PUBLIC TOILET SIGNS are changing, and the gendering of elimination is now subject to discussion and debate. This became obvious to me when an older male professor at York University in Toronto, Canada, stared nervously at the new gender neutral sign on the bathroom door in the student center. (The SexGen committee at York successfully lobbied for unisex toilets on campus signed with the astrological male and female symbols interlinked.) The professor pointed at the sign and asked me if he could go in. I said, “Yes, it’s a gender neutral toilet for everyone.” The man nodded with obvious distress and walked off, presumably in search of a more conventionally designated bathroom door. The very next day, an undergraduate noticed the same sign and gasped, “Is that washroom for hermaphrodites?” My research assistant, who is transgender, replied, “I think it’s more about accepting gender diversity than genitalia.”
Gender neutral signs are popping up everywhere, and with good reason. Too often, the bi-gendered signage acts as a barrier to access for those who are trans or gender variant. Take, for example, the well-publicized cases involving Dean Spade and Helena Stone, both of whom (at different times) were denied access to bathrooms at Grand Central Station in New York. Bathroom accessibility is a human right, and when one is denied access at work, at school, in transit stations, restaurants, bars, cinemas, malls, fitness facilities, etc., public accommodation is compromised. It is therefore not surprising that gender rights activists across North America are organizing to make public facilities trans-inclusive. The Transgender Law Center in San Francisco released a document entitled “Peeing in Peace: A Resource Guide for Transgender Activists and Allies”; the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York produced a documentary called Toilet Training: Law and Order in the Bathroom under the direction of Tara Mateik; People in Search of Safe and Accessible Restrooms (pissar) is a coalition of students, faculty, and staff at the University of California at Santa Barbara who don yellow T-shirts labeled “free 2 pee” as they busy themselves—clipboards, measuring tape, and pens in hand—evaluating restroom accessibility; and the Safe2pee website, a gender neutral bathroom directory, is getting more hits than one might imagine.
Similar trends can be seen across the globe. In the northern province of Chiang Mai, Thailand, administrators built a bathroom for katoey or “lady-boy” students; water closets for transpeople are appearing in Rio de Janeiro; and British universities, including Bradford Union, Sussex and Manchester, are building unisex facilities.
Debates are also brewing about gender rights under the law. In Canada there are laws pertaining to building plans and architecture, but there are no laws governing the gender of bathroom occupants. Bill C-398, which would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to include “gender identity” and “gender expression,” has been un-affectionately dubbed the “bathroom bill.” The bill, which passed two readings in the House of Commons but died as a federal election was triggered by the liberal opposition last March, would have afforded formal protection for trans and gender variant individuals, including the right to use public facilities consistent with one’s gender identity.
In the U.S., potty laws vary by city and state. For example, the San Francisco Human Rights Code recommends that businesses have a unisex toilet. In Fort Worth, Texas, by contrast, a proposal is under debate to make it legal to “deny any person entry into any restroom, shower room, bathhouse or similar facility which has been designated for use by persons of the opposite sex.” In Maryland the provision for “public accommodations” (which includes rights of access to public facilities) was removed from bill HB235, a statewide ordinance that was, ironically, intended to extend human rights provisions to trans folks. In the city of Missoula, Montana, legislators passed an ordinance last year protecting GLBT people from discrimination in public, but opponents are pressing the state of Montana to invalidate the ordinance due to questionable appeals to bathroom safety.
Those opposing trans-inclusive human rights legislation in Canada and the U.S. will often equate trans people with sexual predators and rapists desperate to get access to the ladies room. The pairing is curious when we consider that there has been (to my knowledge) no report of a trans person physically or sexually attacking a cisgendered (non-trans) patron in the restroom. It is as though the toilet has become an icon of danger evoked by those who cannot logically substantiate their opposition to trans inclusive legislation.
Much of what we cannot say in polite society surfaces in the toilet. The toilet, like the unconscious, is a dumping ground for unacceptable impulses, sexual practices, identifications, and desires. The vicissitudes of love and hate, desire and aggression are not only written on bathroom walls but enacted in real time. People die and have sex in toilets. Illicit messages are etched onto partition walls that span from the lascivious to the hate-filled. People cry and vomit, bond and gossip, inject needles and illegal substances, learn about gay sex and birth control (thanks to condom dispensers and birth control advertisements on the back of cubicle doors); we do all kinds of things deemed imprudent, illegal, or vulgar in polite society.
