I'm a Straight Man; I Used a Gender-Neutral Bathroom; and the Sky Didn't Fall.
If you have ever been to the United States Conference on AIDS (USCA) or any conference or event that expects people of multiple genders to attend, then most likely you will notice something very different when you use the restroom. After you shed the feeling of confusion looking for the restroom sign, you will quickly notice that you do not have to choose which restroom to use. Walking into a restroom where all genders were welcomed filled me with the same feeling that I had the first time I walked into a marijuana dispensary: "Finally! This is how I always envisioned it. Finally! This is how the world should be." But, unlike at the dispensary, where finally having choices made me giddy, the lack of restroom choice at USCA floated my boat.
My fascination with restrooms and gender goes back to when I was a preteen. I accidentally went into the women's room one day and felt completely embarrassed. For years, I always questioned: Why did I feel embarrassed, and why did my embarrassment feel normal? I never understood: Why must we be segregated by gender? In all my life, I have never seen another man's private parts in the restroom. We just handle our business and leave. And, I assume breasts aren't flying around freely in the women's bathroom. So, why can't we all empty ourselves in the same room?
Now, unisex restrooms are nothing new, but usually they are confined to single-user restrooms, meaning a restroom that has one toilet with one door that locks. In fact, according to a New York Times article, even cities that are friendly to gender-neutral restrooms -- such as Seattle; Berkeley, California; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Austin, Texas; and Philadelphia -- have passed laws requiring single-user all-gender restrooms.
What made the restroom experience at USCA 2018 in Orlando, Florida, truly unique is that they converted multi-user men's and women's restrooms to gender-neutral use by simply covering the signs that designate gender with placards depicting a traditional "man" and a "woman," plus an amalgamated image of both, and the text "Gender-Neutral Restroom." This means that, if you entered a restroom in the conference center portion of hotel where the USCA was held, you had a 50/50 chance of entering either a traditional women's room or a men's room, complete with urinals, regardless of your gender at birth.
As I walked toward the restroom, I had no idea I was entering the former men's room. I must admit that I immediately felt a little apprehensive, if not outright "weird," walking towards the restroom as women were walking out. I walk in. My apprehension reached its crescendo as I saw more women inside washing their hands and exiting, juxtaposed against men using urinals in the background. The apprehension subsided quickly as the normalcy of people relieving themselves, regardless of gender, became apparent. And soon, there I was, using the urinal as women and transgender people came in and out of the stalls behind me, and there was nothing "weird" about it at all. What I always suspected was true: Everyone, regardless of who they are, is able to use one multi-use restroom in total harmony.
But, how does the public feel about gender-neutral restrooms? When I told friends that I was writing this story, the backlash was immediate and swift. Male or female, there seemed to be a consensus of fear. Almost verbatim, the concern for little girls and women being followed into the restroom by pedophilic men, male rapists, and garden variety perverts resounded loudly. Overwhelmingly, this was the greatest fear, although, I can find no evidence to support it. I call it the "boogey man effect." Everyone is afraid of the "boogey man," but because few multi-stall gender-neutral restrooms exist for the general public, no data supports whether women and girls are in increased danger using them.
On the other hand, according to the 2015 Transgender Survey published by the National Center for Transgender Equality, almost 60% of the 27,715 respondents said they avoided using public restrooms for fear of confrontation, including harassment or being the victim of assault. According to the report findings, transgender people are much more likely than anyone else to be assaulted in public restrooms.
As reported by Reuters, "The findings by the National Center for Transgender Equality on public restrooms counter the message of mainly conservative politicians and religious leaders that transgender people are the antagonists preying on others. [They] found that 12 percent of transgender people were verbally harassed in public restrooms within the previous year, 1 percent were physically attacked and 1 percent were sexually assaulted. Nine percent said someone denied them access to a bathroom."
There are advantages to gender-neutral restrooms, as well. Many women complain that they often have to wait in line to use the restroom, while men come and go with more ease. An opinion piece published in The Guardian cites a research study finding that the average time people occupy a toilet stall is two minutes for men and three minutes for women. From this, the article authors calculated that, with two multi-stall restrooms -- one male and one female -- each containing six stalls, and 150 men and 150 women waiting over a one-hour period, the average waiting time will be about 27 seconds for men and seven minutes 40 seconds for women. However, they say, "If we make them gender-neutral, then the average waiting time will go to 36 seconds -- a small increase for men but a substantial decrease for women."
Seems to me that the pros very much outweigh the supposed cons. Most people don't even realize that they already subscribe to the concept of gender-neutral restrooms and use them every day ... in the home. Will the public open up to multi-stalled gender-neutral restrooms? Only time will tell. But, I believe it is at least worth being studied. Perhaps more research should be conducted at large conferences, such as USCA, where gender-neutral restrooms are already being implemented on a large scale. I think the USCA and similar conferences have it right and will eventually be on the right side of history.
But, people are stubborn, so being sensible about restrooms will likely take more time.
Aaron Anderson is an activist, consultant, and former talk show host. Aaron is also co-founder of ARISE (Association of Refugees, Immigrants, and Survivors of Human Trafficking Engage). He is from Cleveland and is now living in Detroit.