Gender-Neutral Restrooms and Architectural Design

While the debate swirls about gender-neutral bathrooms, designers are caught in the crosshairs as they decide how to approach this issue. In 2018, the International Plumbing Code updated signage requirements for single-user restrooms, and some local jurisdictions are taking their own initiative to promote inclusiveness.

What is the Deal with Gender-Neutral Restrooms?

Put simply; a gender-neutral restroom is one that can be used by a person of any gender and gender identity. This type of restroom is also known as an all-gender restroom. It usually has signage reflecting that people of all genders are welcome to use the room.  However, the debate surrounding gender-neutral restrooms has raised some interesting questions for designers. As designers, if there is an easy way to make restrooms more functional and accessible, why shouldn’t we explore it?

One roadblock is that building codes mandate sex-segregated restrooms, although, they are in the process of being revised. The goal of these revisions is unisex restrooms, but unfortunately, there’s no “one size fits all” approach.

Signage for Gender-Neutral Restrooms

Gender-neutral restroom signs sometimes include an amalgamation of the symbols usually shown on male and female bathrooms. Some may even go further with text to say “all welcome”, or use other symbols to indicate that members of communities that do not identify as male or female are welcome.

Why Are Gender-Neutral Restrooms Important?

Gender-neutral restroom facilities can provide a safer and more welcoming space to someone who may be transgender or may not identify as either male or female. Most public restrooms are divided by male and female. Sex-separated public restrooms are difficult for transgender or androgynous people to negotiate. This subjects them to embarrassment, harassment, or even assault or by others offended by the presence of a person they interpret as being of the gender opposite the one designated for that bathroom. This often leads to the “offending” person being arrested as well.

Gender-neutral restrooms would make using public restrooms easier for transgender people at various stages of transition. They would also remove the pressure of transgender people having to make a decision about whether to use the men’s or women’s restroom and ultimately feeling stuck between two difficult choices. Some even say they avoid using public restrooms entirely, or opt for single-stall restrooms to avoid using gendered restrooms.

The Debate

Some people have hijacked the debate around having gender-neutral restrooms to suggest that allowing transgender people to use a bathroom which fits their gender identity could lead to higher rates of child or sexual abuse.  There is no research to back this up, and there are currently no recorded cases of somebody pretending to be transgender to gain access to a restroom to harass or abuse someone. In fact, it is more likely that the transgender person will be the one sexually assaulted while in a restroom. Research has shown that members of the transgender community face disproportionately high rates of sexual assault in public restrooms.

Who Opposes Gender-Neutral Restrooms?

States in the U.S. such as North Carolina, and possibly soon Texas, have introduced legislation that will or already has banned transgender people from using gendered restrooms in public if the bathroom does not fit with the sex assigned on their birth certificate.  North Carolina has repealed its bill, HB2, but in doing so, banned local authorities from enacting laws to protect LGBT people.  The vast majority of restrooms are already gender-neutral.

Originally, female-only spaces provided a step forward for women in public. Before that, there were usually only men-only facilities.  However, female-only spaces have mostly been condemned to history, and gendered bathrooms remain one of the only places divided by gender. Isn’t it time to do away with these as well?

The Path for Gender-Neutral Restrooms

The new amendments to the plumbing code create a code compliance path for gender-neutral restrooms in both single-user and multi-user configurations:

  • Single-user restrooms require signage to indicate that they’re open to any user regardless of gender.
  • Multi-user restrooms can now be offered to all users. They need shared sinks, and each toilet must have a private compartment.