Thursday, May 21, 2009

Access to Bathrooms and Gender Identity

One issue that frequently comes up when discussing gender identity and transgender and transsexual people has to do with access to bathrooms, an issue most of us never think twice about. We take advantage of the fact that in a public setting we can walk into the gendered bathroom of our choice and not face retaliation or even a second look. But if you're a person who identifies otherwise an essential part of daily life becomes a stressful ordeal each and every time you have to use the bathroom.

The Advocate covered a story about a transgender woman was was barred from using a Denny's restroom consistent with her gender identity until she had finished transitioning, and the question now is whether or not she has the right to sue the company. Denny's denied the charge of discrimination, saying that "allowing a biological male to use the female restroom despite gender identity will pose a direct threat to the health and well-being of staff and customers". The story goes on to use the "slippery slope" argument, arguing that someone with "devious intent" could take advantage of any concessions.

There's a growing body of literature on this issue and a growing awareness of the issues in and outside the LGBT community, with sites like safe2pee compiling city-by-city lists of gender neutral or single bathrooms, and several college campuses have started instituting gender neutral facilities to help transgender students.

Before the end of the school year I was interviewed by two students in a media class who had been interviewing students about the proposed introduction of gender neutral bathrooms on our campus. After I did my spot, where I argued that since every middle class home in America already has a gender neutral bathroom without issue this should not be that big of a deal, I was told by the two students that in taking interviews they had found the female students more receptive to the idea, while the male students expressed nervousness at the idea of women being in the same bathroom. This surprised me, but it got me thinking.

Why is this such a contemptuous issue shows that it's an intersection between gender, sexuality and social norms, as well as bringing in issues of privacy and access. In some ways bathrooms represent the last significant and formal gender divide in our society, so it's understandable that it causes people to react strongly to it no matter where they stand on it. But when it comes to denying people access to the bathroom of the gender they identify with it crosses into human rights and privacy, since it opens up large avenues of legal issues. Whether the person who needs to use the facility has more right than a person who may be uncomfortable with the idea of a person who is still biologically another sex using the same facilities is a philosophical debate that I can't fully cover here, but it's a fight that we usually aren't aware of.

I was in a multiple -stall gender neutral bathroom at an LGBT conference last year, and while I was a bit startled when a man walked in it didn't seem especially weird. Just about everyone was some variant of LGBT at that conference, but the point still stands. It doesn't seem like this should be as big an issue as it is, but one thing I've found is that whenever an issue like this is brought up people's reactions are unpredictable and sometimes very revealing of how deeply we hold certain sociological norms.


  1. I can sympathise a bit with the male students' discomfort; many men's rooms still have little to non-existent screening around urinals. The idea of a stereotypical pack of women bursting into the room just as you're about to pee, and then standing around you as they take turns into the stall must seem like something out of a bad dream... =P

  2. That seemed to be the source of the male side of the discomfort, while I know women use it differently. Reminded me of this video that we watched in beginning sociology, as a matter of fact.

    Generally the gender neutral bathrooms being discussed at the college would be single use or have stall doors, but that may or may not make a difference to alleviate that fear.