Toilet Trouble: When Bathroom Architecture And Identity Politics Collide

Bathrooms are explicitly gendered, alienating those who don’t conform. There’s a burgeoning movement to change that.


Individuals who don’t conform to stereotypical notions of gender often struggle when faced with two restroom doors, one marked male, one marked female. Some become territorial about policing gender in public restrooms, putting transgender people at risk for harassment and violence when they need to use public facilities.


This is, inherently, a design issue. With the occasional exception of how many urinals it features, a bathroom is a bathroom, whether the little figure on the door wears a dress or pants. Yet the need to pick and conform to a particular gender identity is embedded in the way we design buildings around segregated restroom facilities. It’s a form of discrimination in the built environment that many college students are now rebelling against. Students at University of Washington, Northwestern University, Columbia University and multiple University of California campuses have argued for more inclusive campus architecture–retrofitting or adding gender neutral bathrooms that are deliberately made accessible to everyone, whether or not they identity as male or female.

Public toilets in New Delhi, India via Shutterstock

Most recently, the issue has been raised at Wesleyan University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Gender divisions don’t just hide in our pronouns, and they don’t merely tuck themselves away in marketing. They’re produced even by the designs of our public buildings,” writer Brandon Sides argued in the student newspaper Massachusetts Daily Collegian.

Sides, who advocates in the article for more gender neutral bathrooms on the UMass campus, writes of how Wesleyan students took restroom redesign into their own hands:

Last fall, a group of transgender students at Wesleyan University tore down gendered bathroom signs and replaced them with ones that read, “All Gender Restroom.” The incident sparked a campus-wide debate, fines from the Student Judicial Board, and mixed reactions from alumni. On college campuses across the country, student activists are dismantling what Sheila Cavanagh dubs an “architecture of exclusion,” more commonly known as gendered bathrooms.

Cavanagh, a sociologist, has observed that “the bladder functions like a leash and the availability of accessible toilets demarcates who can go where.” If you have to run home every time you need to use the bathroom, it’s difficult to fully participate in public life.

Building design has long been used to spatially enforce gender stereotypes. Early public libraries, for example, featured “ladies’ reading rooms,” set apart from the rest of the library and stocked with fashion and home decor magazines. These separate spaces used architecture to reinforce the theory that women needed protecting from the depravities of men.

Portable toilets via Shutterstock

The gender-segregated restroom is said to have originated in Parisian restaurant in the 1700s. In late 19th century America, segregating bathrooms became just another way to shelter the vulnerable female sex, while at the same time hammering home the “separate spheres” idea that men and women are fundamentally different. In 1887, Massachusetts passed a law requiring that workplace bathrooms be gender segregated. Other states followed suit, many adding the requirement to legislation designed to protect women in the workplace.

Restrooms are still almost exclusively gendered. It’s a form of exclusion that’s written into state building code, presenting an obstacle for gender neutral bathroom advocates. Several states’ plumbing codes still require sex-segregated facilities.

Many states even have quotas on the number of fixtures a building must have for men and women. Some of these laws were written to combat another kind of gender discrimination: the ladies’ room line. So-called “potty parity” regulations are designed to ensure that women–who for a host of valid reasons may take longer in the bathroom–aren’t left standing in line for relatively few toilets while across the hall, men breeze through the urinal queue with ease. In historically male spaces, like, say, sports stadiums or the U.S. Senate, it helps make sure there are enough toilets for ladies.

Adding a few more women’s room toilets, though, hasn’t evened the playing field for everyone. Some cities have made progress in writing inclusivity for the entire gender spectrum into municipal code. San Francisco code encourages businesses to offer at least one gender-neutral bathroom option, and Philadelphia requires it in city-owned buildings. For the most part, this means single stall, locking restrooms–which also benefit people with disabilities, parents assisting children, and more.

But couldn’t we also rethink the design of multi-stall bathrooms? This could benefit everyone, not just those who feel pressured by the gender politics of picking the men’s room or the women’s room. Despite modern attitudes about the sharing of parental duties, men’s rooms still frequently lack changing tables, so what about a bathroom equipped for everyone’s needs, regardless of gender, age, or physical ability? Some may be uncomfortable with the idea of an Ally Mcbeal-style gender neutral bathroom, where men and women go next to each other separated only by a thin divider, but that could be alleviated through designs that allow for more privacy. Surely we can find a way for everyone to pee in comfort.


About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut