In the great cultural debate across the USA and beyond over who should pee where, one common fact we can agree on is that everyone must do so. Everyone needs toilet access. This seems obvious enough that I won’t justify it here. But why are some people so focused on “gender-neutral” or “all gender” signage? Why can’t we just let people use whichever restroom they prefer and be done with it? The answer is both simple and complicated.
According to a 2016 Reuters article, in a 2015 survey of 27,715 transgender Americans, “Thirty-two percent of transgender people said they limited the amount they ate or drank at least once in the previous year so they did not need to use a public restroom. Eight percent reported having a kidney or urinary tract infection, or another kidney-related medical issue, because they avoided restrooms.” This avoidance of public restrooms shows that they do not meet the needs of transgender people as the facilities currently exist.
Why go to such extremes to avoid public restrooms? Contrary to certain public narratives, it is transgender people in restrooms, not the other people present, who are in danger of violence. Verbal harassment, physical attack, being falsely reported for public indecency or lewd behavior (which is saying something, considering how rarely such accusations are false), and so-called corrective rape are things transgender people risk if they enter a restroom where other people think they do not belong. These risks are increased (both in and out of restrooms) in places where people are required to use restrooms that match their sex at birth.
Let’s start with the part of the transgender community that more people are familiar with: Binary transgender people. These are trans women and trans men. They identify with a binary gender (man or woman) that is not the binary sex (male or female) that they were assigned at birth. Some transgender people transition medically with hormones and/or surgery and/or other interventions. Some do not. Those who do use medical intervention may or may not reach a stage where they appear to strangers to be the sex that matches their gender identity in their lifetimes. We already know that appearing to be a sex other than what strangers expect in a given restroom leads to violence against transgender people. It is then no mystery why so many transgender people avoid public binary restrooms, even when they themselves are binary in identity.
“But wait,” you may be wondering, “why not just use the restroom that matches the sex a person appears to be, if that’s all it takes to avoid threats, harassment, and violence?”
This may avoid the more immediate violence, but it also reinforces the wrong ideas others have about a person’s gender. Transgender people spend a lot of time and energy trying to be seen for who they really are despite the false ideas of those around them. To use the wrong restroom is to give that up, to give people a reason to justify misgendering them, to undo huge amounts of work and effort with one single action. It leads to the verbal and psychological violence of being treated as the wrong gender, something that contributes to the elevated nature of transgender suicide rates.
People who are one of the many nonbinary genders, agender, or otherwise aren’t men or women experience the same long-term risks of misgendering described above no matter which restroom they enter. Some choose medical transition intervention and others do not, but they all face the same risks of violence that binary transgender people do if they enter a restroom which people perceive as being linked to a different sex than the one they think the person happens to be. My personal experience suggests that most cisgender people are extremely bad at guessing correctly about what is in a transgender or nonbinary person’s pants. It doesn’t matter which binary restroom I use; at least one person will do a wide-eyed double take and look ready to flight/fight.
This brings us back to the topic of signage. By using gender-neutral or all-gender signage, we change the expectations in the minds of the people who enter it. The expectations become “anyone can be in this room,” and that means the underlying reason for restroom violence against transgender and nonbinary people is removed. If there is no longer a reason to control who may be present, then there is no longer a reason to abuse transgender and nonbinary people for being present. It also changes the concept in peoples mind of what it means when they witness someone entering a specific restroom, thereby nixing the secondary misgendering problem. And let’s face it, changing some restroom signs is a lot faster and easier than changing our culture to end transphobia, binarism, and cissexism.
That was the complicated answer to “Why can’t we just let people use whichever restroom they prefer and be done with it?” The short answer is: There is no good option when both options available can and do lead to harassment and violence.
It is worth noting here that there is fervent debate within the transgender community about restroom signage. Some advocate for the phrase “all gender,” as they enjoy the emphasis and inclusivity of “all.” Others advocate for “gender neutral,” as a nod to the people who do not have gender and are thus not included in “all gender.” And that’s just the words. The debates about the symbols can be thousands of comments long with piles of hurt feelings on multiple sides.
So please, dear reader, advocate for gender-neutral or all-gender restrooms at your place of work and at your child’s school even if you and your child do not need them personally. Our voices often go unheard, and are often silenced by our own fear of the repercussions for speaking up in the first place. If there are single occupancy restrooms available, they are the easiest of all restrooms to update because they merely require sign changes. Please seek them out, and ask for the signs to be changed. While you’re at it, please ask for waste bins to be added to men’s room stalls for menstrual products. Nobody likes carrying a dirty pad or tampon in their pocket in search of a trash can.