Unisex public toilet
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Unisex public toilets (also called gender-inclusive, gender-neutral or all-gender toilets) are public toilets that are not separated by gender. Unisex public toilets can be designed to benefit a range of people with or without special needs, for example people with disabilities, the elderly, and anyone who needs the help of someone of another gender. They are also valuable for parents wishing to accompany one or more of their children needing a toilet facility.
Unisex public toilets can be used by people of any gender or gender identity, i.e. male, female, transgender, intersex. Gender-neutral toilet facilities can benefit transgender populations and people outside of the gender binary.
Key differences between male and female public toilets in most western countries include the presence of urinals for men and boys and sanitary bins for the disposal of menstrual hygiene products for women and older girls.
- 1 Terminology
- 2 Designs
- 3 Advantages
- 4 Disadvantages
- 5 Criticism of unisex toilets
- 6 Legislation
- 7 Unisex toilets in educational institutions
- 8 Advocacy examples
- 9 History
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 External links
Several alternative terms are in use for unisex public toilets: All-gender toilets, gender neutral toilets, gender free toilets or all-user toilets. These are all toilets which can (in theory) be used by anybody, regardless of gender identity or presentation. The term "all-gender toilets" highlight that these are toilets that can be used by people of any gender.
The "Public Toilet Advocacy Toolkit" by the NGO Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human (PHLUSH) in Portland, Oregon (United States) from 2015 uses the term "all-gender". More recently, they have changed to the term "all user".
Some of the unisex toilets described here are "accessible toilets" which are also referred to as "disabled toilets". This term is generally used when talking about the larger toilet cubicle with handrails etc., which usually have a wheelchair-user sign on the outside door.
Some unisex public toilets are designed to be used by people with disabilities. Many public toilets have either individual or gender-neutral facilities. They can accommodate people with disabilities, elderly persons who may require assistance from a carer of another gender, or other cases where public gender-segregated facilities might lead to discomfort. Toilet facilities for disabled people, especially those reliant on a wheelchair, may be either unisex or gender-specific.
Several types can be distinguished:
- The single occupancy facility where only one single room or enclosure is provided. This room could be used by several people at once, e.g. a whole family, a carer helping a person needing help.
- Multi-user facilities which are open to all and where users may either share sinks in an open area or each have their own sink in their private cubicle, stall or room.
- The re-labelling of existing multi-cubicle public toilets, with no real change. For example at the Barbican Centre.
Provided that more than one toilet is available in unisex restrooms, toilets are accommodated in enclosed cubicles as in sex-segregated toilets. To ensure visual privacy, these should be provided with floor-to-ceiling walls.
Sinks are either installed in open arrangement as in sex-segregated toilets and used collectively by people of all gender. Alternatively, a sink is provided in each cubicle or toilet room, e.g. where the unisex toilet is set up to be used by families and carers.
The issue of urinals is creating somewhat of a conundrum for many unisex restroom designers. In many public toilets, the widespread use of urinals for males means that there are more opportunities to meet their needs. Since about 90% of public toilets are used for urination, there are often regular queues in front of female toilets with unused toilet cubicles in the male area. While toilets are usually located in cubicles with lockable doors, urinals are usually installed freely in rows in gender-separated toilet rooms. This construction leads to a smaller space consumption and thus to more possibilities for urinating, while promoting better hygiene and economic efficiency for men and boys.
Urinals have primarily been offered in male bathrooms, with female urinals being only a niche product so far. Abolishing all urinals would superficially reduce inequality. However, this would also sacrifice the advantages of urinals and the convenience for male users while doing nothing to improve sanitation or wait time for females. Another possibility would be to offer separate male and female urinals or unisex urinals that can be used by males and females alike, which allows increased flexibility of use. However, this would raise the problem of arrangement. One option would be to continue to offer urinals in rows, with separation by screens. However, it is questionable whether the less private sphere, compared to cubicle toilets, would be met with acceptance. Due to socio-cultural conventions, the open use of urinals by men/boys in front of women/girls would likely create awkwardness for both genders and would currently seem strange and contrary to common morals and etiquette for many users. There are even more practical issues for females, such as women/girls needing toilet paper, having to lower their pants, and sometimes tending to their menstrual hygiene needs while going to the toilet for urination. An alternative would be to accommodate urinals for both sexes in cubicles or to continue to offer them only in male bathrooms. However, this would at least limit the above-mentioned advantages of urinals.
