Sandy Allen is a reporter and writer. They live in upstate New York and they often go into New York City to run errands and go to meetings. But when they go out, finding an accessible bathroom can be a challenge.
For context, Sandy is nonbinary and transgender. In terms of looking “male” or “female,” Sandy lands somewhere in between. And so public restrooms always present a dilemma. In women’s rooms, people look at Sandy funny or say mean things. But Sandy is often too afraid to go into men’s rooms. It can feel risky and exhausting to navigate these two bad options.
For many transgender, non-binary, and intersex people this is the norm. Some folks choose to risk the stress and sometimes physical danger that can come with entering bathrooms that are segregated by sex. Others choose not to. Instead, they hold it.
Over many decades, this kind of bathroom-related anxiety has been a reality for lots of different kinds of people, not just trans people. Because ever since their invention, public bathrooms have been sites of conflict about who’s included in public life, and who’s excluded.
The Vile Influence of Men
Before widespread indoor plumbing, public restrooms didn’t really exist. Instead, people used the privy, which was basically just a hole in the ground, sometimes with a little outhouse style building. By and large, privies were not segregated by sex. Nor were they segregated by class. Terry Kogan, a professor of Law at the University of Utah and one of the country’s leading experts on the history of sex-segregated bathrooms, says that it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that bathrooms moved indoors.
“Beginning in the late 1840s and 1850s, cities began developing municipal works, waterworks and sewerage systems that actually could accommodate indoor water closets. So once that came about, the outdoor privy was replaced by indoor water closets,” says Kogan.
At first, it was only the very wealthy who could afford this latest in plumbing technology. Having a bathroom inside your house was a luxury. But gradually indoor water closets became more widespread. And as they moved into the public realm, they entered a world that was at the time shaped by a very popular idea called the “separate spheres ideology.” The idea was that women belonged in the home and that men belonged in public spaces and that allowing women into the public sphere was to be risky because, given their “weakness,” they could become contaminated by the vile influence of men.
The reality of course was that women were not weak, and they also had never been entirely confined to the home. In the early 19th century, more women than ever were getting paid work and getting involved in civic affairs. But still, American building designers faced a strange paradox: how to create public spaces that both accommodated women but still kept up the ruse of women being relegated to the home.
The solution they came up with was to segregate public space. They designed ladies-only train cars, ladies-only dining rooms, and ladies-only waiting rooms. These spaces were often decorated to look very domestic, with the sort of sofas and wallpaper and drapery you’d see in an upper-middle-class living room. And over time, these women’s spaces became a fixture of public life across America. That meant when toilets eventually moved inside, they were also segregated by sex.
Panic! At The Bathroom
As the 19th century went on, society started to desegregate the sexes. But even as men and women started mixing more, segregated bathrooms remained — a vestige of the ideology that once insisted that men and women couldn’t share public space at all. One of the reasons that segregated bathrooms have proved so enduring is that these separate facilities were actually codified into law. The first laws were passed in the 1880s, and they had to do with women workers in factories and how they needed a protected space where they could rest.
But the history of public bathrooms isn’t just about who is seen as worthy of protection. It’s also about who is seen as unworthy.
There have been many waves of panic and resistance to new people moving into the public sphere and needing accommodation. And a focus of that panic has often been… public bathrooms. “Pretty much every decade there’s been some controversy about public toilets,” says Susan Stryker, professor and author of Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution. Stryker says that for as long as we’ve had public restrooms, we’ve had battles about who belongs in them and who doesn’t. She thinks we fight about bathrooms because they’re very charged spaces. “It’s like we have all these taboos around waste and elimination and privacy and smell,” explains Stryker, “it’s very difficult for people to think rationally about some of these things. We just react at an emotional level.”
Stryker says, pick a moment in 20th century American history, and chances are there was some sort of freakout about a group of marginalized people using the bathroom. In the years after WWII, more visible gay and lesbian communities began to emerge — and there was panic about gay male sex in public restrooms. By the 1950s and 1960s, activists began challenging codes of racist segregation in the Jim Crow south — and this included challenges to racially segregated bathrooms. Bathroom anxiety even played a role in the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1960s and 70s, with right-wing opposition invoking the idea of unisex restrooms as a way to generate opposition to the ERA. Later, during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, people feared they could get the illness from using public restrooms. Which brings us to the bathroom panic of today: a moral panic around trans people in public restrooms.
The New Target
This debate about trans bathroom access became a big national story a little over five years ago. You had ordinances — or proposed ordinances — in states like North Carolina and Texas, which attempted to restrict which bathrooms trans people could or couldn’t use.
Terry Kogan thinks this surge in anti-trans bathroom activism had something to do with the Supreme Court allowing for gay marriage in 2015. After that happened, all the conservative money and energy that had gone into that fight had to find a new target. “Conservative energy coalesced around trans people and their desire to use the restroom that accords not with their birth sex, but with their gender identity,” explains Kogan.