Wrote Victor Hugo in Les Misérables: “A sewer is a cynic. It tells all.” But public censors are on red alert at the mere mention of the toilet and the activities associated with it. It is worth noting that English has no word for bathroom that is not a euphemism. Even the word toilet derives from toile, an old French word that referred to the cloth draped over a lady or gentleman’s shoulders while a servant dressed the hair or applied power to the face. Most people have trouble even mentioning the bathroom without a nervous titter. In academia, attention has been paid to the regulation of desire in the bedroom, but the regulation of gender in the bathroom is often ignored or dismissed as unworthy of scholarly attention. There are, however, a few notable exceptions: gay male writing on tea rooms and cottaging, including Laud Humphries’ classic 1970 book Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places. And three recent books (including my own) have recently made waves on the academic scene: my Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination (2010); Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender (2009), edited by Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner; and Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing (2010), edited by Harvey Molotch and Laura Noren.
Nevertheless, a queer and trans cultural history of the toilet is yet to be written. Few people know that the first gender-segregated toilets were assembled in a Parisian restaurant for a ball held in 1739. Or that portable urinettes were made for women in London in the 1700’s, and that they were made in the shape of an erect penis and testes. The first sociological studies of prostitution were conducted by a Parisian sanitary engineer, but what I call the sex-elimination linkage is under-theorized. Little has been written about the otherwise unisex bidet made famous by sex-workers in France and Italy. We may never know how many of the racially segregated restrooms in the segregated South were unisex and how African-Americans negotiated the unjust Jim Crow laws. It is also of interest that the first public facilities for women were built in shopping areas so that women could shop for longer periods of time. Timothy Eaton of Toronto built what he called the “Ladies Gallery and Waiting Room” to cater to female customers in his department store in 1886. Simpson’s in Toronto, the Colonial House in Montreal, and Bloomingdale’s in New York City all followed suit.
I cite these bits of historical trivia not to suggest that we don’t know our history but rather to suggest that the politics of excretion is relevant to GLBT communities. The bladder functions like a leash, and the availability of accessible toilets demarcates who can go where. It is high time we questioned the silence surrounding the gendered and sexual politics of the toilet because they are not only inaccessible to trans folks and people with physical disabilities, but heterosexist as well.
French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote that preoccupations about sex were literally built into modern architectural design. This is especially true of the modern gender-segregated toilets of today. Consider the common practice of building short cubicle walls and doors (or removing cubicle doors entirely) in the men’s room and how these revealing metal screens are meant to curtail gay sex. Even the receptacles seem to mirror human anatomy and heterosexual body politics. Scholars of toilet architectural design like Alexander Kira (1966) have noted that urinals resemble enlarged vaginas, whereas the oval pedestal enclosed by stall partitions resembles the anus. Men stand upright in open view while women back into a crouching position in enclosed stalls. It is as if the receptacles prompt us to assume the missionary position associated with penetrative heterosexual sex.
It is perhaps not surprising that people have sex in public facilities despite worries about unwanted pregnancy and misconceptions about toilet seats being havens for sexually transmitted infections. Thanks to the diligent work of safer sex activists, we now have condom machines in public facilities, right beside the perfume and tampon dispensers. As one person quoted in my book says with only a little irony: “It is as if the rooms are now inviting us to ‘smell good, cover it up, and get laid.’” There is a growing acknowledgment of the fact that the toilet is a sexualized space despite commonly expressed complaints about “dirty bathrooms.” As a gay man I interviewed explains, the filth adds to the sexual appeal: “It’s dirty, it’s lusty, it’s exciting … like 1970’s porn. It’s got a gritty kind of feel to it, a rawness … that is exciting.”
In Queering Bathrooms I sought to understand how restrooms enable us to negotiate sex and gender identity in public. Based on a hundred interviews with GLBT subjects in major Canadian and American cities, I provided an overview of their experiences as relayed. People shared stories of being harassed and denied entry to public toilets because of their gender identity. It was not uncommon for trans folks to be refused a bathroom at their place of work. One interviewee actually kept a bucket under her desk at a large corporation. Some trans men and trans women were assaulted upon entering the “ladies” room by male vigilantes and security guards. An unfortunate few were arrested by police, only to have the charges dropped at the station. It may surprise readers to learn that many trans people have been struck with heavy purses and subjected to verbal abuse when using the women’s room.
There are devastating stories about gay men being arrested in urinals for public indecency. Equally moving are those stories told by interviewees who fondly recall having gay sex for the first time in a public lavatory. Many of those who have sex in toilets stress how much they enjoy the homoeroticism of the bathroom; men, for example, standing side-by-backside in plain open view before the urinal (social prohibitions on looking not withstanding), and women peering at each other in hanging mirrors above the sink. Some people say they learned about gay sex for the first time by either witnessing “action” at the urinals or by reading sexually explicit bathroom graffiti. Some adults recall their early school days when they wanted to use the “other” washroom, only to be castigated by parents and teachers insisting upon the bi-gendered status quo. One trans man even recalled stepping up to a urinal almost twice his height to the consternation of an older man at a nearby urinal. The stories told by interviewees about using a bathroom for the first time, post-transition, without trouble or trepidation, are especially moving. The narratives were all so fascinating that I wrote a play called the Queer Bathroom Monologues (based on the book interviews), which is being produced at this year’s Toronto Fringe Festival, July 6 to 17.