Urinals arranged in cubicles often could not prevail in previous concepts; the advantages over conventional toilets were not obvious due to the unreduced space requirement. With all things considered, many unisex restroom designers are now creating plans in which urinals would be constructed in an isolated section or corner of the restroom so that they would not be directly visible to anyone in other areas of the restroom. This is seen by many as the best possible solution that would balance efficiency with modesty.
Better use of available space
Especially where space is limited, the double design of the sanitary facilities is not possible or only possible to a limited extent. Unisex toilets are often used in many public transport systems, such as rail vehicles or airplanes.
Women/girls often spend more time in toilet rooms than men/boys, both for physiological and cultural reasons. The requirement to use a cubicle rather than a urinal means that urination takes longer and sanitation is a far greater issue, often requiring more thorough hand washing. Females also make more visits to washrooms. Urinary tract infections and incontinence are more common in females. Pregnancy, menstruation, breastfeeding, and diaper-changing increase usage. The elderly, who are disproportionately female, take longer and more frequent toilet visits. Unisex public toilets can alleviate this problem by providing equal sanitation space for all genders, eliminating the prospect of unused cubicles in the male bathroom.
Public toilets and sanitation facilities in general need to cater for all people, including those part of the LGBTI community. This is an issue with respect to the human right to water and sanitation and also from the perspective of the Sustainable Development Goal 6, which aim for universal access to sanitation and gender equality.
For many genderqueer people and people of the third sex, such as intersexuals, butch lesbians or people with a non-binary transgender identity, it is difficult or even impossible to go to a gender-separated toilet, as they do not feel that they belong clearly to any sex. Sometimes these groups of people are even exposed to hostility when visiting the toilet. Parents of small children also face a dilemma if they want to accompany their small (opposite sex) child to the toilet.
Butch women are often run out of 'women's restrooms', gender non-conforming people lack safe space to pee, trans women who do not experience passing privileges on a routine basis are discriminated against.— Justin Adkins, Trans-Activist
Sex segregation of public toilets began gaining traction as a controversial issue for transgender identity in US politics in 2010. It has been argued that "walking into a toilet segregated by sex requires that each of us in effect self-segregate" and that some transgender people report being challenged on what public toilet they choose to use and subsequently "do their best to forego use of public toilets altogether".
Many questions concerning exactly how social and legal enforcement of the division should take place has been the subject of many a debate. Transgender people often face harassment based on their choice in public toilets regardless of whether they use the toilet room corresponding to their gender identity or their sex assigned at birth, which has led many activists in the transgender community to call for legal protection for people wishing to use restrooms which most accurately reflect their gender identity. Others have questioned the need for gender-based toilet segregation in the first place. In addition to transgender issues, those questioning the need for gendered bathrooms cite dilemmas caused by the need for caretakers of dependents (who include children, the elderly, and the mentally and physically disabled) to enter the toilet room used by their charge, regardless of which toilet rooms they may use themselves.
Others have proposed laws which require transgender individuals to use public toilets corresponding to their sex assigned at birth. Some advocates of these laws claim that transgender people, or men claiming to be transgender, will be responsible for sexual assault in public toilets matching their gender identity. However, statistics on sexual assault in public toilets show no incidence of assaults where the perpetrator was a transgender person using a restroom corresponding to their gender identity, while 70% of transgender people report facing harassment or assault while trying to use a restroom in the District of Columbia.
In the 21st century, with increased exposure of the transgender community, there have been some initiatives calling for gender-neutral public toilets, instead of only male and female ones, to accommodate genderqueer individuals. Political activists have drawn on the commonality between public toilets being segregated formerly by race and still by sex. This has become an increasingly contentious issue, as shown in the battles over North Carolina's Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act 2016. Transgender and gender non-conforming persons also may be subject to embarrassment, harassment, or even assault or arrest by others offended by the presence of a person they interpret as being of a different anatomical sex to themselves. Several groups and organizations, whether in person or online, exist in order to combat the discriminatory attitudes and bills that oppose transgender individuals. For instance, the Transgender Law Center's "Peeing in Peace" is a pamphlet that serves as a resource guide full of information on harassment, safe bathroom campaigns, legal information, and more.
