Note: This post represents the second part in a two-part series on washroom-related gender issues on the University of Toronto campus. The first part can be found here.
Part two: focus on gender diversity, mobility support and other campus constituencies
In an earlier post I focused on the question of gender parity in washrooms, pointing out that the University of Toronto Office of Space Management (OSM) has an explicit policy to build female and male washrooms to reflect pre-existing gender imbalances on campus. I argued that this cynical policy undermines the University’s own goal of recruiting women into the hard sciences and sets a poor example of gender inclusion for the wider community.
Presently, I will focus on gender diversity, best accommodated through the implementation of gender-neutral single stall washrooms in addition to traditional multi-stall washrooms. This solution dovetails with the needs of other campus community members such as those with special mobility or medical needs as well as parents with young children.
First let us consider the case of trans and intersex people as well as other gender-nonconforming folks, for whom washrooms can often be uncomfortable or unsafe spaces. Traditional gender-segregated washrooms force people into categories, which may be an issue considering that their personal gender identity may not be consistent with what others visually assign them. Hence a simple visit to the washroom may lead to discomfort, harassment, or even violence.
Unfortunately there are numerous examples of such violence, including the well-publicized case of a trans woman who was severely beaten last April by two cisgender women after using the women’s washroom in a Washington D.C. area McDonald’s. These two women and other onlookers proceeded to laugh as the trans woman in question fell into a seizure. However, washroom violence is not unique to trans individuals, as illustrated by the case of a lesbian cisgender woman who was recently attacked by three men outside a pub washroom near York University campus.With this in mind, the best approach is to complement traditional gender-segregated washrooms, when possible, with a gender-neutral single-stall washroom. This way gender-nonconforming individuals can decide for themselves where they are most comfortable.
However, the advantages of single-stall washrooms go beyond the needs of trans individuals. Multi-stall washrooms are usually less accessible for people with mobility needs. Single-stall washrooms can provide greater privacy, more space for maneuvering a mobility device and more thorough mobility accommodations than the common multi-stall model, which is to have one larger stall equipped with grab bars. (The single-stall washroom near the back entrance of 563 Spadina provides a good example of more thorough accessibility accommodations).
Other campus members with particular medical needs (for example, those with medical conditions requiring regular injections) may also benefit from the greater privacy afforded by single-stall washrooms.
Additionally, gender-neutral single-stall washrooms can be a great help to parents with young children who may be uncomfortable or have difficulty bringing “opposite sex” children into gender-segregated washrooms.
The present situation on campus for gender-neutral washrooms is somewhat mixed. In theory, the OSM guidelines require that “single user accessible washrooms… be provided near classrooms.” In practice however there are several campus buildings in which this is not the case. Hence it is important to increase awareness of the issue on campus and to emphasize the need for such facilities to the administration, especially when considering important building projects, such as the upcoming expansion of Robarts Library (presently the entire building has a lone publicly accessible single-stall washroom on the first floor). In the meantime, the Sexual and Gender Diversity Office website provides a map where such facilities are presently available.
The Toronto star also recently reported that progress is being made on this issue in the wider Toronto community.
Finally, I would emphasize that many of the problems and anxieties we face in relation to the washroom are unnecessary. A good illustration is provided by the fact that even multi-stall gender-neutral washrooms may be workable. They are more common in Europe but there are a few in Toronto (mostly at clubs). The stalls usually have more careful architecture without cracks at the doorjambs and such, but the fact that girls and boys and everyone in between can pee within a few feet of each other without the world exploding illustrates the point: many of our anxieties around the washroom exist primarily in our minds.
A version of this article appears in U of T’s Varsity paper.