Commentary  Desegregating our bathrooms


Coming out is one of the toughest challenges anyone has to face, and many people remain locked inside. However, for transgender or gender non-conforming people, there’s a place that could be even worse than the closet: the public bathroom.

Imagine for a moment that you were the same person you are now, but born into a body that does not fit you. Imagine that you have breasts but you don’t want them – or you don’t have them but desperately want them. Imagine that you have body hair but you don’t want it – or don’t have it but feel wrong without it. That alone is more trouble than I’d wish on anyone.

But that’s not all the trouble. Which bathroom do you use?

If you enter the washroom assigned to you, you give away immediately that you’re not who you look like. If you go into the washroom for the “opposite” sex, you have to just cross your fingers and hope no one suspects anything. And if you don’t even fit in either category, you have even less appealing options. Every time you walk into a men’s room or a ladies’ room, you run the tremendous risk of someone telling you that you need to leave immediately or that you don’t belong there.

And worse, every time you walk into a washroom, you see a reminder that you don’t fit. There’s a stylized man with pants and a woman with a skirt on every door.

Right now, McGill isn’t doing the worst job possible on this issue. Just the other day, I was on my way to the Adams Auditorium, and I found a gender-neutral bathroom I didn’t know about – one stall with both a man and a woman on it. Many places, both on-campus and off-campus, still don’t have these facilities anywhere.

However, setting aside special “unisex” bathrooms sets gender non-conforming people apart from everyone else – it’s an improvement over not being able to use a bathroom in peace, but it creates another social distinction – how many of you would want to be asked why you didn’t use the men’s or the women’s washroom?

But there’s another option, if we have the societal guts: desegregating bathrooms.

I realize this may seem troubling, but the issue is rather absurd – and not just for gender non-conforming people. What’s a father supposed to do when his young daughter needs company going to the bathroom? What are personal caregivers supposed to do when they’re taking care of an elderly or disabled person who goes in a different bathroom?

I know there are women who will worry about not having a place to go talk privately with their friends and men who would get worked up because the washroom isn’t paralyzingly silent, but we can always develop new bathroom etiquette.

Some would note that this would force people who could be attracted to each other to be in the same washroom. However, if we have to keep people who are potentially attracted to each other in different restrooms, we’re going to have to work on developing a new system where gay people can’t go in gender-segregated bathrooms.

Others might – understandably – seek to keep gender-segregated bathrooms as a woman’s sanctuary against the predatory stares of men. I can certainly appreciate wanting to have a place where you’re not constantly being checked out. But why don’t gender non-conforming people get a sanctuary?

Of course, there’s no way to get around the expense. Someone will have to pay for refitting the bathrooms. But we can resolve to make changes at McGill that won’t cost much but would make bathrooms less trouble. First, turn any remaining single-stall bathrooms into gender-neutral bathrooms – all it takes is a sign change. Second, pledge to make any new bathrooms gender-neutral.

One day, people might look back at the way we live now and ask why we even had gender-segregated bathrooms in the first place. But, in the meantime, the least we can do is create more options for the people who don’t fit neatly into the current segregated system.

James Albaugh is a U2 Philosophy and Liguistics student.