Free From Fear: Gender-Neutral Restrooms and Inclusivity in Design

By David Cordell

This article original appeared on Ideas + Buildings, the blog of architecture and design firm Perkins+Will. The post is authored by David Cordell. In addition to leading the sustainability efforts of Perkins+Will’s Washington DC office, David has served as a project designer and technical coordinator for Perkins+Will for over nine years. His projects have received multiple awards and have been published in Contract magazine, American Builders Quarterly, and Building Design + Construction.”

In 1951, an American named George William Jorgensen traveled to Copenhagen and underwent sex reassignment surgery. Returning to the States as Christine Jorgensen, she became the first widely known American transgender woman. She worked as an actress and nightclub entertainer, using her celebrity to advocate for transgender people. Sixty-four years later, nearly four million people tuned in to watch the series premiere of “I Am Cait.” The documentary series chronicles the story of Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender woman, after her gender transition. It was the most-watched reality show launch of the year.

Despite countless triumphs in the civil rights movement in the United States over the last six decades, and the recent spotlight on transgender Americans, most still face extreme prejudice and a lack of understanding from the general public.  A 2011 report from The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and he National Center for Transgender Equality stated that 63% of transgender people suffer serious acts of discrimination, including loss of employment and eviction due to bias, bullying from peers, teachers and police, physical assault and denial of medical services.  The rate of harassment increases dramatically in youth, with 78% reporting physical assault and sexual violence at school or home.

Chilling statistics like these illustrate society’s unwillingness to truly accept transgender people and our underlying discomfort with individuals who do not conform to stereotypical male and female categorization. One of the places this is most obvious is restroom facilities in public spaces. Historically, we have segregated restrooms by gender to address concerns over women’s safety. The common public belief is that unisex restrooms leave women more vulnerable to harassment or attack then gender-segregated facilities. However, there is no evidence that gender-segregated restrooms are safer for women than unisex facilities, and we have laws in place in the US protecting occupants from criminal activity on restrooms.  Despite this, gender-segregated facilities continues to be the predominantly accepted method for designing restrooms in public spaces, largely because of how plumbing codes calculate required fixture counts.

Gender-segregated restrooms can create problems for transgender individuals. Images (c) Sam Howzit via Flickr

Why is this important to transgender rights and acceptance? According to the same report, transgender people suffer dramatically high harassment rates in restrooms, with 53% of transgender people reporting being harassed or disrespected in public facilities. The act of choosing a gender when using the restroom, male or female, singles many transgender people out, making them easy targets for harassment. Because of this, many transgender people attempt to avoid using public restrooms altogether, delaying going to the restroom until they are home or limiting the consumption of liquids. Both strategies can result in long term health problems from bladder infection or dehydration.

Legally, transgender people have the right to use the restroom that corresponds with his or her gender identity. In 1993, Minnesota became the first state to ban employment discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity. Since then, there have been a number of rulings related to restroom access for transgender people on federal, state and local levels. In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled that discrimination based on transgender status was a form of unlawful discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which covers sex discrimination, in the landmark case, Macy V. Holden.  More recently, in April of 2015, the EEOC again ruled in favor of transgender rights, determining that the Department of the Army was guilty of discrimination against a transgender employee by barring access to the restroom facilities. The ruling stated that, by denying the defendant, Tamara Lusardi, a transgender woman and employee, access to the women’s restroom and reprimanding her publicly when she did so, the Army had deprived her of “equal status, respect and dignity in the workplace” and was in violation of the law.

Understanding that the traditional approach to restroom design, providing an additional auxillary gender-neutral, unisex room, seems like a reasonable solution to addressing harassment. The problem is that segregating transgender people from the rest of the population by providing a single occupant unisex restroom in addition to multi-person gender-segregated facilities still potentially singles transgender people out, increasing the likelihood of harassment. For this reason, in 2015OSHA published guidelines for restroom access for transgender workers. This guideline states that the best options for designing restroom facilities sensitive to the transgender population are ones that provide one of two scenarios. Option one, facilities with only single-occupancy gender-neutral (unisex) facilities. Option two, multiple-occupant, gender neutral restroom facilities with lockable single occupant stalls.

Opponents will say that both options present some challenges. Multi-person unisex facilities is still a hard sell for many people with current societal norms, although this solution is becoming increasingly popular in restaurant and bar settings. Designing all single-occupant restrooms potentially increases the square footage required for a building core to provide the code compliant number of fixtures, which building owners argue costs them profit by decreasing the rentable area of their buildings. People used a similar argument about the Americans with Disabilities guideline when it was first published.  Ultimately, the courts upheld the decision that all people are to be granted equal access to facilities and employers and business owners are obligated to provide accessible facilities. Now, as then, our industry must evolve our codes and methodology to designing restroom to include all sections of the population.

The reception area at the Whitman Walker Health facility in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Eric Laignel
The Whitman-Walker Health, 1525 Health Center in Washington, D.C. focuses on providing healthcare to the LGBT community, and challenged the design team to create a facility that supported that mission. The team redesigned the standard core restrooms on seven floors to provide all single-occupant restrooms. Providing the required fixture counts in the same footprint was a challenge, but ultimately one that was achievable. Post occupancy feedback from patients regarding the restrooms in the new facility has been overwhelmingly positive, with one transgender patient stating that, for the first time, they had a place to receive healthcare where they did not have to fear harassment or judgment.

Inside Whitman Walker Health. Photographer: Eric Laignel

As design professionals, we are legally obligated to create buildings that comply with health and safety codes. We also have a moral obligation to design spaces that positively impact society. Thoughtfully designing restroom facilities to be non-gendered and thereby helping to challenge social norms and reducing harassment and violence directed at transgender people is simply the right course of action. By engaging owners and tenants in a dialog on the subject, and education them about the facts, we can begin to transform the industry. As professionals we should accept nothing less than designs that offer absolute inclusion and acceptance for all people.