Where Do We Go From Here?

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Sandy Allen is a reporter and a writer. They live in upstate New York and they often go into New York City to run errands and go to meetings. And when they’re out and about, finding an accessible bathroom can be a challenge.

Sandy Allen:
“All right. So I’m on a university campus in New York City and there is a women’s room and a men’s room and then a guy saw me sort of waiting to, you know, figure out what I was going to do.”

Sandy Allen:
This is a recording. I made a few months back when I was in New York City.

Roman Mars:
That’s Sandy.

Sandy Allen:
This was before COVID and I kept an audio diary of my bathroom search. He said to me, “It’s multiple,” referring to the men’s room that he just exited. I think because he thought I was waiting to enter it. So… hooray, bathrooms.

Roman Mars:
For context, Sandy is nonbinary and transgender.

Sandy Allen:
In terms of looking “male” or “female”, I land somewhere in between. Some strangers call me “sir”, others call me “ma’am” and so public restrooms always present this dilemma. In women’s rooms, people look at me weird or say mean things, but I’m often too afraid to go into men’s rooms. I’m short and I have this voice and I worry that those traits could make me a target. It can feel risky and exhausting to navigate these two bad options.

Sandy Allen:
“Okay. I’m in the New York City subway and I didn’t find the bathroom earlier and it’s been hours and that is pretty difficult. So I’m going to just hold it for more hours. Hooray.”

Sandy Allen:
This particular day in New York, I went the whole day without finding a bathroom I could use.

Sandy Allen:
“And I’ve been… oh, out and about all day. I haven’t used the bathroom at all because I couldn’t find one. I couldn’t find one where I had a meeting earlier and I couldn’t find one at my dentist’s office.”

Sandy Allen:
For many trans and non-binary and intersex people, this is the norm. Really for anyone who doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes.

Roman Mars:
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.

Sandy Allen:
Instead, we hold it.

Sandy Allen:
“Women’s rooms and men’s rooms, but there was no gender-neutral option at all. Okay. Bye.”

Sandy Allen:
It’s hard to overstate the effect this has had on my ability to exist in the world. I’ve stopped going to the gym. I hate to travel because my local airport doesn’t have any bathrooms that work for me. Every trip out to a restaurant, a theater, or really anywhere is laced with this underlying feeling of anxiety.

Roman Mars:
And 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 these sites of conflict about who’s included in public life and who’s excluded.

Sandy Allen:
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.

Roman Mars:
By and large, privies were not segregated by sex, nor were they segregated by class.

Terry Kogan:
The outdoor privy was used by rich and poor alike across the United States.

Sandy Allen:
That’s Terry Kogan, a professor of law at the University of Utah. He is basically the expert about the history of sex-segregated bathrooms in the U.S. And he says that it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that indoor restrooms started to become a thing.

Terry Kogan:
Beginning in the late 1840s and 1850s, cities began developing municipal works. Waterworks and sewage systems that actually could accommodate indoor water closets. So once that came about, the outdoor privy was replaced by indoor water closets.

Roman Mars:
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.

Sandy Allen:
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 this very popular idea, which was called the separate spheres ideology.

Terry Kogan:
And that ideology basically said that women should remain in the home and men’s appropriate realm is in public, in politics, working in factories, whatever. And this vision was very, very powerful.

Sandy Allen:
Allowing women into the public sphere was thought to be risky because given their weakness, they could become contaminated by the vile influence of men.

Roman Mars:
I mean, I’m also worried about being contaminated by the vile influence of men.

Sandy Allen:
Yeah, I get it. But what you have to understand is back then the idea would have been about literal contamination. It was then considered consensus among scientists who were basically all men, that women were weak and vulnerable and susceptible to disease.

Roman Mars:
But women of course were not weak, nor were they actually confined to the home. By the early 19th century, more women than ever were working and getting involved in politics.

Terry Kogan:
So, one is faced in the first part of the 19th century with this tension that the cultural etiology said women should be in the home. And the reality was that women were leaving their home in ever-increasing numbers.

Sandy Allen:
And American building designers had to find a way to navigate this tension. They had to figure out how to create public spaces that both accommodated women, but still kept up this 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 and ladies-only dining rooms and waiting rooms.

Roman Mars:
And 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.

Terry Kogan:
And the thinking was that for those ladies who dare to venture into this dangerous public world, these are protective spaces for them.

Sandy Allen:
And so these living roomy looking women’s spaces became a fixture of public life across America. And that meant that when toilets eventually moved inside to places like theaters and restaurants, they were also segregated by sex.