The consolidation of previously gender-separated toilets and the construction of new unisex toilets is sometimes accompanied on the one hand by administrative and building law difficulties, and on the other by some public moral concerns.
Building laws in some states require that toilets be physically separated for both sexes, making unisex toilets virtually illegal. In the USA, especially in large cities and at universities, unisex toilets have been increasingly put into operation since 2010.
Comfort and safety
In both developed and developing countries, many of the organizations active in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) provision have asserted in the past that separate toilets for boys and girls at school are very important to make girls feel comfortable and safe using the sanitation facilities at schools. This concern could potentially apply to boys as well, especially if open urinals are maintained. As an alternative, some unisex school toilets could be provided at schools in addition to facilities that are separated by gender (which is often the case already in the case of toilets for people with disabilities).
WaterAid is researching options of appropriate unisex public toilets in developing countries. In 2017 they stated that those kinds of gender-neutral toilets, where people can access all toilets irrespective of their gender, is not recommended in contexts where it may increase the risk of violence against women or transgender people, or where it is deemed culturally inappropriate. Many women, especially those who have been victims of sexual abuse in the past, have asserted the right to continue using all-female bathrooms to minimize the risk of any kind of sexual harassment in public restrooms.
There is limited evidence that in developing countries, some activists favour ‘third gender’ public toilets which would only be used by transgender people. However, this is still being debated and may reinforce stigma and result in people being banned from accessing the toilets of the gender they identify with. In some African countries where transgender people are being prosecuted, this option would likely bring no benefit at all.
Criticism of unisex toilets
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The unisex toilets are met with opposition especially from the conservative side, for instance from the Christian conservative Alliance Defending Freedom. The sharing of toilets is presented as immoral and against prevailing habits. The debate is sometimes controversial and bears the hallmarks of moral panic, especially in the USA.
Aspects of cultural identity and the feared change in values play into the controversy: with the abolition of gender segregation in public toilets, a decay of morals and public order is called for. Similar discursive patterns are used as in the argument against the abolition of racial segregation in the USA in the 1950s, a warning is issued against the looming threats: violence and sexual assaults would increase. Also, while many transgender rights advocates see unisex restrooms as a positive step, others assert that they are not actively lobbying to change anything about how restrooms are traditionally designed. In cases where schools have unisex bathrooms as an alternative to those separated for boys and girls, transgender rights advocates have asserted that transgender students should not be forced to use the unisex bathrooms if that is not what they prefer.
The concept of the unisex toilet became a political emotive word, particularly within the Alt Right and paleoconservatism, whereby this pars pro toto stands for the abolition of gender boundaries, gender mainstreaming and liberalism. For instance, Alex Jones regards the unisex toilet as a major threat to public morality. Christian conservatives compare the introduction of unisex toilets with the abolition of bible reading in state schools. Gabriele Bublies-Leifert, member of the German right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) regards the unisex toilet as a danger for German women and relates it to sexual assaults by ″criminal foreigners″.
In some cases, there were escalations between users and opponents of unisex toilets: in Los Angeles in 2016 there were violent clashes between students and opponents of toilets. Also, the newly installed unisex toilets at the German Bielefeld University have repeatedly been vandalized.
Unisex toilets have appeared in China since before 2013 in Shenyang and Chengdu by 2015. However, it was not until November 19, 2016 that Shanghai China opened its first public unisex toilet near the Zhangjiabin River in a park, in the Pudong district. Many of these toilets have opened in high-traffic areas for the convenience of users as opposed to existing for the benefit of those in need of a gender neutral toilet, for example sexual minorities or those who are disabled. In May 2016 a Beijing- based non-governmental organization launched an 'All Gender Toilets' campaign to bring awareness to this issue in China. This resulted around 30 locations opening unisex public toilets.