Who would have thought that the toilet played such a pivotal role in sex and gender politics? The room is a repository for social intolerance and a fount of queer counter-cultural politics. What we do in bathrooms matters. The way we sign gender on doors and negotiate sex in public is of relevance to LGBT communities. It is vitally important to build accessible, unisex toilets so that everyone can use them without gender-based harassment and interrogation. But, at the same time, gendered space can also be homoerotic, and because homoeroticism is disallowed in most other public venues, there is something important about the homoerotism of the toilet.
In his discussion of a play called The Toilet, by Amiri Baraka (a.k.a. LeRoi Jones)—which brilliantly portrays the interrelationship between violence, racism, and homophobia—José Esteban Muñoz contends that the iconic toilet signifies a queer past and offers an alternative to heteronormative futurity. If we think about queerness as something more than a sexual identity, as a way of desiring that interrupts heterosexuality as usual, then it becomes clear that unlawful uses of the WC enable us to forge new ways of being intimate and sexual.
The global trade in generic stick figures doesn’t do justice to the myriad ways in which we are all gendered and sexual. So, along with unisex designs, we need to work creatively, in trans- and gay-positive ways, with the gendered rooms we already have. Gendered space is not a problem per se. Gender policing is, and the built environment should not enable zones of exclusion. Nor should it mandate proper and improper sex in public. The rooms should not give people license to define for others what counts as a “man” or a “woman.” Gender signs should be permanently unclear and open to re-signification in whatever way may suit a given occupant. Bathroom designs that prompt folks accustomed to normative gender imagery to question their assumptions about gender and compulsory heterosexuality are, for this author, the most exciting.
As an example, take Fierce Pussy, a collective of queer women who do politically motivated public art in the U.S. They did a graffiti-based bathroom installation at the LGBT Community Center in New York that asks users, “Are you a boy or a girl?” The question is written on the bathroom wall over and above an image of a class photograph featuring elementary school students in Manhattan in 1969. Or consider the L’urinette (urinal for women) in the Whiskey Café in Montréal. It is equipped with directions for use, allowing “women” to use it “Just like the boyz!” There is also a series of female urinals set up at universities, historical societies, stadiums, museums, and highway rest stops throughout the U.S., including a particularly charming one at Long Beach city hall.
I suggest that we work with toilet architectural designs so that they may cultivate new relationships between people. At present, toilets tend to segregate and compartmentalize individuals by gender, class (those who are under-housed and under-employed are often denied access to public facilities), disability, and culture. (The European sit-down toilet is quickly replacing the traditional squat design in African and Asian countries catering to Western tourists, for example.) A community-oriented and -accessible toilet should not eclipse differences between people but cultivate new and as yet unforeseen ways of being gendered and sexual in the social landscape.
We need pedagogically thoughtful lavatory designs to gently guide unsuspecting patrons through non-normative spatial maps along with those designs that are explicitly unisex. Like museums, bathrooms could be queer memorials to what has been foreclosed in the course of growing up—same-sex play and cross-gender expression, for example. Unusual sightlines, curves, essential oils (not chemical sprays), vanity couches, and non-normative receptacles can all prompt people to engage with gender diversity and homoeroticism in new and ethical ways. The hope would be to encourage patrons to enjoy (and not fear) what is new and different in others. Rather than designate the toilet as “disgusting,” “dangerous,” or “abject,” we could make it into a thing of beauty. It could be physically accessible and ergonomic, environmentally thoughtful (the average toilet now uses 4.2 liters of water per flush), sensual and homoerotic, gender variant by design, and open to a range of body types, sizes, shapes, and abilities. Gender inclusive and luxurious toilets are a worthwhile project for the 21st century.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, An Introduction: V. I. Vintage, 1978.
Kira, Alexander. The Bathroom: Criteria for Design. Center for Housing and Environmental Studies, Cornell University, 1966.
Muñoz, José Esteban. 2007. “Cruising the Toilet: LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Radical Black Traditions, and Queer Futurity,” GLQ, 13:2-3, 2007.
Sheila L. Cavanagh, who teaches sociology and coordinates the Sexuality Studies Program at York Univ., Toronto, is the author of Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination (2010).