Roman Mars:
Gradually as the 19th century went on, society started to desegregate the sexes but even as men and women started mixing more, segregated bathrooms stuck around. They’re a vestige of this ideology that once insisted that men and women couldn’t share a public space at all.

Sandy Allen:
And 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 factory workers and how they needed a space where they could rest when their weak female bodies gave out-

Terry Kogan:
With its vision of women as vulnerable beings who needed protection.

Sandy Allen:
But the history of public bathrooms isn’t just about who is seen as worthy of protection. It’s also about who’s seen as unworthy.

Terry Kogan:
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.

Susan Stryker:
So yeah, I mean, pretty much every decade, there’s been some controversy about public toilets.

Sandy Allen:
This is Professor Susan Stryker. She’s written among many works, a groundbreaking book called “Transgender History.” She says that for as long as we’ve had public restrooms, we’ve had battles about who belongs in them and who doesn’t.

Roman Mars:
And she thinks that we fight about bathrooms partly because they’re these very charged spaces.

Susan Stryker:
We have all these taboos around waste and elimination and privacy and smell. It’s very difficult for people to think rationally about some of these things. We just react at an emotional level.

Sandy Allen:
And Professor Stryker says, pick a moment in 20th century American history and chances are there was some sort of freak out about some group of marginalized people using the bathroom.

Susan Stryker:
With the rise of more visible gay and lesbian communities in the years after World War II, they were panics about gay male sex in public toilets. There was a sense of gay men being predatory to straight men.

Sandy Allen:
By the 1950s and 60s, activists began challenging codes of racist segregation in the South. This included challenges not just to racially segregated water fountains, lunch counters, and buses, but to racially segregated bathrooms.

Susan Stryker:
If you think back to any signs that you might have seen from the bad old days of Jim Crow, it was not uncommon to see public toilets labeled “Men”, “Women”, “Colored”. With the rise of the feminist movement you saw in the 60s and 70s, particularly around efforts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment that you had right-wing people who were opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment saying, “Oh, they’re going to require unisex bathrooms.”

[ALREADY WE GO TO THE SAME BATHROOMS ON AIRPLANES AND BUSES. DOES THIS MEAN THAT WITH THE EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT, IF IT IS PASSED THAT THERE WILL NO LONGER BE MEN AND WOMEN ON THE DOORS, BUT US OR WE OR WHATEVER?]

Susan Stryker:
By the 80s, you had the AIDS crisis.

[IT’S A DISEASE FIRST DETECTED IN THE GAY COMMUNITY THAT HAS NOW SPREAD BEYOND THAT.]

Susan Stryker:
And there was another wave of panic around public toilets: “You’re going to get AIDS there.”

George Bush :
“The ADA ensures access to public accommodation such as restaurants, hotels, shopping centers, and offices.”

Susan Stryker:
The Americans with Disabilities Act is passed in 1990 and again, there’s a wave of, “Oh, it’s going to be too expensive. Why do we have to accommodate those people?”

Sandy Allen:
Which brings us to the bathroom-related panic of today, which is about people like me and like Professor Stryker-

Susan Stryker:
A moral panic around trans people.

[TODAY THE LEGAL BATTLE OVER WHICH BATHROOMS TRANSGENDER INDIVIDUALS CAN USE IN NORTH CAROLINA. IT’S BECOMING MORE HEATED BY THE DAY.]

Roman Mars:
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.

Sandy Allen:
Terry Kogan thinks this surge in anti-trans bathroom activism has 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.

Terry Kogan:
This 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.

Roman Mars:
People on both sides of this debate claim that they’re on the of safety. One side says, “Hey, trans people deserve bathrooms where they can feel safe.” The other side says, “Women shouldn’t be attacked in the bathroom by cross-dressing men.”

Sandy Allen:
But as Professor Stryker describes, this notion of a predatory cross-dressing man is a fiction.

Susan Stryker:
That fear is completely fantasmatic. It’s like, “Show me the police reports of cross-dressed, male sex predators in public toilets.” It’s like, “I don’t think you can find one.” It’s a fear. It’s not a fact.

Sandy Allen:
In reality, if you look at the numbers, it is trans people who are at greatest risk of being attacked in public restrooms. According to Professor Kogan, if you look at surveys of trans people-

Terry Kogan:
The number is roughly 70% have experienced either verbal or physical abuse. And among some populations, in particular black trans women, the level of abuse is much higher.

Sandy Allen:
I sometimes find my friends who aren’t queer really don’t seem to understand just how dangerous public restrooms can be for me. How every time I want to pee or wash my hands, I do a calculus about my likelihood of being endangered by some random person. I don’t know a trans person who doesn’t have a story or many about being harassed by a stranger. Like I was talking with Seb Choe who’s an architect in South Carolina and they told me this story about going to a swimming pool with their partner.

