urinate there, either squatting over it or (in one case) facing it and peeing standing up–even “swordfighting” with the man next to her. Should it be an option to designate trough urinals as UNISEX, as long as they’re used exclusively for urinating and not defecating?