World Toilet Day is now officially celebrated by the United Nations every year on November 19th to bring attention to the 2.5 billion of our fellow humans who lack access to clean safe toilets. In the United States, clean, comfortable restrooms are a common expectation whether we are at work, home, a coffee shop, or even at a park in a remote area. At least in America, we don’t have problems finding appropriate restrooms…. right?
For many of us, the answer is yes. Many if not most Americans would say they have satisfactory access to public restrooms in their daily lives. However, not all feel this way. Transgender individuals have long suffered with awkward and even dangerous dilemmas when attempting to use the restroom. The reason for this being is because many public restrooms are gender specific (i.e. men’s/women’s) and multi-stall. This means you are likely to encounter another person in that restroom. If the other person doesn’t consider you the “correct” gender, a great deal of anxiety can result.
Transgender people are in the uncomfortable position of having to choose either the restroom for the gender they were assigned at birth or the gender they now most closely identify as. This is a decision that can potentially result in verbal or even physical harassment. As an example, a trans-female (male at birth) can use the men’s room but risks harassment from men who see the individual as a woman in the wrong restroom, or even worse, might have hateful opinions of transgender people and react with violence. The women’s room might not be a better option in this scenario as many women have reacted in the same way. For transgender individuals, the decision is between two bad options. Make that three bad options if you include “holding it” until a safe restrooms available.
Some look at this issue as one that only affects 1% of America’s population and so therefore any policy action would be an overreaction. Transgender individuals, however, are not the only ones that suffer from a lack of good restroom options. All women, for instance, have noticed that the line for their restroom is frequently much longer than for the men’s room. Women normally take longer to use the toilet and typically need to use the toilet more often. This results in a greater demand for female toilets than male toilets/urinals. Having an equal number of fixtures for men and women is neither practical or unfair.
Two other groups that suffer from the gendered restroom dilemma are parents with young children and caretakers. If a female caretaker is taking an elderly male into a restroom she is breaking the gender norm whether she chooses male or female. Similarly a dad with a young daughter has to bring her into the men’s room which may offend others who have to share a space with the opposite gender. Mothers with their young sons would face a similar issue.
The good news with all of these problems is that they have a common and simple solution: unisex restrooms. Introducing a unisex or family restroom can help cut down lines coming out of the women’s room because women have access to the additional room. The single occupant unisex restroom also means that transgender individuals don’t have to worry about harassment for using the “wrong” room. Caretakers and parents won’t offend anyone by bringing in someone who is opposite gendered because they will have the room to themselves.
World Toilet Day is an opportunity to be mindful of people who do not have proper access to sanitation. Sometimes those people are our friends and neighbors who face significant obstacles to toilet use when they are away from. Fortunately, the gender-neutral family restroom is a solution that everyone can support.
By Kyle Earlywine. For additional information on the benefits of unisex restrooms see the following: “A few reasons to consider unisex restrooms” ; “Legal Non-discrimination and Gender Neutral Restrooms” and “Single-User vs. Multi-User Toilet Rooms.”