Seb Choe:
After getting exercise, we went to go use the sauna because saunas are great.

Sandy Allen:
But Seb faced a problem, which was there was a locker room for women and a locker room for men.

Seb Choe:
I was already kind of apprehensive because I’m trans non-binary.

Sandy Allen:
So Seb and their partner picked the women’s room because that was for them, the better of the two available options.

Seb Choe:
I knew that I could probably come up against some friction, but I felt a responsibility to use the sauna where I felt like I belonged more. We were in the sauna for a little bit and this middle-aged white woman enters and asked me to leave because she wants to use the sauna. I calmly told her that she was welcome to join and use the sauna with us. Then she kind of left in a huff and brought back this male staff member who asked me to leave.

Sandy Allen:
Everyone watched as Seb was escorted out of the locker room. It was humiliating. It was isolating. It was also, for a trans person, an entirely ordinary experience. This kind of thing happens to us all the time.

Seb Choe:
And it’s generally a pretty horrible feeling of exclusion, just trying to use the sauna.

Sandy Allen:
It’s the most mundane stuff that we have to think twice about. Whether to swim. Whether to use a changing room. Even for somebody like Professor Stryker who’s lived out of the closet for decades.

Susan Stryker:
I transitioned surgically and socially back in the 90s. I still look over my shoulder when I go in to the women’s room. Every single time, it’s like, “Is somebody going to notice something? Are they going to freak out? Is this going to be a scene?” A lot of us who are trans kind of call it the tax. It’s part of the tax. You get taxed just for walking around being trans in the world. And part of the trans tax is always being mindful of moving into those sex-segregated spaces.

Roman Mars:
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, one architect began thinking about exactly that.

Joel Sanders:
My name is Joel Sanders. I’m an architect with a practice based in New York called JSA.

Sandy Allen:
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 seem to pay to these spaces.

Joel Sanders:
I think for society, the bathroom is the ultimate sort of functionalist architecture. It doesn’t require design. It doesn’t require creativity.

Roman Mars:
But the reality is, 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.

Sandy Allen:
Joel figured if they put their minds to it, architects could reimagine bathrooms entirely.

Joel Sanders:
And so I picked up the phone and I reached out to a colleague of mine who I’d met many, many years before named Susan Stryker.

Roman Mars:
What a coincidence! Susan Stryker was just here, let me go get her.

Susan Stryker:
You know, we just started talking. We would have long rambling phone calls with each other about it.

Roman Mars:
And in these calls, Susan and Joel started identifying all the ways that bathrooms… suck, to use an architectural term. Not just for trans people, but for pretty much everyone.

Susan Stryker:
I think that public toilets don’t work well for most people.

Joel Sanders:
They could be people who are breastfeeding.

Susan Stryker:
People who might need to do medical care of some kind, like maybe they need to take their insulin.

Joel Sanders:
People with urinary tract infections.

Susan Stryker:
You know, the dad who’s got the daughter and he doesn’t want her to go into the bathroom by herself.

Joel Sanders:
Muslims who perform bathroom ablutions.

Roman Mars:
There’s also the problem of unequal bathroom lines.

Joel Sanders:
You go to the theater and at intermission, there are huge lines of women waiting and smaller, if no lines in the men’s room.

Roman Mars:
The buildery term for this is overload.

Sandy Allen:
Then there are the problems many people with physical disabilities have with public restrooms. Joel Sanders was introduced by a mutual friend to Quemuel Arroyo. He uses a wheelchair and used to advise the New York City Department of Transportation about accessibility. He met up with Joel for dinner.

Quemuel Arroyo:
It was an instant love fest. I mean, we spoke for hours.

Sandy Allen:
Quemuel detailed all these horrible experiences he’d had with public bathrooms. Like when he was at an airport and had to search everywhere for a stall that was big enough to fit his chair inside, and in the end, he couldn’t.

Quemuel Arroyo:
I ended up having to use a stall and leave the door open behind me because I literally couldn’t shut the door behind me.

Sandy Allen:
And then there are the horrors of public restroom sink design.

Quemuel Arroyo:
I spoke about how pissed off I’d get when I’d use a sink and because it was a flat top surface, the water would drip down onto my pants.

Sandy Allen:
Quemuel sees all this bad design as a failure of imagination.

Quemuel Arroyo:
So many of these “accessible bathrooms” still don’t get it and they don’t get it because they’re being designed by people who don’t understand accessibility.

