Before the Whitney Museum of American Art moved to its new location in Lower Manhattan, it hosted a discussion about what it means for a museum to be a safe and welcoming space.
Providing restrooms for everyone on the gender spectrum was near the top of the list.
“We invited artists of all gender identifications in,” said Danielle Linzer, the director of access and community programs, “and we heard loud and clear that it was something they really needed access to. Rather than being euphemistic, we decided to be direct.”
The signs at the new building say “All Gender Restroom,” and Linzer has observed women wondering aloud, “You mean I can go in the men’s room?”
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The Whitney isn’t alone in being challenged to rethink one of the most basic uses of public space. With the issues of serving openly in the military and same-sex marriage now largely resolved, the fight for all-gender restrooms has emerged as the latest civil rights issue in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community — particularly the “T” part.
Schools and universities (including Johns Hopkins and Michigan State), museums (like the American Folk Art Museum in New York City and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City), restaurants both trendy and modest (such as the Pass & Provisions in Houston and the Midtown Cafe in Santa Cruz, Calif.) and even the White House (in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building) are recasting the traditional men’s/women’s room, resulting in a dizzying range of (often creative) signage and vocabulary.
Part of the reason is legal. Seattle, Berkeley, Santa Fe, Austin and Philadelphia are among the cities that have passed laws requiring single-user, all-gender restrooms. Philadelphia has an online Gotta Go Guide showing the location of such facilities, and there’s an app, Refuge Restrooms, that does the same nationwide.
Philadelphia businesses will have 90 days to become compliant, said Helen L. Fitzpatrick, director of the mayor’s office of LGBT affairs. “But the goal is that nobody should ever receive a fine,” she said. “I will be going out and using the law as a teachable moment.”
Introducing a new lexicon is part of the process. In September, Fitzpatrick visited a bar with an offensive sign about Caitlyn Jenner in the window. After she spoke to the owners, a new sign went up: “Cisgender white men learned something new today!!”
The legal sanction hasn’t gone unchallenged, even after a landmark case in Maine last year, when Nicole Maines, a transgender high school student, successfully sued the school district that had denied her access to the restroom of the gender with which she identified. (Her story is chronicled in a new book, “Becoming Nicole.”)
In September, the school board in Elko County, Nev., voted to keep transgender students out of restrooms corresponding to their gender identity. In Wisconsin, two state legislators want to require school boards to designate restrooms as exclusive to one gender, and gender is defined as the “physical condition of being male or female.” (In neighboring Minnesota, the Democratic-led state Senate defeated a similar bill.)
And in Houston, voters rejected a measure known as the bathroom ordinance, which would prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.
But some change is taking place because organizations believe it simply makes sense. Samuel Bass is the principal of Miraloma Elementary School in San Francisco, where restrooms for the younger grades are now all-gender and the remaining facilities will be converted.
“For too long in K through 12, we have asked every single student to conform to one or the other binary,” he said. “We had several students on the gender spectrum and decided it was the right thing to do. It doesn’t affect other students. Children don’t know gender norms until we as adults teach them. With any change, parents have questions. When they realize that it’s just like it is at home, it’s not a big deal.”
Many transgender people report planning their days around where and when they can go, enduring bladder infections if they hold it in, risking harassment or violence if they don’t. Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center, an LGBT resource group at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, recently completed the first national study of college students who identify as something other than male or female. Guess what almost everyone named as the biggest issue?
Even when the intention is inclusivity, the reality is complicated. Under the New York City Human Rights Law, people must be allowed to use the single-sex restroom consistent with their gender identity.
But strict plumbing codes or landmark status mean that businesses can’t just change the signage and then be in compliance. Multiple codes apply, depending on the type of building, the year it was built and occupancy. In some cases, the code stipulates that a venue is allowed to have all-gender facilities rather than being required to do so, reflecting a shift from economic to societal considerations.
Broadway theaters are still grappling with the issue, but the Theater at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles had all-gender restrooms for the red carpet premiere of the Emmy-winning television series “Transparent.” (The digital series about a father transitioning to being a woman introduced a guerrilla campaign in the lead-up to the awards in which the production company covered up gender-specific signs on the doors of single-stall restrooms in restaurants, replacing them with signs that said “Be Transparent.”)
Public restrooms didn’t become commonplace in this country until the late 19th century. A cholera epidemic during the Civil War made people realize that it was inappropriate to throw the contents of a chamber pot out the window and generated a deep commitment to public hygiene.
Ever since their introduction, restrooms have been a curious ground zero for civil rights, whether for African-Americans or people with disabilities.
Discrimination against transgender people has brought the issue into sharp new focus. But the idea of shared restrooms is not new, as fans of “Ally McBeal” will remember.
That fictional, multistall restroom gets more complicated in real life, especially if it’s the only option; some places are taking the less controversial route of single-user facilities, and some are covering their bets by continuing to provide traditional male or female restrooms, too.
As with gender self-identification, even the language is tricky: gender-neutral, all-gender, gender-inclusive, gender-open, unisex … all are in the mix.
Barnard College uses the term “Gender Inclusive” on restroom doors that also show icons of toilets and dripping faucets. (Barnard’s efforts to educate the campus included a flier that proclaimed, “We want everyone to be able to pee in peace.”)