In 2014 the Indian Supreme Court gave transgender people, also known as 'hijras', recognition with a third gender. This legislation included creating separate toilets for transgender people in public spaces where transgender people are often met with violence and hostility. The two-judge Supreme Court bench was led by Justice KS Radhakrishnan, who said, "The court order gives legal sanctity to the third gender. The judges said the government must make sure that they have access to medical care and other facilities like separate wards in hospitals and separate toilets". In 2017 The Union Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation sent out guidelines to the Swachh Bharat Mission decreeing that members who are part of the transgender community should be allowed to use the public toilet they are most comfortable with.
As of 2016, still no laws were set in place regarding the usage of public toilets in relation to gender identity; there may however be occasional signs in front of public toilets that indicate that the stall is 'gender free'. The Tokyo city government is planning to install one unisex toilet in at least seven out of eleven of the buildings being used for the Olympic Games in 2020.
LGBT rights in Nepal have existed for a number of years but it wasn't until Sunil Babu Pant who was elected into Parliament, used part of the Parliamentarian Development Fund to build the first two gender neutral toilets in Nepalganj, one of which is in Bageshwori Park. Starting in 2014 The Nepal Country Report, A Participatory Review and Analysis of the Legal and Social Environment for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Persons and Civil Society recommended that in schools separate toilets or gender neutral toilets should be built for transgender students.
The term "kathoeys" used to describe effeminate male-bodied people, for whom schools have started opening gender-segregated toilets for since 2003. After legislation passed, in 2004 a private vocational college in Chiang Mai Thailand gave 15 'kathoey' students the opportunity to use toilet facilities that were solely for them, referred to as 'pink lotus' public toilets. Alliance organizations in Thailand such as the Thai Transgender Alliance and the Transferral Association of Thailand were created to support kathoey people such as by helping create separate public toilet facilities. Kathoey enfranchisement was made helped by the creation of separate toilets at the Lummahachaichumpol Temple in Rayong.
Building laws in some states require that toilets be physically separated for both sexes, making unisex toilets virtually illegal. In the USA, especially in large cities and at universities, unisex toilets have been increasingly put into operation since 2010.
American public toilets are regulated by two federal agencies. The U.S. Department of Labor is in charge of workplace restrooms, which means setting state guidelines through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). For non-work related restroom guidelines, the Department of Health and Human Services governs regulations.
Sex segregation can also be caused by building codes, as buildings from different eras are subject to different codes. In many situations, building owners do not update existing features because it allows them to continue following the older building codes that go along with those older features.These regulations are mostly based on the precedent created by original legislation, though they sometimes also work to eliminate the longer wait time females often face by creating a ratio of more female restrooms than male restrooms.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission provides federal anti-discrimination protection on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy status, age, disability, and genetic information. However, federal anti-discrimination laws do not extend to LGBT individuals. In May 2016 the U.S. Department of Education and the Justice Department indicated that single-sex schools and schools receiving federal money must treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. This has not extended such a ruling to transgender students across the board. Each state, county, and city government enacts its own legislation governing how it will or will not protect the rights of LGBT individuals; this includes provision of gender neutral public toilets.
The United States Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that employers provide accessible toilets for all employees, and that employers do not impose "unreasonable restrictions" on employees who wish to use toilets at work. However, this federal requirement for employers applies mainly to the physically disabled, and to women employed in male-dominated workplaces. OSHA historically has not applied this law to transgender employees.
Ordinances at city or state level
San Francisco, Philadelphia, Seattle, Washington D.C., West Hollywood, Austin, and the US states of Vermont and California - have passed measures mandating that single-occupancy bathrooms in public spaces be labeled as gender-neutral.
The City Council of Portland, Oregon passed an ordinance for "all user restrooms" in 2015. This ordinance directed all city bureaus to convert all "single-user gender-specific restrooms" into "all-user restrooms" within six months.
The Human Rights Campaign recommends that employers grant access, and use, to public toilets according to an employee's "full time gender presentation", and provides a list of recommendations for employers on how to do so.
On September 29, 2016 Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation (Assembly Bill 1732) after being approved by the Assembly and Senate which meant California became the first state in the US to require all single-occupancy public toilets to be gender-neutral since March 1, 2017. This includes California schools, government buildings, businesses and public toilets. Legislation has also been proposed in California that "requires...private buildings open to the public, as specified, to maintain at least one safe, sanitary, and convenient baby diaper changing station that is accessible to women and men".