Sandy Allen:
And so 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 then-

Joel Sanders:
To make a long story short, we received so much interest in the design community and really in the general public that we founded “Stalled!”.

Roman Mars:
That’s “Stalled!” with an exclamation point, as in the bathroom stall, but also how this whole bathroom debate is totally stalled out. The Stalled! project would tackle not merely the problem of trans bathroom access, but totally reconceive of the bathroom so that it works way better for way more kinds of people.

Sandy Allen:
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.

Joel Sanders:
We could come up with design solutions, but unless they’re legally implementable through building codes and laws and public policies, they’re not going to happen.

Sandy Allen:
So, they called up the country’s foremost thinker on laws about bathrooms.

Terry Kogan:
They needed someone who, in a sense, could deal with the legal issues.

Sandy Allen:
Terry Kogan was thrilled when he got this call. He told me Joel and Susan were actually two of his intellectual heroes and so he jumped at the chance to join the project. And then Joel happened to meet Seb.

Seb Choe:
I was introduced to Joel after the lecture by a friend who knew him.

Sandy Allen:
Seb was graduating from the architecture program at Columbia and Seb joined the project too, as did Quemuel.

Quemuel Arroyo:
I believe that people want to be invited to participate.

Roman Mars:
These people are coming together like the Avengers of inclusive bathroom design.

Sandy Allen:
It’s the Avengers, but more queer and about bathrooms.

Roman Mars:
And so the Stalled! team at last assembled got to work fighting their arch-nemesis, sex-segregated bathrooms.

Sandy Allen:
Terry and his colleagues began spearheading a legal appeal to change code and the architects got to work totally re-envisioning designs for certain public bathrooms, like ones for elementary schools and ones for airports.

Joel Sanders:
Why airports? Because it seems to be a place where there’s a high quantity of diverse bodies spending a lot of time and also having to address their embodied needs.

Roman Mars:
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, the airport bathroom is now conceptually an extension of the public space, like a big lounge. This space is then divided into three activity zones.

Sandy Allen:
So activity zone number one is grooming. And they’re proposing a counter.

Joel Sanders:
But not just a counter at the height of a standard able-bodied adult, but one that undulates at different levels.

Roman Mars:
With mirrors also of varying heights.

Joel Sanders:
And it would allow people of different heights and abilities to groom together. A public space.

Roman Mars:
Activity zone number two is hand-washing. Doing away with that traditional countertop that Quemuel Arroyo and other wheelchair users hate so much.

Sandy Allen:
Instead of individual sinks, Stalled! proposes a water wall with a splash plane that’s angled slightly away from the user.

Joel Sanders:
It would not be at one standard height but would be at multiple heights, again to accommodate children, elderly, different body heights and weights.

Sandy Allen:
The water itself would be recycled to water plants, which would help bring a sense of calm to the space.

Roman Mars:
Which brings us to activity zone number three.

Joel Sanders:
A kind of continuous wall of differently sized stalls. And again, it’s key that they need to be of different sizes. Some would be standard. Others would be larger for people with mobility issues, people in wheelchairs.

Sandy Allen:
And the stalls would ideally be totally floor to ceiling to provide maximum privacy.

Roman Mars:
The Stalled! bathrooms 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.

Sandy Allen:
All of this is more inclusive and it’s also safer. Because instead of being divided into two or sometimes three groups (men, women, and disabled) in this re-imagined bathroom all people can monitor a single common space.

Terry Kogan:
One quickly sees that these are open spaces which provide, in a sense, double the eyes on the street.

Sandy Allen:
So these bathroom Avengers had defeated one foe, the idea that public bathrooms could only ever be sex-segregated. But that left one more front in this war – the legal one. The battle between Terry Kogan and the body that governs the building code.

Terry Kogan:
Virtually every state and municipality in America and in many foreign countries is governed by a model code called the International Building Code.

Roman Mars:
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. Rules about stuff like light switches and handrails. This group gets together every three years to agree to changes to the code-

Terry Kogan:
To account for technological innovations and building innovations, whatever.

Sandy Allen:
Terry and the other lawyers involved with the effort appealed to change the line of code requiring separate facilities. Terry told me there are some very practical buildery arguments that you can make in favor of inclusive design. You don’t necessarily need to appeal to people’s sense of equality.

Terry Kogan:
An all-gender, multi-user restroom is a much more efficient use of space than sex-separated restrooms.

Sandy Allen:
They prepared their arguments for 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 decision finally became public this spring. And-

Terry Kogan:
And then in the next iteration of the code, the multi-user type that we champion will be code compliant.

