Peeing is Believing.
2016 is proving to be a year overflowing with bathroom and gender issues. Discrimination, confusion and unrest are roiling the politics and restrooms of America, where it has become difficult to merely ‘pee in peace’.
Ever since their introduction in the late 19th century, public restrooms, or “water closets”, have been a curious ground zero for civil rights, whether for African-Americans or people with disabilities. With the issues of serving openly in the military and same-sex marriage now largely resolved, the fight for all-gender restrooms has emerged as the latest civil rights issue in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (L.G.B.T.) community — particularly the “T” part.
Even for people of goodwill, the emergence of transgender rights is going to take some adjusting. To his credit, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said recently that people should “use the bathroom they feel is appropriate.” Logical enough, but there’s more here that meets the eye.
Administrators, wayfinding designers, and sign professionals nationwide are struggling to figure out how to appropriately communicate the suddenly complicated and precarious concept of ‘bathroom gender’. Proposed visual solutions often not only do not clarify, but add to the confusion. Sometimes, more is less. So much to interpret, so little time.
It should be remembered that in Europe, for two centuries there has existed an elegant solution for males (and some females) called the pissoir. A pissoir or vespasienne is a structure that provides support and screening of urinals in public spaces. It ‘s a French invention common in Europe that allows for urination in public without the need for a toilet building. The availability of pissoirs is likely to reduce urination onto buildings, sidewalks, or streets. Meanwhile back in the U.S., businesses, schools and universities, museums, restaurants both trendy and modest, and even the White House are attempting to recast the traditional men’s/women’s room, resulting in a dizzying range of sometimes creative signage and vocabulary.
Top, from left, all-gender restrooms at the Whitney; the University of Utah; Founding Farmers restaurant in Washington, D.C. Center, from left, the Folk Art Museum; Civic Hall; the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). Bottom, from left, the Whitney; Hampshire College; Barnard College, Source: NYT.
Adding language (not to mention using only language) is always tricky: ‘‘gender-neutral’, ‘all-gender’, ‘gender-inclusive’, ‘gender-open’, ‘unisex’, are all in the mix, but the term ‘all gender’ seems to be the current favorite. That’s what it says on restrooms at the New School in New York City, along with pictographs of the plumbing inside. However, if you don’t happen to understand English (there are 120 languages spoken in NYC alone), you might just be out of luck.
The first gender-neutral restroom in the Los Angeles school district is seen at Santee Education Complex high school. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
We appear to have become a nation searching for the ‘correct’ sanitary apparatus to relieve our physical and mental innards. Even the venerable Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, where Lincoln once orated, is resorting to the visually cumbersome ‘bathroom equipment’ approach (below). Editor’s note: A faucet image is superfluous, as there are few, if any, restrooms that don’t also include a sink. To paraphrase the genius of Einstein: “Make it as simple as possible, but no simpler”.
In any case, strict plumbing codes or landmark status mean that public facilities can’t just change the signage and then be in compliance. Multiple codes regulate the requirements, depending on the type of building, the year it was built and occupancy. In some cases, the code stipulates that a venue is allowed to have all-gender facilities rather than being required to do so, reflecting a shift from economic to societal considerations.
One of the simplest and most effective solutions proffered to date was created by a 28-year-old self-described social justice advocate named Sam Killermann. He was motivated by the prevalence of a “Victor/Victoria” stick figure wearing a divided skirt/pants that is widely loathed by those who identify as gender nonconforming and stress that they don’t feel like half of anything. Nike World Headquarters in Oregon is using his simple black-and-white image of a toilet (below), which could obviate the need for any language at all over a period of time.
A caveat: anyone who has traveled in Asia, knows that toilets are not universal (see ‘footrests with hole in floor’), so it’s usage worldwide will inevitably have efficacy limitations. Below are signs from separate stalls at the Hongluo Temple, north of Beijing. Photos by Mies Hora.
Obviously, more time, experimentation, adaptation and user feedback will be required to settle on bathroom sign standards sensitive enough to meet everyone’s (or most people’s) needs. Something similar is happening in the realm of disabilities signage. Overreach is inevitable. In an age of raging human rights activism, when familiar stick figures no longer satisfy, we’ll need to continue plumbing our souls for clearer, more universal and intuitive visual solutions.
For now, it’s a ‘wild west’ of competing laws and restroom sign concepts, where almost everything goes, wherever and whichever people ‘go’. Always a challenge, developing sign standards that will be embraced by society is more art than science, but human factors testing may eventually play a role in weeding out weak or confusing wayfinding signs. And we symbol sign design professionals had better get to it. Time is of the essence – in my native New York, there is a common refrain – “Ya neva know, but when ya gotta go, ya gotta go!”.
– Mies Hora
Gender Neutral Bathroom Signs Project, http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2014/04/printable-gender-neutral-bathroom-sign-guerilla-project
The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/08/style/transgender-restroom-all-gender.html;
The Cooper Union, http://cooper.edu/about/news/de-gendered-restrooms-attract-international-attention