Laws restricting access
In May 2016, North Carolina and the U.S. Justice Department disagreed on the issue, resulting in the Justice department engaging in a civil rights lawsuit over North Carolina's 'bathroom bill' in order to stop its implementation. This bill disallowed transgender people to use public toilets if the gender of the restroom does not match their birth certificate. Moreover, businesses in North Carolina have enforced toilet restrictions on transgender customers at their discretion. Mississippi also limited public toilet usage through the enactment of a law that protects religious beliefs, citing: “male (man) or female (woman) refers to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth,” which does not consider transgender and intersex people.
State legislatures in Arizona, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas have proposed anti-transgender bills that would restrict public toilet access.
Unisex toilets in educational institutions
Many colleges and universities (such as Oberlin College in Ohio) have had gender-neutral or all gender bathrooms as early as 2000. In February 2016, Michigan was the first state in the US to pass a bill that forces transgender children and teenagers in school to use sanitation facilities that correspond with their 'chromosomes and anatomy' at birth. On 22 February 2017, the Trump administration ended federal protection for transgender students that had been published by the Obama administration in 2016. These guidelines encouraged schools to let students use toilets or locker rooms that they identified with.
In 2015 Scotland aimed to create its first unisex toilet in Strathean Community Campus in Crieff, a secondary school. In 2015 Unisex toilets were set to be introduced into every new school to be built in Scotland in a campaign to eradicate bullying. All future primary and secondary schools will have non-segregated toilets. The Scottish Futures Trust which is in charge of Scotland's government's schools building program has already trialled this in one primary school and two secondary schools. In March 2017 the Glasgow City Council announced that toilets in school will no longer be labeled as 'girls' and 'boys' but instead be labelled as unisex to help students who may be struggling with the issue of gender identity. This will be implemented in three schools first.
As of 2014, there has been a trend on college campuses in the US to open all-gender public toilets. Some campuses are renaming their existing restrooms and toilets to do this. The motive is in part an effort to make students of any gender to use the restroom and feel safe. Activists also say they hope that anyone - not only gender-nonbinary people - can feel safe, raising the convenience it provides to disabled people to get assistance from someone with a differing gender. According to a University of Massachusetts Amherst LGBTQ organization, The Stonewall Centre, there were more than 150 campuses in the US in 2014 with gender-neutral public toilets.
Research by the same organization comments on the need for gender neutral restrooms and the issue of safety. It says that certain people feel threatened using facilities that do not adhere to their gender identity, and this can become an issue when students are harassed by their peers. The organization states that this is more of an issue in restrooms that are designated for male use than those that are designated for female use.
According to a research article by Olga Gershenson of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, restrooms have always been an issue for one group or another. First, women around the world petitioned for the right to their own facilities; next were racial minorities in the US during the time of segregation. After this fight, people with disabilities raised the issue to get fully equipped facilities. That fight ended with changes to building codes to make washroom more accessible. Now the issue concerns transgender and other gender variant people.
The University of Oklahoma continually adds gender-neutral restrooms to their campus to accommodate students who may require use of a less excessively gendered bathroom. (Students that fit under this umbrella may identify as non-heterosexual). As of February 2014, the university had 13 unisex bathrooms. Recently, the university has vowed to include a gender neutral bathroom in all new buildings to be constructed.
Forcing trans / non-binary students to use normative gendered restrooms can stigmatize them daily by singling them out.
There are over 150 college campuses across the US that are creating unisex public toilet or "gender-neutral restrooms". In March 2016, New York City private college Cooper Union moved to remove gender designations from campus bathrooms. In October 2016, University of California Berkeley converted several restrooms into gender-neutral washrooms.
In the United Kingdom, all-gender restrooms are sometimes found on university campuses. In early 2013, Brighton and Hove city council introduced unisex toilets, which did not feature the words 'men/gentlemen' or 'women/ladies' (as is traditional), but instead used 'universal symbols'. Other British universities including Bradford Union, Sussex and Manchester, have already or are in the process of building unisex facilities.