Sandy Allen:
Meaning in the very dry language of code compliance, they won! So starting soon, architects and builders will have greater freedom to choose this kind of bathroom. They won’t be required to build sex-segregated bathrooms anymore.

Roman Mars:
This development is a major step towards having more inclusive bathrooms in the world but with some caveats. Like first off, it’ll take some time for that new code to actually be adopted by local governments.

Sandy Allen:
And governing bodies at the city and state levels could also purposefully choose to ignore this particular update.

Terry Kogan:
Now, they don’t have to adopt it, hook, line and sinker, so they conceivably could choose to leave out this exception.

Sandy Allen:
So there is a chance that this single line of the building code could become a flashpoint. A new front in the culture wars.

Roman Mars:
I guess my hope is that people will look at these redesigns and realize this just makes so much more sense for everybody. Like, Sandy, I want this bathroom.

Sandy Allen:
Totally. It makes me think of something that Susan Stryker said.

Susan Stryker:
What I feel is so elegant about the Stalled! public toilet project is that at some level, it just doesn’t matter. 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. It’s like, by the design of the space, it just solves the problem.

Sandy Allen:
And like, of course, I’d love if all people recognize that I am a full person, deserving of rights and respect. My dream is to be walking down some airport terminal and to stumble upon a multi-user inclusive restroom like the Stalled! one. I picture entering it. Seeing that mirror of varying heights, that undulating countertop, the water wall, the plants. I envision entering one of those single-user stalls and locking it behind me. But, you know, for now, I’ll just take a bathroom I can use.

Sandy Allen:
“All right, I’m at Grand Central Station. Very beautiful. There are no bathrooms for me. I also wanted to buy a sandwich to eat on the train and realized I won’t be able to wash my hands first. So I bought some Purell, and I’m going to pretend that’s like washing my hands. Okay. That’s it.”

Roman Mars:
Coming up after the break Sandy and I will discuss bathroom signage and the extremely simple, but often overlooked way that they could be designed for greater inclusivity.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
So I’m back with writer Sandy Allen. Hi, Sandy.

Sandy Allen:
Hi, Roman.

Roman Mars:
So there’s another element to this whole idea of inclusive bathrooms, and it has to do with bathroom signs.

Sandy Allen:
Right. So if you picture a bathroom sign right now, what do you picture?

Roman Mars:
So it’s two figures. There’s a pants-wearing figure. There is a dress-wearing figure. And that’s the man symbol and the woman symbol.

Sandy Allen:
But in like a really outdated stereotype. It’s like a picture of the concept of the binary gender.

Roman Mars:
Well, that and, you know, even the most retrograde human alive today doesn’t associate women with just wearing dresses. Like even if you were just to buy into the gender binary, wearing dresses is not just like this hallmark of womanhood anyway.

Sandy Allen:
Yeah. So it’s like gender in a 1950s sense.

Roman Mars:
Totally. But it’s something, you know, I’ve seen so often. And I think that maybe my sensitivity to it is is sort of diminished because I kind of take it for granted that it is what it is.

Sandy Allen:
Right. And that’s because it’s pretty much everywhere, right? Like, there are some variations. But across the US, in my experience, at least pretty much everywhere. It’s some play on men’s/ women’s, ladies and gents, you know, cowgirls and cowboys.

Roman Mars:
And it raises questions like if we’re moving towards more inclusive public restrooms, so why not more inclusive public restroom signs. Like what would they look like?

Sandy Allen:
Exactly. And this is actually something that the Stalled! team has thought about. How do we make a sign that’s genuinely inclusive? And so they started out by analyzing the signs that are already out there. And one interesting thing they found is that bathroom signage really varies by geography. Here’s Seb Choe again.

Seb Choe:
Like in many European countries, the restroom signage just says WC for water closet and that’s sufficient. We’ve been doing research on restrooms in South Africa and in other countries where the sanitation system is not at the Western standard. And a lot of those times signage is sometimes not even present. So I think it’s important to remember that when we’re talking about gender binary signage, it’s definitely culturally and geographically relative.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, and this is something I’ve definitely noticed because where I live in the Bay Area, you do see some signs that don’t rely on the gender binary, for sure.

Sandy Allen:
Yeah, that’s true. In some parts of the country, those liberal West Coast cities especially, you’ll see, you know, places turning single-user stalls into what are sometimes labeled all-gender restrooms. Or sometimes you’ll see a sign that includes a male figure and a female one in a wheelchair, maybe accompanied by a phrase like gender-neutral.

