Unisex Bathrooms: A Stopgap Measure for Transgender Americans

When nature calls in public, we usually face a simple choice: the men’s or the women’s room. Yet that simple bifurcation does not cover everyone. Transgender people do not fit so easily into our traditional categories, and the battle over bathrooms again flares up.

One of the first lessons students enrolled in Introductory Logic learn is the fallacy of “false dichotomy.” That’s when someone states that either X or Y must be the case, and nothing else. For example, “You’re either with us or against us.” The problem is that things often are not so black and white. There are other possibilities, areas of grey.

Public bathrooms are such a false dichotomy. You’re either a man or a woman. Biologically, that captures most people, but not everyone. Sexuality (and surgery) offer other options. Transgender people identify as sexually different from their anatomy or DNA.

Yet the beautiful panoply of human sexuality makes some people uncomfortable, especially in a public bathroom.

Their sensitivity is not without some justification. Bathrooms are inherently embarrassing places. We go into them, expose our privates, and release waste material. Scatological humor thrives on our discomfort.

Discomfort, however, is a poor excuse to treat some people as outsiders.

Gay rights activists have made tremendous strides in recent years. A majority of Americans now support marriage equality. Fewer people worry about whether someone in the locker room with them might be gay. And young people in particular don’t care if you like boys, girls or both.

Transgender people have not seen the same gains.  Adam Winkler puts it well in a recent New Republic piece — “We often talk about ‘LGBT rights,’ but many of the reforms to date, like civil unions and marriage equality, are primarily benefiting the Ls and the Gs (and, by extension, the Bs). …  The legal issues surrounding full acceptance of trans-people are likely to be messier and more confusing.”

Part of the problem is numbers. A 2011 report estimated 3.5 percent of American adults identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, but only .3 percent identify as transgender. The LGBs outnumber the Ts more than 10-to-1. Many people have friends and family who are gay or at least know someone who is open. LBGs appear on television and in movies. Familiarity breeds acceptance.

That .3 percent is 700,000 adults.  They need to use the bathroom just like anyone else. It’s not their fault that social acceptance and media exposure have not caught up with reality.

Straight people might find sharing the restroom awkward, but transgender people often find it dangerous. When a transgender woman must walk into a public men’s room in a skirt, she must be on guard. Harassment and even violence is common in places of public accommodation.

That problem is particularly acute for students. Grant High School in Portland, Ore., recently set aside six unisex bathrooms for its transgender students, faculty and staff.

“I did not drink liquids from the hours of 6 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.,” a student at the school who was born female but identifies as male told the school’s student news magazine. “If I had to drink something, I’d go into the women’s bathroom. I would rather feel kind of unpleasant (in there) than terrified in the men’s bathroom.”

The Maine Supreme Court recently heard arguments in the case of a student who was born male but who identified as female since a young age. When she was in fifth grade, school administrators forced her to use a separate staff bathroom. She, her parents and their attorneys argue that the special treatment discriminated against her under the state’s Human Rights Act.

Some communities are acting proactively. Multnomah County, Ore., which includes Portland, and Philadelphia, Pa. are the most recent to adopt policies to require unisex bathrooms in all new government buildings. They are the forefront of a public conversation that will bring broader understanding, just as past conversations illuminated race and homosexuality.

Bathrooms are only one difficult discussion, too. Society must grapple with how other spheres of public life can accommodate all people. Government identification cards and sports, especially youth and college athletics, traditionally embrace an untenable bifurcation of sex.

Providing a separate unisex alternative dodges the immediate problem, but it does not solve the more fundamental challenge. Separate but equal is not how we do things in this country. Someday we will get over our remaining bathroom hang-ups.

Christian Trejbal is a member of the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists and chair of the Open Government Committee. Overcoming graduate degrees in philosophy, he worked as an editorial writer at The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times for more than a decade. In 2013, he and his wife moved to Portland, Ore., where he writes freelance and provides public policy analysis. Or, as his wife prefers to say, he is a stay-at-home dude. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal.  

Image Source: By Kurt Löwenstein Educational Center International Team from Germany (ws’08 (20)) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

  • OmK

    “Discomfort, however, is a poor excuse to treat some people as outsiders.”

