Why Aren't There More Unisex Bathrooms?

Blame building codes for long lines, unhappy transgender people, grumpy business owners, and more.


Lately the transgender community's push for more gender-neutral public restrooms has drawn a fair amount of attention, support, and criticism. The proliferation of unisex bathrooms seems like a logical solution to the tricky problem of figuring out who gets to pee where. Providing restrooms where all are welcome shouldn't be compulsory; there are both logistical and ideological reasons why such a mandate is a bad idea. But what's holding us back from opening up more restroom doors?

Despite what you might think, public restrooms have not always been gender segregated. "Historically, shared public latrines have been a feature of most communities, and this continues to be true in developing countries such as Ghana, China, and India," note Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner in their 2009 book of essays Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender (Temple University Press). "Private, sex-segregated lavatories were a modern and Western European invention, bound up with urbanization, the rise of sanitary reform, the privatization of the bodily functions, and the gendered ideology of separate spheres."

According to sociology and sexuality studies professor Sheila Cavanagh, the first separate toilet facilities for men and women appeared at a ball in Paris in 1739. Until then public restrooms, such as they existed, were generally gender neutral or marked for men only.

The earliest efforts to legislate gender segregation in the United States were due to a lack of women's facilities in workplaces. In 1887, Massachusetts was the first state to pass a law mandating women's restrooms in workplaces with female employees. By the 1920s, most states had passed similar laws.

These days, America's public restrooms are regulated by two separate federal agencies. Workplace restrooms are the purview of the U.S. Department of Labor, which sets state guidelines through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Non-workplace public restroom guidelines are governed, broadly, by the Department of Health and Human Services.

More specific regulations are largely enacted through state and municipal building codes. These codes dictate exactly how many toilets and/or urinals buildings, businesses, and other public entities must provide-in separate men's and women's facilities.

"Restrooms are still almost exclusively gendered," wrote Shaunacy Ferro at Fast Company in April. "It's a form of exclusion that's written into state building code, presenting an obstacle for gender neutral bathroom advocates."

In many places, businesses are legally prohibited from offering only gender-neutral restrooms. A small restaurant, coffee shop, or bar with only two (separate, enclosed) toilets must designate one for women and one for men. New York City only made it permissible in 2012 for restaurants and coffee shops with just two water closets to make these unisex, and only then for places with a total occupancy of 30 or fewer. (Washington, D.C., is one of the few places where it's actually illegal to designate single-occupancy restrooms as male- or female-use only.)

"Even in public spaces, such as restaurants, where two single occupancy, self enclosed toilet facilities are all that is provided to customers, signs designate one 'Stallions' and the other 'Fillies,' one 'Pointers' and the other 'Setters,' or, more prosaically, one 'Ladies' and the other 'Gents,'" writes University of Chicago law professor Mary Ann Case, in a 2010 article titled "Why Not Abolish the 'Laws of Urinary Segregation'?"

Most state and local bathroom building codes are modeled on one of a few sets of international guidelines, such as the Uniform Plumbing Code or the International Building Code (IBC). Pursuant to these codes and state "potty parity" laws, public places are required not only to offer gender-segregated facilities but to offer a certain number of men's and women's "fixtures." For purposes of the fixture count rules, a building's total occupancy is considered to be half male and half female.

Under the potty parity laws-first passed in California in 1987 and now implicitly incorporated into building code guidelines-public places are required to offer either an equal number of men's and women's "water closets" or, more frequently, two female toilets for each male toilet or urinal. Alaska has adopted a 2.7 to 1 ratio; Pittsburgh 3.75 to 1; Texas and Tennessee 2 to 1.

The widely-adopted IBC bathroom code relies on a complicated formulation based on occupancy and type of establishment (in stadiums with fewer than 3,000 seats, one water closet for every 75 males and 40 females in the first 1,500 seats and one for every 120 males and 60 females thereafter; one toilet per 40 occupants of any gender in restaurants, banquet halls, and food courts; at movie theaters, one male toilet for every 125 potential male occupants and one female toilet per every 65 potential female occupants, and so on).

In many places, this bathroom code labyrinth is further complicated by codes from different eras regulating different buildings. In New York City there is a 1938 code, a 1968 code, and a 2008 code, all with different bathroom requirements that apply to buildings based on when they were built. In addition to being confusing, it may disincentivize bathroom renovations, since keeping original bathroom fixtures allows buildings to continue following older building codes but updates require meeting updated regulations, too.

Right now, the most prominent advocates for gender neutral bathrooms are transgender individuals and allies. But efforts to integrate toilets have been carried out by different groups over time, and could also benefit diverse constituencies.

Unisex bathrooms "relieve a number of anxious dilemmas, such as that of a mother sending her young son alone into the men's room without her, the adult son waiting outside the door of the women's room for his Alzheimer's afflicted mother to emerge, and the wheelchair bound husband left to navigate the handicapped stall in the men's room without the help of his wife," Case notes. Not to mention women who routinely face longer public restroom lines, men whom "potty parity" laws have left with longer wait times, and anyone who's ever been inconvenienced because their assigned bathroom was undergoing cleaning with no alternative available.

There are "feminist, as well as practical efficiency payoffs" to unisex bathrooms, adds Case. "Individuals will not be forced to conform to any standard of what it is appropriate for a man or for a woman to look like in order safely to enter a public restroom."

Indeed. Existing buildings shouldn't be forced into expensive renovations to desegregate gendered bathrooms; nor should we have regulations requiring all places to give up gender-segregated facilities. But doing away with existing laws that force bathroom segregation could go a long way.