Skip to content

Men's room. Women's room. Where's the room for the people in between?

gender bathrooms4.JPG

Many transsexuals face harassment from people who think they are in the "wrong bathroom." (Julia Gronnevet/CNS)

gender bathrooms2.JPG

No federal law mandates restroom access for transsexual people. Providing unisex bathrooms is up to schools, corporations and cities to decide on their own. (Julia Gronnevet/CNS)

gender bathrooms1.JPG

For people who don't readily identify as male or female, the choice between the women's room or the men's room isn't easy. (Julia Gronnevet/CNS)

For transgender people, the choice between the men's room and the women's room often leaves them stuck in the middle with crossed legs and nowhere to go. They are faced with harassment from security guards, police officers and other restroom users for appearing to use the 'wrong bathroom.'

"There isn't a person who hasn't had an awkward experience in a bathroom," said Bailey Stevens, a member of the Bathroom Liberation Front.

But transgender people experience a much more severe problem than just occasional awkwardness, Stevens said. Every time transgendered people use the bathroom, someone who feels a sexually ambiguous person doesn't belong in the restroom may confront him or her.

"This is definitely a problem and it sucks," said J. Riley, who lives in Washington. "I used to have to use the women's bathroom at work while I was transitioning, and even though I had facial hair I had to use the ladies' room."

Activists have been mobilizing to create gender-neutral restrooms for about a decade, with much of their activity based on college campuses. Recently, the issue moved further into public consciousness because of new organizations like the Bathroom Liberation Front, a Web-based activist group that recently created safe2pee.org, a Web site that maps unisex bathrooms throughout the United States and Canada. The front’s rallying cry? "I just need a place to pee!"

Some transgender people, born and raised as female, become male, and some males become females. For some, but not all, transitioning means having surgery and hormone treatment to become more aligned with their chosen gender. Those who have hormone treatments develop features, like beards and breasts, of the sex they are transitioning into. Women who have become men, and men who have become women are often indistinguishable from the rest of the population.

But for people in the process of changing genders, their features may mark them as not quite male, and not quite female. There are also people who refuse to conform to either male or female gender roles and maintain characteristics of both men and women. For these people, being and looking androgynous is not a passing phase but their chosen gender identity.

Because there is no federal law that mandates bathroom access for transgender people, colleges, corporations and cities must decide on their own whether or how to respond.

"Almost all transgender law right now is happening on the local level," said Chris Daley, director of the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco. In fact, Daley said, bathroom access for sexually ambiguous people is an issue that lends itself much better to local organizing and awareness-raising than to legal activism.

"The real opposition out there is just tradition," he said. "By and large, there's no movement supporting that tradition."

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority made headlines in 2000 when it renovated a bathroom for an employee who was in the process of transitioning between genders, and who didn't feel comfortable using either the women's or the men's restroom. That bathroom has remained unisex.

"It is used by any employee who desires that level of privacy that cannot be achieved in the larger bathroom/locker room," wrote Joe Pesaturo, an MBTA spokesman, in an e-mail message.

"I do hear students say it's an issue for them," said Todd Smith, director of New York University's Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Student Services. On its Web site, the office includes the locations of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus.

NYU is at the forefront of providing for students and others whose gender identity is not clear-cut, said Stevens of the Bathroom Liberation Front. Stevens cites the university’s housing policy, which takes a student's chosen gender identity into consideration when assigning roommates. After a unanimous university senate vote in 2003, all new buildings and renovated buildings must include restrooms that are gender-neutral.

Gender-specific bathrooms are not just a transgender issue, said Shani Heckman, director of a short documentary called "Wrong Bathroom," released last year. It's more a community issue, she said, citing parents' need to take their children to the restroom. And it's a personal cause for Heckman, too. As a self-described butch woman, she wants to expand the gender categories to allow for more variation. "I don't want to be a man. I want manly women to be around and to be accepted."

E-mail: jg2645@columbia.edu