Here's why we need gender-neutral washrooms

As bathroom bullies fight inclusion, they endanger people who simply want to do their business in safety.

My wife may be approaching middle age, but she looks like a cute teenage boy — picture Family Ties-era Michael J. Fox with forearm tattoos. When she wears a baseball cap, she gets asked for ID in the liquor store. And when she enters a public women’s washroom, she gets double-takes and stares. So sometimes I act as bathroom bodyguard, flanking her as she enters and hovering by the sinks to make sure she doesn’t get hassled. I look and dress more obviously female — I have long hair and usually have on lipstick — and I figure if I’m there with her, people will understand that she’s also a woman, or at least not a threat.

The scrutiny tends to be fleeting. Once in a while, though, there will be someone like the drunk woman in her early twenties at a St. Vincent show last year who shrieked, “Oh my god, are you a girl?” in a crowded concert hall bathroom, then made it worse by apologizing even more loudly. The attention is embarrassing, at times it can even verge on hostile and I worry for my wife — the fact that she is perceived as being dangerous means that she in turn isn’t safe. Mostly, she avoids women’s washrooms in public altogether if she can.

Washrooms have become highly contested spaces in the last few years, with the rise of transgender activism and visibility. Workplaces and schools throughout Canada and the U.S. have been asked to accommodate trans people and anyone else whose appearance doesn’t readily fit into gender norms by creating more gender-neutral washrooms, or simply allowing people to use the washroom of their choosing.

There’s a Victorian prudishness to the gendered bathroom division — as though we’re too dainty to imagine relieving ourselves in mixed company even if we are in a locked cubicle. It’s just silly — the bathrooms in our homes aren’t sex-segregated. Airplanes have non-gendered washrooms, as do many restaurants and hospitals. And not only do non-gendered washrooms make life easier for trans and queer people, they also make it much simpler for parent to take their opposite-sex child to the bathroom, or for an opposite-sex caregiver to assist someone with a disability when a stand-alone accessible washroom isn’t available.

Some jurisdictions have been progressive in rethinking the rules. Alberta, for instance, has established a set of guidelines for its schools that explicitly protects LGBT people and those who are gender-variant, including ensuring their right to use the bathroom that fits their self-identity. The policy states stating that everyone has “the right to an environment free of unjust discrimination, prejudice and harassment.”

Other places, most notably, North Carolina have been overtly hateful. The state measure House Bill 2, or HB2, which became a law in March, requires people to use the bathroom that reflects their biological gender at birth. A transgender man with a beard astutely nailed the stupid logic behind the law by tweeting a picture of himself to North Carolina’s anti-LGBT governor with the caption: “It’s now law for me to share a restroom with your wife.” Still, conservative politicians like Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz have ginned up hysteria over the patently false idea that allowing trans and queer people to use the bathroom that is most comfortable for them poses a threat to women and children. (Cruz says he is very worried rapists might dress up as women to gain access to washrooms; however Cruz has also said that abortion should be illegal in cases of rape, so I’m not buying his sudden solidarity with the ladies.) In fact, there are zero reported cases of trans people assaulting anyone in washrooms.

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Predictably, bigots have taken it upon themselves to police women’s washrooms. In Texas, a man recently stopped a woman with short hair as she entered a female restroom in a medical centre, demanding that she identify her gender. He then told her it was her fault for being dressed like a man. After Target announced that it would permit transgender employees and customers to use the restroom and fitting room matching their gender identities, it was met with petitions, boycotts and protests, including a group of men who have been barging into women’s washrooms in various Target outlets to make some sort of statement — like that’s not creepy or scary at all.

What’s lost in this tempest in a toilet is that the only people actually under threat are trans and queer ones. I interviewed a mother last year for an article about trans children and she said her child finds public washrooms so stressful that the child has developed bladder problems from holding it in when they need to pee. Many other parents told me similar stories — the toughest situation for their kids to navigate was public bathrooms. It’s led them to miss school, avoid summer camps and drop out of sports teams. Meanwhile, a survey of trans and gender non-conforming people in the Washington, D.C. area found that 70 percent had had a negative experience using a bathroom — from verbal harassment and dirty looks to physical assault and being reported to police.

All of this over an outdated symbol on a restroom door. The more the bathroom bullies fight inclusion and justice, the more they endanger people who simply want to do their business in safety.

More columns by Rachel Giese:
‘I hope your boyfriend beats you.’ The PSA every man you know should see
Moving away is no solution for the people of Attawapiskat
Men freak out at the idea of being a (virtual) woman