Seb Choe:
I would say our team doesn’t think that’s the ideal sign either because we’re not really gender-neutral. We don’t want to neutralize gender because they are such rich expressions of that identity. And also, of course, that just reinforces the gender binary by having that male and female figure and also others. It segregates the wheelchair user, which is kind of this nonhuman character almost. It’s not male. It’s not female. It’s this other category, almost like colored bathrooms where “colored” was its own category.

Sandy Allen:
And so as they did their research, what started to become clear to the Stalled! team was that wherever designers tend to rely on avatars, human figures, it seems like the icon will always fail to capture the complexity of humanity by implicitly leaving some folks out.

Seb Choe:
In general, Stalled! does not advocate for using those gendered human avatars in bathroom signage at all. And instead, we advocate for inclusive restroom signage to use fixtures of what is included in the restroom, which can be as simple as a toilet icon.

Sandy Allen:
That’s the huge revelation. Make the icon a toilet!

Roman Mars:
I mean, it’s really obvious. At the end of the day, if there’s one piece of equipment that you expect to see in a public restroom that you really need, it is a toilet. So why not just depict a symbol of that?

Sandy Allen:
Yeah. And perhaps you’d want that sign to include other fixtures as well, depending on the situation.

Seb Choe:
You can include other things like a baby changing station or a sink icon. And I think this also makes the restroom more inclusive, not only by just saying clearly what is inside this room you’re about to enter, but also to not prioritize certain languages over others.

Sandy Allen:
Something that Seb points out is like, this doesn’t have to be some top-down exercise where architects dictate to society what signs should be like.

Seb Choe:
I see plenty of trans-inclusive signage on the Internet of like unicorns or aliens and saying, “whatever, just wash your hands.” There are clever ways to denote that, you know, “whoever” is included. I honestly celebrate that. And I don’t want to flatten the creativity of graphic design by having this kind of, you know, singular universal sign of a toilet that everyone has to use. You know, I think it’s fine for smaller establishments to get creative with it as long as it’s inclusive of everyone, but I think just as a best practice, a fixture is better than, you know, a woman in a dress.

Roman Mars:
Oh, totally. I mean, anything’s gonna be better than a woman in a dress. I do kind of wonder that some of the really creative iconography could be a little flippant for something that’s pretty serious. Like if you have like, you know, the man symbol, the woman symbol, and an alien symbol, you know what I’m saying.

Sandy Allen:
Absolutely. And that’s something we talked about and I think it’s all about, exactly, are you being inclusive and if you’re making a man-woman-alien-unicorn, ultimately, it’s offensive, right? So I think it has a lot to do with, like, taste and how people are choosing to, I think, really take that advice of opting to depict what’s inside this room rather than what sorts of bodies are allowed to use it.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. But does seem like this is a really good moment to think about it as we’re sort of like entering public life anew, kind of, from this period of time of being kind of closed up in our own homes. It can be a moment to have that kind of exploration right now.

Sandy Allen:
Yeah. Something I’ve been thinking about is this is actually maybe a moment for small business owners, for example, to think about how to make their bathrooms more inclusive.

Roman Mars:
And if you’re one of those listeners who has actually seen an interesting gender-inclusive bathroom sign, take a picture of it and tweeted at us @99piorg and we’re going to be collecting some unique samples and, you know, how people approach this design challenge. Well, thanks so much for talking with us, Sandy, and thanks so much for the story. It’s just been really illuminating and I learned so much. I really appreciate it.

Sandy Allen:
Thank you!

Roman Mars:
Sandy Allen is an author. Their book is called “A Kind of Miraculous Paradise.” Learn more about their work at HelloSandyAllen.com.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Sandy Allen, edited by senior producer Delaney Hall. Music by Sean Real. Sound mix by Bryson Barnes. Special thanks this week to Vanessa Gonzalez, Martin Gonzalez, Andrea Smardon, and the whole team at Stalled!. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team is Vivian Le, Chris Brube, Joe Rosenberg, Emmett FitzGerald, Katie Mingle, Abby Madan, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars.

We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row, which is now distributed in multiple locations around North America, but in our hearts, will always be in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.

We are a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative listener-supported, 100% artist-owned podcasts in the world. Find them all at Radiotopia.fm. You can tweet me @RomanMars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too. You can find out how to preorder the new 99% Invisible book. It’s called “The 99% Invisible City.” It’s out October 6th. It’s all there at 99pi.org/book. And for all your other 99pi needs, look no further than 99pi.org

Credits

Reporter Sandy Allen spoke with Joel Sanders, architect; Susan Stryker, Professor and author of Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution; Terry Kogan, Professor of Law at the University of Utah; Seb Choe, architect; and Quemuel Arroyo, Accessibility Specialist.