Clara Greed, professor of inclusive urban planning at the University of the West of England, related the gender segregation and the associated discrimination against women to the racial segregation at the time of the Jim Crow laws in the USA, which took place for similar argumentative reasons. Referring to the principle of racial segregation: "Separate but equal", Senfronia Thompson, the Democratic Party's colored representative in the Texas House of Representatives, criticized the current situation:
Steps to create bathroom equity are being pushed for. The issue of bathroom equity is thus pushed for by feminists in order to allocate a space that is more fair and equal for women.
Since the 1980s, "potty parity" activists campaigned for laws requiring more female-designated public toilets than male-designated public toilets in public buildings, based on the idea that women require more time to use the toilet and thus women's toilets tend to have longer lines. California passed the first law of this kind in 1987, and as of 2009 twenty states in the US have passed similar legislation.
However, women are not only disadvantaged by the fact that no urinals are provided for them and thus the possibilities for urination are limited. A two-tier system is also indirectly generated via the "toilet apartheid" by excluding women from important networking processes in men's toilets. Mary Anne Case, feminist and professor of law at the University of Chicago, found out that important agreements and decisions are made at the urinal where women are previously excluded. Accordingly, she argues that:
„Equality will never be achieved while sex-segregated restrooms persist!" - Mary Anne Case
In the Netherlands a protest movement has formed under the name of Zeikwijven ("the wild-peeing women"), which advocates urination equality and takes action against the discrimination of women through limited possibilities of micturition. The initiative was triggered after 23-year-old Geerte Piening was sentenced to a fine for urinating in public on the street. Her complaint was rejected on the judicial grounds that Piening should have used a street urinal common in the Netherlands. The objection that this was designed only for men was not accepted: "it may not be comfortable, but it is possible". According to one campaign initiator, the problem is that:
"...it isn't possible for women to urinate in a decent, hygienic and dignified manner in a public urinal designed for men." - Zeikwijven (Urination Equality in the Netherlands)
As part of this campaign, women in the Netherlands began to urinate demonstratively in public urinals for men. Meanwhile, the Dutch city authorities are planning to increasingly offer an unisex version of the Urilift street urinals, which are now available in Dutch city centres and can be used comfortably by men and women.
In April 2014, the Vancouver Park Board decided to install all-gender restrooms in public buildings, with different signs to identify them. Amongst the options discussed was the rainbow triangle (based on the pink triangle used during the Holocaust), an 'all-inclusive' gender symbol, an icon representing a toilet or the phrases 'washroom' or 'gender-neutral washroom' placed on the entrances to the toilets. According to Global News, a Canadian online newspaper, many different regions across Canada offer unisex toilets and other gender-neutral facilities, but Vancouver was the first municipality to change building codes to require unisex toilets be built in public buildings. This movement, according to commissioner Trevor Loke, was aimed to make everyone feel welcomed and included: "We think that the recommendation of universal washrooms is a good idea [...] [w]e will be using more inclusive language based on the BC Human Rights Code." Some initiatives to make washrooms more diverse and inclusive have focused on language simply by using the phrases 'washroom' or 'gender-neutral washroom' in order to be inclusive of all genders and gender identities, or using specifically geared language such as 'women and trans women' as opposed to just 'women' (and vice versa for men and trans men).
In March 2017 Yelp announced that they will add a gender neutral toilet finder feature on their app. Yelp was one of over 50 companies that signed a 'friend-of-the-court' amicus brief in favor of a transgender high school student Gavin Grimm who claims that his school board denied him access to the boys' bathroom in school and thereby violating Title IX. HRC President Chad Griffin stated on the brief that, "These companies are sending a powerful message to transgender children and their families that America’s leading businesses have their backs,”
Making public facilities accessible to diverse populations has long been an issue. Historically in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere public toilets have been segregated by race, class, religion, and gender, and have frequently been completely inaccessible to certain people with disabilities. Gender segregated public toilets in the United States and Europe are a vestige of the Victorian era where women's modesty and safety were considered at risk and under constant need of surveillance and discipline.
In 1739 the very first gender-segregated toilets were created specifically for a ball in a Parisian restaurant. The organizers of the ball made a chamber box (a chamber pot in a box along with a seat) for men in one room and for women in another. While public water closets were considered necessary for sanitation reasons, they were viewed as offending public sensibilities. Because public facilities were associated with access to public spaces, extending these rights to women was viewed as "immoral" and an "abomination". As a result of Victorian era codes, women were delegated to the private sphere, away from the public, fulfilling their roles as dutiful wives and mothers where any association with sexuality or private body parts was taboo. For women, the female lavatory in a public space was associated with danger, unrespectability, and even immoral sexual conduct.