The irony is people on both sides of this debate claim that they’re on the side of safety. One side argues that trans people should be safe in the bathroom that’s consistent with their gender identity, while the other side claims that women shouldn’t be attacked in the bathroom by cross-dressing men.
But as Prof. Stryker argues, this notion of a predatory cross-dressing man is complete fiction. In reality, if you look at the numbers: it is trans people who are at the greatest risk of being attacked in public restrooms. According to Terry Kogan, roughly 70 percent of trans people have experienced either verbal or physical abuse, with Black trans women, in particular, experiencing even higher rates of abuse.
A Little Imagination
But even though we take it for granted that most public restrooms are segregated by sex, they don’t have to be this way. And as the debates around trans bathroom access began heating up, an architect named Joel Sanders began thinking about exactly that. Joel had long been interested in bathrooms—as a gay man during the height of the AIDS epidemic, he remembered how public restrooms had become a flashpoint back then. And he was especially interested in the lack of attention his fellow architects seemed to pay those spaces. He says bathrooms are considered the ultimate functionalist architecture, spaces that don’t require much creativity or thought.
But the reality is that bathroom design does matter. Whether architects realize it or not, when they design public bathrooms, they’re deciding who’s included and who’s excluded when it comes to fully participating in public life.
Sanders figured, if they put their minds to it, architects could reimagine bathrooms entirely, so he reached out to Susan Stryker to figure out a solution. As they talked, they both realized that an architectural redesign could help not just trans people, but everyone. Better bathrooms could benefit people with medical issues, or parents with young children, or people who need space to practice certain religious rites, or people with physical disabilities.
Sanders also began speaking with Quemuel Arroyo who used to advise the New York City Department of Transportation about accessibility issues and uses a wheelchair. Arroyo told Sanders about all the ways public restrooms fail people with disabilities. “So many of these ‘accessible’ bathrooms still don’t get it,” he says. “And they don’t get it because they’re being designed by people who don’t understand accessibility.”
Joel Sanders kept imagining what an actually inclusive public bathroom might be like. He kept talking to Susan Stryker on the phone and the two began meeting up, and then collaborated on an academic paper, and they ended up receiving so much interest that they founded an initiative called Stalled!
The Stalled! project would tackle not merely the problem of trans bathroom access, but would also totally reimagine the bathroom so that it works way better for way more kinds of people.
But Susan and Joel quickly hit a big snare: the code. Right now, for public buildings over a certain size, the building code mandates that you must build what are termed “separate facilities”, meaning: a women’s room and a men’s room. Even if some architect designing an airport or museum really wanted to just build a bunch of single-user bathrooms, instead of a men’s and women’s room, they’re not allowed.
The Stalled! team ended up bringing on Terry Kogan, the foremost thinker about bathroom laws, to help them navigate the code issue. Terry and his colleagues began spearheading a legal appeal to change the code. And the architects got to work totally re-envisioning designs for certain public bathrooms — like ones for elementary schools and ones for airports. In totally reimagining the airport bathroom, the first thing the Stalled! team did was get rid of the idea that the bathroom is a room with a door. Instead, they imagine the bathroom, conceptually, as an extension of the public space, like a big lounge. The space is then divided into three “activity zones”: grooming, hand washing, and relieving oneself.
Instead of individual sinks, Stalled! proposes a water wall with a “splash plane” that’s angled slightly away from the user and a grooming station at multiple heights to accommodate children, the elderly, people in wheelchairs, and people of different heights. The stalls would be built in different sizes, with some larger ones to accommodate wheelchairs, and would have floor-to-ceiling walls and doors for maximum privacy.
The Stalled! bathrooms also include other details that would make them more welcoming for all kinds of people, like foot-washing stations for Muslim people and floor materials that make the space easier for people with vision impairments to navigate. All of these designs are more inclusive — and they can also be safer. Because rather than being divided into two or sometimes three groups — men, women, and disabled — in this reimagined bathroom, all people can keep an eye out for each other in a common space.
While the Stalled! project had come up with new designs to make bathrooms better, nothing could actually get built until the building code changed.
The International Building Code, or IBC, is governed by a group of builders, architects, city planners, and other design experts who together make decisions that hopefully keep the public safe. They set rules about stuff like light switches and handrails. The group gets together every three years to agree to changes to the code. And so Terry Kogan and the other lawyers involved with the Stalled! effort appealed to the IBC to change the line of code requiring “separate facilities.”
They prepared their appeals to the committee in the lead-up to the big meeting about amending the code, in the fall of 2018. Then came a long wait until the committee’s decision finally became public this spring… and … they won!
This development is a major step towards having more inclusive bathrooms in the world, but with some caveats. For example, it will take some time for that new code to actually be adopted by local governments, and governing bodies at the city and state level could also purposefully choose to ignore this particular update.
But Susan Stryker and the other members of Stalled! hope that their designs are recognized as not just an improvement for trans people, but for everyone. As Stryker says, “What I feel is so elegant about the Stalled! public toilet project is that at some level… it doesn’t matter what most people think about trans people. It doesn’t matter if you feel like you should accommodate people with disabilities… The design of the space just solves the problem.”