  1. Andreas Mattsson

    Thank you for as usual excellent reporting!

    I’m slightly disappointed though in how amerocentric this episode was, only briefly mentioning in passing that signage differs geographically. Surely there is more to be learned from look around in the world?

    In particular I would have loved to hear more of the history of how the US has come to have the flimsy partial-height stalls be the norm.

    Would also have liked to hear more discussion of cheap ways of converting existing separate but adjacent facilities into gender neutral/more inclusive ones vs the presumably more expensive remodeling requiring to achieve separate “activity zones”.

    1. Uthor

      I believe that the half door stalls came from fears of people having sex or doing drugs in bathrooms, so wanting a way to “peek” in to see what was happening.

  2. Uthor

    I was at a pub that had two bathrooms labeled:
    “This restroom has a stall and a urinal”
    And
    “This restroom has two stalls”

    Not sure how well that holds up for vision impaired or non-English speakers, but was a straight forward solution.

  3. Tim Rodkey

    My first introduction to a universal bathroom was several years ago visiting the Massachusettes Museum of Contemporary Art (). I walked in to the large common area with lots of sinks on one side and fully walled stalls or toilet rooms with a small sink in each stall/room on the other side. After the mental twist, I’ve thought a lot about that in the years since. It gets my vote.

  4. Zane

    The theme of 99pi lately has been kind of political. Which is fine, I like it every once in awhile, but 99pi has always been an escape from all the politics for me. I just like those podcasts that don’t have to do with anything I know about, it just spreads light on a subject I’ve never heard much about, like The Infantorium, Cautionary Tales, Play Mountain, Atomic Tattoos and probably my favorite ever The Great Bitter Lake Association.

    I just miss the podcasts that I knew nothing about before listening.
    Nothing against talking about issues that matter to you guys, I’m all for it, I’m just saying, the magic of listening to a podcast that I really learned a lot about something random has been fading.

    Still love the podcast, the info you give on topics like this that I do already know about is great. Thanks guys.

    1. Uthor

      Out of curiosity, I went back to the first year of this podcast and found episodes on statues, flags, city parking, public/private spaces, and maps. I know “everything is political” is a cliche, but design, and especially architecture, is inherently political and this podcast has never shied away from it.

    2. Johnny

      You’re not alone, I have the same feelings, and find solace in certain podcasts similarly. I’ve been listening to 99pi for 5 years and won’t stop, and I’m not complaining, but my state of mind when I hit play has definitely morphed. It’s just moved from my “joy of learning” column to my news/political column.

  5. Sean Redmond

    I’m curious as to what women think about these new toilets. My guess is that a large majority of women will complain about having to share toilets (as in the room) with men.

    Whether rightly or wrongly , women are of the opinion that men are less clean and care less about hygiene than men do. They are almost certainly correct too.

    Can it also be that the toilet (as in room) has a deeper psychological significance to women that it does to men? As a man, it is purely a place to engage in bodily functions and wash my hands. I would not be surprised if the toilet has an element of «the safe space» or «the male-free space» about it. Women get terribly upset about men in women’s toilets but men are not at all phased about women in men’s toilets.

    On a final note, 10-12 years’ ago, when changing-boards were not at all common in men’s toilets, I was often obliged to change my infant daughter’s nappy in women’s toilets as that was where the only changing-board was. I received not one word of a complaint or a harsh word (it wouldn’t have bothered me anyway) but I suspect that the restaurant or café owner got many an earful. It seemed to me that an infant child stinky nappy was the only legitimate passport for a male into a protected female space.

  6. Neil L.

    I wonder if this design incorporates urinals. I realize that they presume anatomy which can take advantage of this mode of nicturation, but using a stall and a toilet seems like a step backwards (at least in terms of time and water usage) if someone just needs a quick pee. Urinals also enable a pee without touching anything these days, including a stall door and handle.

    1. Sampo K.

      I remember seeing a unisex bathroom design where the urinals would be at the back, behind a partition you could walk around (so no door to touch I think), out of sight from people using the stalls in the front. There are even female and unisex urinal designs.

  7. Derek

    From the episode: “The other side says that women shouldn’t be attacked in the bathroom by cross-dressing men.”

    Umm, I think they say that women shouldn’t be attacked anywhere by anyone, and that allowing broader access to women’s bathrooms might increase attacks on women. I wonder if you purposely phrased it as cross-dressing men so that you could frame the dangers to women of allowing more people to use women’s bathrooms as only coming from cross-dressing men and thus, according to Prof. Striker, as non-existent: “That fear of a predatory cross-dressing man is a fiction”

    For there are certainly reports of non-cross-dressing men assaulting women in bathrooms, so the question isn’t whether allowing bathroom use by gender identity increases assaults by cross-dressing men but by men as a whole. And that’s an open question, especially, as you indicate at the end of the program, we don’t expect women to always wear dresses anymore.