The decision to create separate toilets in the U.S. for males and females was a reflection of their shift and growth in society. As women entered the workforce and factories, they needed to have a place to relieve themselves. In the U.S., the very first regulation that enforced separate toilets for males and females passed in 1887 and was titled "An Act To Secure Proper Sanitary Provisions in Factories and Workshops." At this time, Massachusetts required establishments to have separate privies in businesses.
While some public facilities were available to women in London by 1890, there were much fewer than those available to men. During the 19th century, concerns over public health and sanitation led to the sanitarian movement in which citizens rallied for better sanitary conditions and advocated for better public waterworks systems and plumbing. Although sanitary reforms continued through the 1900s, it became a source of political debate.
Emergence of sex segregated toilets in the 19th century
Sex-segregated toilets date back to the 18th century in Paris.
A separation of the sexes in public toilets and public lavatories was rather unusual until the 19th century. Usually there was a room for both sexes. It was not until the Victorian era, starting in Great Britain, that gender segregation began in the toilet area. According to Barbara Penner, professor of architectural history at University College London, this was an expression of the gender ideology of that era:
Prior to the modern industrial period, toilets were frequently communal and mixed. It was only in the nineteenth century, with increasingly strict prohibitions on bodily display and the emergence of a rigid ideology of gender, that visual privacy and the spatial segregation of the sexes were introduced into lavatory design, and they continue to be its dominant features.— Barbara Penner (2001): "A world of unmentionable suffering: Women's public conveniences in Victorian London"
In 1887 the Massachusetts legislature introduced and enacted a law that mandated the separation of bathrooms by sex. While there existed separate public toilets for males and females prior to 1887, this was the first law of its kind. The provision, titled “An Act To Secure Proper Sanitary Provisions In Factories and Workshops,” called for suitable and separate restrooms for females in the workplace.
In 1887 Massachusetts became the first of the United States to pass legislation requiring any workplace with female employees to have a female-specific restroom. Subsequently, other states created similar laws, often by amending existing protective labor legislation. 43 states had passed similar legislation by 1920.
Legal scholar Terry S. Kogan lists four primary rationales for sex-segregated toilets as detailed by state statutes and related literature during this time period: sanitation, women's privacy, the protection of women's bodies, which were seen as weaker, and to protect social morality especially as it pertained to the nineteenth century ideology of separate spheres.
The separation of bathrooms by sex in the United States was influenced by a number of factors. A combination of Victorian Era morals and concerns over public health fueled the desire to create separate toilet facilities. These Victorian Era morals of the 19th century held women accountable for being virtuous and modest, as well as cast them into the role of homemakers, mothers, and wives. As a consequence, men and women were placed into separate spheres: the former occupied the public (such as the workplace), whereas the latter were assigned to the private sphere (the home). The Industrial Revolution, paired with the emergence of new technology and a booming economy, began to draw women out of the home and into the workplace– as a result, women began to enter the public sphere, a domain that was previously occupied by men. This was a cause for concern for Victorian regulators– they deemed the public dangerous and held the view that women, their morality, and their privacy were at stake by the “predatory” male; they pushed for separate toilet facilities for women in order to protect their reputation and well-being.
During the Jim Crow period, public washrooms were racially segregated in part to protect the morality and sensibilities of white women. During this time, architectural isolation was imposed– through isolation and partitioning, blacks and whites were kept in separate spheres and allowed whites to hold the upper hand in society. Strategies to keep African Americans out of sight included the “basement solution;” by locating public toilets for coloured people in the basement next to janitor supply rooms, Jim Crow laws were able to maintain separation of the races.
The presence or absence of public toilets is a reflection of its society’s class inequalities and social hierarchies. For instance, the lack of public toilets for women reflects the exclusion of females from the public sphere. Until 1992, U.S. female senators had to use toilets located on different floor levels than the ones they were working on, a reflection of their intrusion in an all-male profession. Until a bathroom for them was built, their presence and admittance into this professional field was not welcome.