    You’ve hit on a key point here, Christian. But this goes way beyond “discomfort” for women. How can we not view a person with a penis and testicles as an “outsider” in the context of places we and our female children go to relieve ourselves (bathrooms) or undress and shower (health clubs, locker rooms)?

    According to some transgender groups, up to 80 percent of those who identify as transgender will never have genital surgery. Wearing stereotypically-female clothes over a male body cannot change a male into a female, nor should it grant him access to those few places that have always been sex-segregated for reasons that are obvious to the vast majority of women and men worldwide.

    • little lucy jordan

      Hi OmK, I would like to give a perspective from a transwoman (much as i dislike that term, i am simply a woman) who started her transition 2 years ago and has just returned from Reassignment Surgery overseas. I cannot speak for all in my position but i suspect my views might be shared by a few.

      You hit upon a key point when you said ‘how can we not view a person with penis and testicles as a man’, the key word being ‘view’. My personal approach in my one and a half year Real Life Test was to restrict myself to places where these unwanted appendages could not be viewed. Thus, i used the women’s bathrooms over this period (as deemed appropriate by the International Standards of Care) but not changing rooms or similar. I cannot think of any trans person i know that would wish to do the latter, given the potential uproar and commotion this would cause – transitioning is challenging enough without actively drawing attention to yourself!. Of course, now that i have had my surgery i will be using both in future.

      However, I’m not sure you should put all your faith in a persons gentials determining which set of ablutions they should use. I wonder how comfortable you and your friends would be with a muscular fully bearded transman changing next to you. Yes, he might not have had surgery so there’s no issues about the genitals, but he is a he and i suspect you and most changing room patrons would struggle to get past his appearance.

      I have watched this debate in America from afar (New Zealand) where this does not seem to be an issue at all. While it’s not been articulated in this post there seems to be a nasty under current that all transpeople are just sexual deviants trying to get a look in the other changing rooms. Can i assure you all that this is not the case, i believe the vast majority of us just want to live out our lives in the gender we know ourselves and fit in as best we can. Anyone, trans or otherwise, that dons a dress for deviant purposes should be pretty easy to spot by comparison

      Regards, lucy 🙂

      • Blake

        Well said Lucy, and I suspect you speak for a majority of transgender people.

        We all tend to forget that along with everything else, we’re all people, and have different comfort levels. There are many straight, “native gender”(?) people who are uncomfortable around other people of the same “type”.

        Maybe the solution is one person bathrooms?

      • OmK

        “I cannot think of any trans person i know that would wish to do the latter [expose his male genitalia to women and girls in public facilities], given the potential uproar and commotion this would cause….”

        Hi Lucy! Meet Colleen Francis, 45 year-old transwoman with male genitalia who exposed his junk to girls on a high school swim team. And according to Washington State law, it appears he has the right to do so. This is one unfortunate outcome when junk science (I can be whatever sex I *feel* like I am) meets civil rights legislation.


        • Lucy jordan

          Hi Omk. I just had a read of your article you posted and personally believe that she (and lets get the pronouns right) has either failed to be as discreet as she could have been or has been less the considerate of other peoples feelings then she should be. I still find the decision to use the changing rooms prior to surgery as decidedly risky and to do so when children are around (and risk being hounded as a deviant, a pervert or worse) is unfathomable to me. I do believe she is within her rights and, as there are a number or transpers who will not have surgery, i can understand why she would choose to use them if that is how she would be for life. However, while it’d everyones perogative to assert their rights, transitioning usually requires you to be extra mindful of peoples feelings and I don’t believe she did that in this case. There would certainly be scope to take this matter up with her further and i would be interested in her thoughts and explanations on this one.

