Shauna Miller is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She is the former managing editor of CityLab.
Well-designed, simple signs can solve real problems for gender-nonconforming people while diffusing political noise.
Here's a situation you may never have found yourself in: being in a public place, needing a bathroom badly, seeing the one you'd feel safest using, and still being afraid to go into it. It's a hesitation based on years of experience that you will be scolded by a panicked person for being "in the wrong bathroom!” as they clutch their child. Or worse, that someone will call security because you're seen as a weirdo when you're merely taking a whiz. Or, far worse and not unlikely, that you will be harassed or even assaulted in an enclosed space lined with hard, tile walls.
This fear is your punishment for dwelling in any between-gender identity. For having breasts and a buzz-cut. Or long hair, lipstick, and—that cross-country flight was long—some stubble. (Airport bathrooms are the worst, every time. They are full of grouchy people with nothing in common who seem to start policing others' bodies as soon as they get a whiff of industrial Pine-Sol.) I am on perpetual ladies'-room backup for my butch-presenting partner. We've learned to move fast once people start murmuring, like we're fleeing the scene of a crime.
There've been movements to make large, multi-stall bathrooms gender-neutral within a handful of institutions, like last year’s action by Pissed-Off Trans* People at Wesleyan University. The students there suggested that single-room bathrooms (even “gendered” single-room bathrooms) could be offered as an alternative for those uncomfortable with the more open arrangement, which they saw as a means of destigmatizing the public-bathroom-going experience for people who don't fall within the bathroom-signage binary.
Still, most of the traction for this movement has been gained the other way around—by making single-room bathrooms gender-neutral. It's easier to do, especially for most businesses and institutions that already have single-room bathrooms. After all, it's an empty room with a toilet. What makes it a "ladies' room" other than a sign on the door?
This is largely an opt-in policy in most places. Philadelphia provides gender-neutral bathrooms in city buildings. In Washington, D.C., the District's Office of Human Rights helped put a law on the books in 2006 stating "… entities with single-occupancy restroom facilities shall use gender-neutral signage for those facilities (for example, by replacing signs that indicate 'Men' and 'Women' with signs that say 'Restroom.')." The city's #SafeBathroomsDC Campaign continues to provide support for businesses and users alike: you can report problems and ask questions through a photo-enabled app or via the campaign’s Twitter hashtag.
The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that most buildings and businesses have accessible bathrooms, which are often single-room and easy enough to modify into gender-neutral spaces with signage. Meanwhile, some groups have gotten proactive and created maps of where one might find a gender-neutral bathroom on a given college campus, like these from the University of Minnesota, Portland State University, and NYU. REFUGE Restrooms has also created a searchable, rateable, interactive worldwide mapping resource for such restrooms.
If having to map out where you can pee without reprisal sounds marginalizing, it is. Queer people have always edited where they can safely go as a survival tactic, but it adds another layer of shame when you just need a bathroom. One happy alliance has actually turned out to be "family restrooms," single-room bathrooms at large entertainment venues, parks, big-box stores, and malls that people of any gender can use. No one bats an eye at a family restroom. But the signage is key. Below, we see those comforting, heteronormative stick people and the word "family" and nothing about "gender."
Could signage really be what all of this boils down to? Because there are some terribly designed, confusing signs exacerbating this issue. Fox and Friends recently went after Illinois State University, which rebranded its single-room "family" bathrooms as "All-Gender." The show found the university's signage, described by the university's online newspaper as "a symbol of a half of a man and half of a woman," confusing. The concept isn't confusing (even a little kid in the segment understood it). But I agree that the sign is problematic—just not for the reasons Steve Doocy thinks.
What does this blue-pink pictogram in the center communicate? That gender-nonconforming or non-binary people are half-man, half-woman?
Here's another that tries, yet misses the point. A crime against basic "design for understanding." Where did I put my dress/pants?
But someone has already figured out a solution. And that solution is ... a picture of a toilet, with the phrase "ALL GENDER RESTROOM." It says what it is, it shows what it is, and—amazing in its simplicity—it manages to acknowledge the gender-identity spectrum while not also making the bathroom line longer.
In my current body of work, I’ve modified bathroom signs so that they affirm queer gender identities. Recently, I’ve started to appropriate and subvert the industrial equipment and materials that are used in commercial signage. ... These signs look much like the machine-made signs that are typically used on the doors of public restrooms. By installing these signs on the doors of public restrooms in place of the existing signs, I expose the limited nature of the binary gender system and create space for more than two genders in public places. In the process, I transform sites of rejection into sites of resonance and affirmation for people who exist across the gender spectrum.
May we all, one day, pee freely.