In contemporary times, there are gender neutral toilets in some public spaces in the United States. Despite this, transgender and non-conforming gendered people are still sometimes subject to visual and/or verbal scrutiny; this is reinforced by the architectural design and heteronormative gendered codes of conduct that are still present within the US.
Reasons for sex segregation
Legal scholar Terry S. Kogan lists four primary rationales for sex-segregated toilets as detailed by state statutes and related literature during this time period: sanitation, women's privacy, the protection of women's bodies, which were seen as weaker, and to protect social morality especially as it pertained to the nineteenth century ideology of separate spheres. Kogan's argument that modern-day public toilet segregation emerged out of this Victorian model of gender has been cited in historical overviews of this topic by Time, Public Radio International and The Washington Post.
The separation of bathrooms by sex in the United States was influenced by a number of factors. A combination of Victorian Era morals and concerns over public health fueled the desire to create separate toilet facilities. These Victorian Era morals of the 19th century held women accountable for being virtuous and modest, as well as cast them into the role of homemakers, mothers, and wives. As a consequence, men and women were placed into separate spheres: the former occupied the public (such as the workplace), whereas the latter were assigned to the private sphere (the home). The Industrial Revolution, paired with the emergence of new technology and a booming economy, began to draw women out of the home and into the workplace– as a result, women began to enter the public sphere, a domain that was previously occupied by men. This was a cause for concern for Victorian regulators– they deemed the public dangerous and held the view that women, their morality, and their privacy were at stake by the “predatory” male; they pushed for separate sanitation facilities for women in order to protect their reputation and well-being.
Opposition towards segregation
The presence or absence of public toilets is a reflection of its society’s class inequalities and social hierarchies. For instance, the lack of public toilets for women reflects the exclusion of females from the public sphere. Until 1992, U.S. female senators had to use restrooms located on different floor levels than the ones they were working on, a reflection of their intrusion in an all-male profession. Public toilet facilities in 19th and 20th century Europe and United States were strongly segregated by sex, race, class, and religion, but only sex segregation remained normative at the end of the 20th century. Though unisex public toilets have become more common worldwide in the early 21st century, such facilities have proven highly controversial.
All-gender restrooms are designed to ensure that restrooms are fully accessible to all members of society. While the issue of gender inclusive restrooms has been raised as an equity and human rights issue for people who identify outside of the gender binary, eliminating gender segregation in bathrooms also benefits disabled populations who may have attendants of a different gender, parents with children, and anyone who may need additional assistance using public toilet facilities. All-Gender restrooms can eliminate discrimination and harassment for people who may be perceived to be in the "wrong" bathroom.
While opponents of unisex bathrooms have often referenced the fear of women and children being assaulted in bathrooms by trans women, there is no credible research to support this claim. Instead, there is substantial evidence that demonstrates that transgender people and gender non-conforming people experience substantial and significant harassment in public toilets. One survey of transgender populations conducted in Washington, DC, by the group DC Trans Coalition, "found that 70 percent of survey respondents report experiencing verbal harassment, assault, and being denied access to public toilets." It also found that "54 percent of all respondents reported having some sort of physical problem from trying to avoid using public toilets, such as dehydration, kidney infections, and urinary tract infections" making access to safe restrooms a public health issue.
In the 20th century, the practice of pay toilets emerged, where public toilet stalls could only through accessed by paying a fee. Activist groups including The Committee to End Pay Toilets in America claimed that such practices disadvantaged women because men did not have to pay for urinals. As an act of protest against this phenomenon, in 1969 California Assemblywoman March Fong Eu destroyed a toilet on the steps of the California State Capitol.
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- Bathroom bill - legislation about public toilets in the United States
- Female urination device
- Human right to water and sanitation
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|Library resources about |
Unisex public toilet
- Directory of gender neutral toilets
- Searchable database of family restroom locations
- Queens University – Gender Neutral Washroom Policy
- Canoe.ca – UWO opens transgendered washrooms
- Canada.com – A revo-loo-tion on the UBC campus
- Unisex or Gender Neutral Toilets - the Facts Some facts about unisex or gender neutral toilets
- PHLUSH Volunteer advocacy group for public toilets