          I do have an issue with how the paper reported this. There is a world of different from what was in the article ‘naked and displaying male genitalia’ (and no differentiation between displaying as in ‘happened to have’ and displaying as in ‘showing them off’) The title of the article clearly suggests (to me) that she was actively exposing her genitals (in the same manner a flasher would in the park) and tends towards the sexual deviant angle so beloved by headline writers when the truth may have been very different. Again, i think there’s more information that needs to come out before i’d want to make a final judgement on this (beyond, ‘there’s no way i’d ever put myself in this position’)

          I am a bit bemused by your last sentence, that of “junk science” (i can be whatever sex i ‘feel’ i am). Please tell me you would not be so quick to write-off my experience and that of thousands of transmen and women as if it was nothing more then a fad, something we just ‘felt like’ doing??? I freely acknowledge that i have had a very good run, being well supported by friends, family and work but i know thats not the case for many. I’ve never met anyone who transitioned for fun but plenty who did it because they knew they had to and there was no other option.

          regards Lucy 🙂

    • Artful

      “reasons that are obvious”
      What reasons?

      • OmK

        Art, I sense you are being disingenuous, especially given your observation below equating the desire for both-sexes-in-one public facilities with the fact that families usually share private facilities in their own homes (so, hey, what’s the diff, right?).

        So here’s my response to your question about the reasons known to the vast majority of women and men why some facilities are sex-segregated:

        Go out on the street with a clipboard and recording device; pick strangers at random (make sure to choose some women with young children in tow); ask the following question: “We’re gathering signatures for a petition to present to our city council. We wish to have an ordinance passed which will allow people with penises access to any place that females congregate, including elementary school bathrooms, high school locker rooms, and all public bathrooms. Is there any reason you wouldn’t support our position?” Then stand back and listen to the reasons.

  • Ooh come on… You’ve GOT to be kidding. I don’t think, “getting over bathroom hang-ups’ is a legitimate challenge. Why the heck wouldn’t I have a ‘hang-up about this? Public restrooms are usually difficult enough and now you suggest society embrace a transgendered male in the next stall? He better have on good shoes- and be sitting down.

  • Blake

    Zero point three percent. The issue is proportionally important. Somewhere behind who wins “Dancing with the Stars”.

  • Artful

    I don’t see any reason why we cannot have unisex bathrooms. There are some places in the city where I live that already have them available. Not enough of them available in my opinion. A person enter a stall, closes and locks a door to use the bathroom. Put urinals in a stall too for privacy. Sinks and soap for washing our hands can be shared.
    I don’t foresee a problem with unisex bathrooms. The bathrooms in our homes are unisex. Why not carry that concept to public bathrooms?!

    I’ve also seen locker rooms with changing rooms for privacy. If someone wants to undress and expose themselves to people outside of the private changing room, then that is a choice they made as an individual. Personally, I don’t appreciate naked women in a locker room, but I have to deal with that reality if I want to use a locker room at a health club.

    A third locker room that does not allow public nudity, but requires disrobing in a changing room could be an option for those who want it, regardless of gender identity!

    • Blake

      ” The bathrooms in our homes are unisex. Why not carry that concept to public bathrooms?!”

      Because our homes are not public?

  • SophieCT

    “The bathrooms in our homes are unisex. Why not carry that concept to public bathrooms?!”

    The bathrooms in our homes are also single-occupancy and I submit that may be the public solution so that everyone can feel comfortable. Many places (the nearby mall, for example) have what they call Family Restrooms where they’ve taken care to accommodate that either gender parent may need to take either gender child to the restroom. They all come equipped with a change station as well, allowing for the fact that fathers may need to change their children’s diapers. What if all public restrooms were single-occupancy restrooms with no gender assigned?

  • I have no idea why people freak out so much over bathrooms. If people are in a stall, what difference does it make?

    There’s another good reason for providing unisex bathrooms: people who need to be accompanied by a parent or partner of the opposite sex. I know many parents have this issue when their children get to be 5 or 6 – big enough that adults start objecting to their presence in opposite-sex bathrooms, but small enough that parents are still frightened to let them go on their own.

    My sister was an overweight quadraplegic. She needed her big strong husband to transfer her to the toilet and help her stay there. This made traveling a nightmare. Roll up to a rest stop with 20 stalls, ask everyone in line to either clear out or provide an ok that they were fine with a man entering the handicapped stall, then try to finish quickly (hard with a wheelchair user who had no control over her own limbs) before the line backed up too long. This was so difficult and embarrassing that my sister usually refused to travel more than a few miles from home. A unisex bathroom would have made all the difference.

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