    To be clear, I think having people use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity is, on the whole, a social good, but it probably does come at a cost to some people. Ignoring that decreases your credibility.

  8. Seth Loiterman

    I want to echo what Zane said a few comments above.

    There has been such a political slant lately, I guess I just miss your old podcast.
    In particular; flags, stamps, challenge coins, teddy bears, cathedrals, lightbulbs, sandhogs, stethoscopes pinball machines and fortune cookies.

    I listen to podcasts to get away from the news not be reminded of all the bad stuff out there. Maybe you feel like you have to do your part? I’m pretty sure I can guess your politics without saying the quiet part out loud- you guys have been clever enough n the past insert in here and there in some cute and cheeky ways.

    Do you want to do your part? You already are doing your part by entertaining us out here, calming us down and taking our minds anywhere but our four walls or our burning cities or election agita. There is nothing wrong with that.

    Bring back the quirky, fun tone of the99pi we all (right and left) love.

  9. Rhubarbjin

    It’s been a little over 1 year since I moved to Copenhagen, and I can’t remember ever seeing a gender-segregated restroom around here. They look just like restrooms elsewhere in Europe or America, except for the signage and the lack of urinals.

    Wheelchair access isn’t great, though.

  10. Branden

    In about 2018, I encountered my first Boston-area example of multi-person bathrooms being converted to all-gender. It was at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge. I don’t remember the iconography (and I can’t find a picture of it), but I do remember that they replaced signs saying “Men” and “Women” with ones that read “Stalls and Urinals” and “Stalls Only”. It was, at the time, a little slow to catch on, with most female patrons still forming the traditional long queue outside the “Stalls Only” room at intermission. Still, if ever there is pressure to break out of outdated gender rules, a 15-minute intermission with a long bathroom line is it. My (cis-female) wife still complains about Fun Home on Broadway, a pointedly queer show, but one where women ushers actually stopped women patrons from rushing into the (line-less) “men’s” room to pee before the show started.

  11. Athaclena

    I’m wondering about one thing mostly. Periods. Many women get them, and they tend to make going to the toilet… messy, shall we say.
    Going to wash icky hands in a women’s toilet is one thing, but I would be rather uncomfortable washing the same hands in an all gender bathroom, and I’m not sure the men would like it either.
    I’m wondering if this has been considered at all

    1. Spangle

      Yeah, I was wondering the same. Especially with things like diva cups and such! Seems like it’s and easier and better solution to put the sink in the cubicle? That seems like a massive oversight somehow

  12. I am a huge fan and collector of Toilet signs! :) So this episode was really quite interesting to me …
    I am collecting creative toilet signs for over 15 years, but I have to confirm, I have not met “non sex-segregated” toilets signs yet…
    I’ll keep an eye for those now. If you have something to add – or to observe from the creativity around the world – here’s my collection:
    https://www.facebook.com/hajzliky

  13. Dawn Schmitz

    Great episode! There was an inaccuracy in the description of the episode in my podcast app, though. There was never an ordinance passed in Charlotte that “attempted to restrict which bathrooms trans people could or couldn’t use.” To the contrary, the city of Charlotte passed a nondiscrimination ordinance for public accommodations that was inclusive of trans people, and the state of NC responded with a law, commonly referred to as HB2, which effectively overturned it. HB2 — the state law –banned people from having the choice of using whichever bathroom matched their gender identity.

  14. Tim

    Great podcast, interesting and thoughtful as ever.
    One group who still don’t have good – if any – access to appropriate public facilities are those who rely on continence products. That is, adult diapers and other similar aids.
    These products need to be changed, regularly or irregularly. That is a great challenge especially for those who don’t stand, which can often be related to why they are using continence products.
    Many users need to lay down to be changed. That requires a bench or table… or the floor of a public bathroom. It should come as no surprise that the floor of a public bathroom is not an ideal option.
    My 14 year old daughter is too big for a baby change table, and too mature to be changed without privacy. She has profound intellectual disability, uses a wheelchair, and likes to explore her environment by touch. She also likes to put her hands in her mouth. Restroom floors are absolutely not an option.
    Her need for changing facilities is the biggest restriction on where, and for how long, our family is able to go out.
    I empathise with your gender diverse guests and their frustration at being limited by lack of personal care facilities that they can use safely. It is, literally, a sh*t problem.

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