Transgender bathrooms: An architectural perspective

The question of what restroom a transgender person should use has become a national debate. Kathryn Anthony, an Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture Distinguished Professor of architecture at the University of Illinois, has testified before Congress on the issue of gender parity in public restrooms in federal buildings. Anthony, also the author of “Designing for Diversity: Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in the Architectural Profession,” talked about potty politics with News Bureau arts and humanities editor Jodi Heckel.

What is your take on the current controversy over transgender persons and public restrooms?

It’s been fascinating to watch this issue explode on the scene in recent weeks. In fact, access to public restrooms is a civil rights issue and a human rights issue that has surfaced long before. Title II of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 dismantled Jim Crow laws that had long been in effect throughout much of the South, requiring racially segregated public restrooms in hotels, motels, restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums, concert halls and transportation cars. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 required all public accommodations, including those restrooms in both the public and the private sector, to eliminate physical barriers.

In 2005, five security guards approached a transgender woman in New York City and demanded that she show her identification upon entering a public restroom at a mall. Her lawsuit was settled in her favor and the security company agreed to pay her $2,500. So this issue is not new. But the current confrontation between the governor of North Carolina and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has shined the national spotlight on public restrooms in a new way. As Lynch acknowledged, there have been “discriminatory responses to historic moments of progress.”

You’ve written about health and safety issues that are implicated by the lack of adequate public restroom facilities for women, especially their need for greater "potty parity," as well as for families with children. Does the question of what restrooms are available for transgender people also raise health and safety issues?

Health and safety, along with privacy, accessibility and availability, are all important issues whenever we use public restrooms. The type of restrooms available – or not available – for transgender people raises special health and safety issues, as some restrooms are likely safer than others. In general, and for transgender people especially, the more privacy the better.

In my role as an educator, author and advocate on this issue, including my 2010 congressional testimony, I’ve called attention to special health and safety issues in public restrooms. Women and girls waiting in long lines for restrooms face a subtle form of gender discrimination; hence the need for “potty parity,” or equal speed of access to public restrooms regardless of gender. Families with young children face special problems when forced to take their children into the opposite-gender restroom. Parents with young children often have problems finding baby-changing tables in restrooms. Young children, individuals with invisible disabilities such as ulcerative colitis or irritable bowel syndrome, and elderly persons often have special restroom needs that require them to find one right away.

Are there design features that can reduce some of these issues?

Yes, design can play an important role in enhancing privacy and safety in public restrooms. For example, single-user, gender-neutral restrooms that allow space for only one person at a time provide safer, more private environments. In a typical gender-segregated restroom with multiple toilet stalls, a doorless maze entry provides a greater sense of safety than a door that can be used to trap someone inside or hide noise from a brawl, fight or bullying behavior. In men’s restrooms, well-designed partitions between urinals provide a greater sense of privacy.

Do you think this will become a consideration for the design of restrooms in new buildings?

Yes, that’s likely to be the case. Even though transgender persons represent a small portion of the population, the flurry of national publicity about this issue in recent weeks has made us all more aware of the special situations that they confront when using public restrooms. The potential dangers they face regarding bullying and violence should be avoided as much as possible, hence the need for safer public restroom designs for all.

How might providing restrooms that accommodate transgender persons help others as well?

The publicity surrounding the need for more gender-neutral restrooms to better accommodate transgender persons can be viewed in a larger context. In fact, it is part of a broader movement to construct more single-user toilet facilities, including family or assisted-use toilets that can be identified for use by either sex. Over the past decade or so, the International Code Council, the association that develops model codes and standards used in the design, build, and compliance process, has written codes calling for an increase in gender-neutral restrooms in new and newly remodeled buildings.