How to fix bathroom design
for all genders
Why is bathroom design still so cis-male centric? From industrial designers in Denmark to the changing nature of restroom signage in New York City, our writer investigates why bathroom design needs to evolve and talks with those leading the way.
I’m not shy when it comes to relieving my bladder. As a vulva-owner with frequent bladder infections, I’ve found alternative methods of action when faced with a long women’s restroom line. Usually, this manifests itself as a stealthy squat between parked cars or behind a patch of overgrown brush. Public urination tickets aren’t really a thing where I live in Detroit, but sometimes it’s pretty impossible to find a good area to sneak off and piss in.
This happened recently when I attended the electronic music festival Movement that happens every year downtown. The women’s restroom lines were so long that I could use the restroom, get back in line, and be ready to pee again by the time that I reached the front, continuously, like some kind of animal being farmed for urine. I watched men enter the men’s room, and emerge, relieved, moments later.
Suddenly, it didn’t matter anymore where the toilet was located. I needed to pee immediately. I walked confidently into the men’s room, where there were the same number of stalls as the women’s room and several urinals in addition to the stalls. The men at the urinals didn’t see me walk in, but one guy by the stalls looked back confused and then shrugged. He didn’t seem to mind me waiting behind him in line. “You can’t be here,” a different man behind me barked. “Why?” I replied. “Because you’re a woman.” I wasn’t sure whether he worked for the festival or was just a random person trying to keep the ladies out of the men’s piss cave. Very politely, I said, “No, I’m not,” and he left me alone after that. However, a man wrapping up at the urinal was not satisfied with what he’d overheard. “Alright show me your dick then,” he said aggressively. I asked him to show me his dick, and then I’d gladly show him mine if it was truly a requirement for being in the men’s room. He lost it. He shouted, got up in my face, called me “a dyke,” then called me “a fag.” A stall opened up just then and I locked myself inside. My whole body was shaking, and he was waiting outside for me. After peeing, I quickly walked out to the safety of the crowds and lost him. I didn’t go back into the men’s room that weekend.
You would think there would be an easier solution to keep bathroom lines moving at crowded public events. Gendered bathrooms, especially the single-occupant kind, should be a thing of the past by now. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, it still remains an issue. As long as we are forced to choose one bathroom over another based on how society interprets our gender, I would like a special chalice for me to put my special “feminine” pee into, okay?
Christian Pagh, the cultural director and founder of Urgent Agency, has done just that. He is one of the designers of the Pollee, a female urinal created with large public events in mind, and the founder of the platform Pee Better.
Essentially, the Pollee looks like a traditional urinal with a long extended strip to catch urine. To use it, the user straddles it and pees facing the device. Anybody’s genitals can use this device with ease. Pagh became passionate about solving the bathroom line dilemma after he attended the Roskilde Festival in Northern Europe with his girlfriend and realized how much time she had to spend in the bathroom queues. “It's a curious situation that I actually find super humiliating and, of course, extremely boring,” he observed.
As a cis-hetero-woman, no part of my intention is to speak on behalf of transfolk. After that upsetting bathroom incident, I immediately thought about just how many of my non-binary friends must find themselves in situations like these as a part of their everyday lives. I can’t begin to imagine how disrespectful, inhumane and dangerous it would feel to be confronted about your gender in such an intimate place as a restroom. Why must we make assumptions about people’s gender or what kind of genitals they have? It really is nobody’s business.
On the one hand, I get why we have men’s and women’s public restrooms. To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t want to find myself alone in a multi-stall restroom with a man leering at me. But just like gender mixing isn't some “invitation” to assault, gender separation isn't a “preventative measure.” In a utopian society where criminals don't assault other people in isolated areas, genderless public restrooms would be a no-brainer and all bathrooms would be safer. And they still could be, if, for example, this isolation would be limited to the actual stalls and the common wash-up areas were open and doorless.
But what about gendered single-occupancy restrooms, where safety isn't even up for debate?
A recently released report by NYC comptroller Scott Stringer's office [PDF] outlined the intellectual and logistical need to increase the amount of gender-neutral bathrooms. Spearheaded by city council member Daniel Dromm, the proposed bill is dedicated to minimizing the potential arguments from business owners in regards to implementing the policy. While other cities have passed legislation requiring gender-neutral single occupancy bathrooms, New York has yet to amend laws concerning the issue.
The report's logic is simple: a single occupancy bathroom always has a toilet in it. There's nothing that you need to do from an engineering perspective to get a single occupancy bathroom prepared for gender neutral status, so to speak, except for changing the sign. The focus extends beyond the pure mechanics of bathroom structure. It's a signage change that speaks to a broader cultural change, one in which we have to be more cognizant of the binary gender norms that have built up over decades. We have to be aware of that, but we also have to make sure that everybody has a place where they feel comfortable.
In Detroit, there is a coffee shop called Great Lakes that labels its two individual stalls as “Stronger Flush” and “Better Lighting”. I love that. Both of stalls are suitable, regardless of my gender or the gender of my friends and I don’t have to awkwardly ask, “Hey can I butt in here?” when the one of lines is too long.
Everyone is able to pee in a toilet regardless of their genitals, but some single-stall men’s rooms have a urinal and a toilet. Regardless of that, everyone poops, right? Did you know a lot of men sit down to pee anyway? I’ll have you know that I can stand, squat, and hover to pee with my ol’ vulva—as a matter of fact.
Urinals do make more sense economically. They require less space and plumbing than a toilet, and a lot of people designing spaces are probably approaching it from a cost-effective point of view.
In addition to structures like the Pollee, there are squat toilets which have been used since the dawn of civilization. Maybe this isn’t a design that would easily catch on in America just yet, but it exists.
While the Pollee is currently a prototype, the overall positive reception gives him hope that it will become more of a standard. “If you want speed, you can't make [a bathroom] too comfy,” he proposes. “People shouldn't sit. It's an element of social control actually. When the girls stand up inside [the Pollee], they can see each other.” The benefits extend beyond the actual bathroom experience: “You can also see when people start rolling joints, or doing coke, or other things you don't want people to do in that space.”
This is about far more than just bodily fluids and gender: how do we make bathrooms safe and accessible to all identities and bodies? Isn’t relieving ourselves in a dignified manner a basic right?
Hopefully gender neutral bathrooms will be making more of an appearance in New York with the help of Dromm, the office of comptroller Stringer, and the folks who enforce policy in the city.
“This proposal builds on New York City’s long history as a leader in combatting discrimination of all kinds against transgender and non-gender conforming individuals,” NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer tells Hopes&Fears. “Respecting every person’s gender identity and expression is not a choice or an option. It is a matter of basic human rights—and I am proud to support policies that protect this freedom.”
I know that I’m not going to wake up tomorrow and be able to stroll into a public bathroom that welcomes the full spectrum of gender expression, but let’s continue this dialogue and give everyone the facilities they deserve.
Additional reporting: Mike Shefffield