Politics Aside, New Bathroom Designs Move The Boundaries On Gender

Nov 1, 2018
Originally published on November 1, 2018 8:34 am

State ballot Question 3, which asks voters if they want to keep a transgender civil rights law, has put the spotlight on bathrooms. But the marketplace for bathrooms isn’t waiting for election day. There’s a wide range of changes underway.

Take the signs. Libraries, hospitals, museums and restaurants across Massachusetts have replaced the M or W plaques outside their bathrooms with everything from just “Restroom” to “We don’t care as long as you wash your hands.”

After much discussion, Tufts Health Plan in Watertown in May posted an all-gender symbol and some explicit guidance on single-user bathroom door signs.

“The sign in my view makes a statement to employees that we want to provide transgender facilities,” says Lydia Greene, Tufts Health Plan’s head of human resources, “making it more clear through signage that that is the intent, rather than just, it happens to be a single-use bathroom.”

Gender-neutral signs and single bathrooms are becoming routine in new buildings, according to architects and contractors interviewed for this story.

“Since about 2015, it’s become an ordinary portion of the design discussion,” says Rebecca Berry, president of Finegold Alexander Architects in Boston.

But Berry says her clients, most of whom are large public or private institutions, prefer to add these bathrooms quietly.

“They want to be seen as being responsive and responsible without getting into, shall we say, the politics of gender identity, which, frankly, have been used in a divisive manner,” Berry says.

There’s no hiding from the politics of gender identity in bathrooms at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. The A.R.T. turned its main men’s and women’s rooms into all-gender bathrooms in conjunction with a show about the lives of trans women.

“It was during that time that we felt we needed to invite all of our audience members to be open to this, and then we kept it,” says Anna Fitzloff, the theater’s managing director.

So now men queue with women going into what used to be the women’s room. In the former men’s room, women walk past patrons standing at urinals to enter toilet stalls.

The A.R.T. explained the change to audiences via email and with new signs on the bathrooms. Staff members are on hand during shows to direct patrons and answer questions. Opening both bathrooms to all has also made it easier to move 600 people in and out of the theater during a 15-minute intermission.

Fitzloff says the gender-neutral bathrooms also help moms taking their young sons to the toilet and grown sons helping a mother with dementia.

Mark Lunsford, the theater’s artistic producer, says he still gets questions about the A.R.T. bathrooms, but little “fierce” opposition.

“The minute you say, ‘We have a lot of folks in this space who don’t identify on the gender binary, or that benefit from not having gendered restrooms for many other reasons,’ ” Lunsford says audience members typically respond with, “‘Oh, that makes a lot of sense.’ ”

But equal access to the men’s room is probably not the wave of the future. For a glimpse of the next-generation bathroom, stroll down the carpeted hall of a new UMass Boston dorm. Suddenly there’s a wide opening, with no door. A white counter with sinks and bright lights above mirrors is just inside. Three doors in a wall opposite the sinks open to small rooms with toilets and showers.

“These really are like bathrooms in your own home,” says Chanel An, a residential assistant. “They’re not a stall situation, that’s like the biggest thing. You really have privacy.”

UMass Boston students asked for unisex dorm restrooms in lieu of standard men’s or women’s shared facilities.

“You don’t have to say who you are, what your identity is, you can just go to the bathroom,” says Chloe Strange, who supervises the RAs in the dorm.

But acting on the students’ request took some effort. UMass Boston had to get a code variance from the state, which requires separate bathrooms for men and women.

“We had to explain what we were setting out to do and why it was important to the university and important for inclusion,” says UMass Boston campus master planning director Andrew Weiss.

He recalls the main concern was about the opening into the space, with no door, and easy view of the sink, not about the non-gendered bathrooms.

Weiss says UMass Boston would repeat the design in future dorms. “We’re thrilled with how it come out,” he says. “It’s been successful for our resident community.”

Weiss says his assessment is based on the comments he hears from students and the fact that he hasn’t had any complaints. UMass Boston students can also choose singles, doubles or quads with their own bathrooms, so not all students use the shared space bathrooms.

A spokeswoman for the state Plumbing Board says it has received fewer than a dozen requests for multi-user bathroom variances since 2016, and all have been approved.

Mark Malmquist, who worked on the UMass Boston dorms project for Shawmut Design and Construction, says the gender-neutral shared bathrooms are becoming more popular in college dorms. He sees it as an evolution.

“You go back 25 years ago, you’d have male dorms, female dorms, then male floors, female floors, then it went to males and females on the same floor,” says Malmquist. “It’s just the current college students, they’ve grown up with male, female, it doesn’t really matter, everybody’s the same.”

The international plumbing code was revised earlier this year so that individual all-gender bathrooms, like the UMass Boston layout, count toward the required number of traditionally male and female bathrooms, but Massachusetts has not adopted those changes.

David Collins, an architectural code consultant with the Preview Group in Cincinnati, wrote several of the proposals that led to the unisex code bathroom changes.

“We spend a lot of time duplicating things and overlapping things that don’t really need to be,” says Collins. “We provide individual spaces that we use for both men and women in our homes. Is there some reason that [public bathrooms] can’t be gender neutral?”

There are issues with this model. Single floor-to-ceiling stalls are more expensive to build, light, vent and clean. And more privacy means less opportunity to monitor what happens behind a closed door and increases risks, critics say, for women and children. Drug users may overdose accidentally without being detected.

Matt LaRue, with HMFH Architects, says the balance may be particularly difficult in schools. He’s just beginning to discuss shared space bathrooms with clients.

“You can imagine in a middle school, putting students into a small closed room, which is not passively monitored, could present some problems for safety or security,” LaRue says.

Back at the Tufts Health Plan, Greene pushes through a curtain of plastic, into two large bathrooms in an area the company is renovating. They will have four stalls each, sinks on the opposite side, and be open to all. Neither bathroom will have urinals. That, says Greene, is where bathrooms are headed.

“We did a little informal polling,” says Greene. “We asked a number of men, will you miss using a urinal? And none of them said they would.”

Greene looks to her colleague, Kenneth Livingston, who heads Tufts’ LGBTQ employee working group, and who nods in agreement.

If the future of bathrooms means no more urinals, just one request for people who use a toilet while standing: Please lift the lid.



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