Unisex public toilet

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The male and female symbols displayed on a door together are often used to indicate a unisex toilet

A unisex public toilet (alternatively called gender-inclusive, gender-neutral or all-gender)[1][2][3][4] is a bathroom that people of any gender or gender identity may legally use. Gender-neutral toilet facilities benefit transgender populations and people who exist outside of the gender binary; people with disabilities, the elderly, and anyone else who may require the assistance from someone of another gender; and parents who wish to accompany their children to the washroom or toilet facility among others.[5][6][7]

Public bathroom facilities in 19th and 20th century Europe and United States were strongly segregated by sex, race, class, and religion, but only sex segregation has remained normative at the end of the 1900s. Though unisex public toilets have become more common worldwide in the early 21st century, such facilities have proven highly controversial.

History of segregated restrooms[edit]

Main article: Urinary segregation

Making public facilities accessible to diverse populations has long been a divisive 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.[8][9] Gender segregated restrooms 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.[10] 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.[11] 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".[12] For women the female lavatory in a public space was associated with danger, unrespectability and even immoral sexual conduct.[13]

In the US, the very first regulation that enforced separate toilets for males and females passed in 1887. At this time Massachusetts required establishments to have separate privies in businesses.[14] During Jim Crow, public washrooms were racially segregated in part to protect the morality and sensibilities of white women.[15][16]

While some public facilities were available to women in London by 1890, there were much fewer than those available to men.[17][18] Although sanitary reforms continued through the 1900s, it became a source for political debate.[19]

In contemporary America, there are gender neutral toilets in some public spaces, however transgender and non-conforming gendered people can still be subject to visual and/or verbal scrutiny, this is only reinforced by the architectural design and heteronormative gendered codes of conduct there are still present within the US. [20]

Gender neutral bathroom legislation[edit]


Unisex toilets have appeared in China since before 2013 in Sheyang and by 2015 Chengdu. But it wasn't 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 sexual minorities. [21] In May 2016 a Bejing- 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 bathrooms.[22]


In 2014 the Indian Supreme Court gave transgender people recognition with a third gender. This legislation included creating separate toilets for transgender people in public spaces. 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.[23]


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.[24] 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. [25]

United States[edit]

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission provides federal anti-discrimination protections on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy status, age, disability, and genetic information.[26] However, federal anti-discrimination laws do not extend to LGBT individuals. While the U.S. Department of Education has indicated that single-sex schools must treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity under Title IX, they have not extended such a ruling to transgender students across the board.[27] 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 bathrooms.

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 bathrooms 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.[28]

San Francisco, Philadelphia, Seattle, Washington D.C., West Hollywood, and Austin have each passed measures mandating that single-occupancy bathrooms in public spaces be relabeled as gender-neutral.[29] Meanwhile, state legislatures in Arizona, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, and Tennessee currently have anti-transgender bills on the floor that would restrict bathroom access.[30]

The Human Rights Campaign recommends that employers grant access, and use, to bathrooms according to an employee's "full time gender presentation", and provides a list of recommendations for employers on how to do so.[31]

On 22 February 2017, the Trump administration lifted federal guidelines 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.[32][33]

On September 29th 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 bathrooms to be gender-neutral since March 1, 2017.[34][35][36][4] This includes California schools, government buildings, businesses and public restrooms.[37]


In May 2016 North Carolina and the US Justice Department came into disagreement on the issue resulting in the Justice department engaging in a civil rights lawsuit over North Carolina's 'bathroom bill' to stop its implementation. This bill disallowed transgender people to use public restrooms if the gender of the toilet does not match their birth certificate. [38] Moreover businesses in North Carolina have enforced toilet restrictions on transgender customers at their discretion.[39] Mississippi also limited public restroom usage through enacted a law that protects religious beliefs, this included: “male (man) or female (woman) refer 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.[39]

Justification for signage of all-gender restrooms[edit]

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. For gender-variant people and others who identify or are perceived to be outside the gender binary, A-Gender restrooms can eliminate discrimination and harassment for people who may be perceived to be in the "wrong" bathroom.[7] 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 restrooms."[7] It also found that "54 percent of all respondents reported having some sort of physical problem from trying to avoid using public restrooms, such as dehydration, kidney infections, and urinary tract infections" making access to safe restrooms a public health issue.[7][40]

Advocacy and inclusion leadership[edit]

Some toilets use a combined gender symbol to indicate a gender-neutral or transgender-friendly bathroom.

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).[1][2]

All-gender restrooms in education[edit]

Pictogram of an all gender restroom at a US college. "Anyone can use this restroom regardless of gender identity or expression"

Public Schools[edit]

After legislation passed, in 2004 a private vocational college in Chiang Mai Thailand gave 15 'katoey' students the opportunity to use toilet facilities that were solely for them.[41]

In March 2017 the Glasgow City Council announced that bathrooms in school will no longer be labeled as 'girls' and 'boys' bathrooms 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.[42]

College Campuses[edit]

As of 2014, there has been a trend on college campuses in the US to open all-gender public restrooms. 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 bathrooms.[43]

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.[44]

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.[45]

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.[46] Recently, the university has vowed to include a gender neutral bathroom in all new buildings to be constructed.

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.[10]


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