TW: This article contains brief discussion of sexual assault.

Bathrooms as we know it have always been gender-segregated: men in one restroom, and women in the other. But what about trans and nonbinary folks who aren’t sure about which to use? What about those who identify one way but can’t express themselves as such?

The history of gendered bathrooms

According to Time, gender-segregated washrooms began in the mid-1700s in Paris, France. However, sex-segregated restrooms were not implemented in America until the 1800s, where the first regulation of gendered restrooms was not passed until 1887.

In 1987, California passed the Restroom Equity Act, which proposed that in newly built public areas, more women’s bathrooms be installed; but that doesn’t seem to tackle the issue of all-gender equality in restrooms.

Since then, it seems that any controversy on the matter never existed, until the early 2010s. In 2012 and 2013, college campuses nationwide had installed gender-neutral restrooms in their facilities. In fact, about 150 campuses had done this.

In 2014, the city of Austin, Texas approved a law that required gender-neutral signage in single-stall restrooms. Around this time, Washington, D.C. and Portland, Oregon were other cities to implement this. West Hollywood, California, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and San Francisco, California followed suit.

These progressions somewhat backfired after a bill in Texas and several other states passed in late 2014 and early 2015 that allowed for “bathroom surveillance,” essentially requiring transgender people to use the bathroom of their birth gender.

In 2015, the argument for gender-neutral bathrooms and using restrooms of one’s gender identity gained some ground. In December, Washington State clarified a law that allowed for transgender individuals to use the restroom of the gender they identify with. In July, the U.S. Justice Department sided with a transgender student after he said his school’s restroom policies were discriminatory. In April, former President Barack Obama opened the White House’s first ever gender-neutral restrooms.

In February 2016, a bill was passed that allowed for transgender individuals to use the bathroom that matched their gender identity. This followed San Francisco and other cities’ waves of trans-friendly bathroom bills.

In response to the February 2016 bill, the North Carolina state Legislature met in March 2016 to pass the ant-LGBTQ HB2 law that requires people to use the bathroom of their birth gender.

However, in May 2016, the Departments of Justice and Education state in agreement that discrimination against students and their identifying gender is a violation of Title IX. Following this, they release a memo to schools across the country stating that if they do not comply with the new trans-inclusive interpretation of Title IX, they could be faced with a lawsuit or loss of funding.

In August 2016, “Judge Reed O’Connor in Texas halt[ed] enforcement of the Obama administration’s directive for allowing transgender students to use the bathroom corresponding with their gender identity. The Trump administration later decide[d] not to intervene.” Then, in February 2017, President Donald Trump revoked this Obama-era interpretation of Title IX.

In July 2018, federal courts ruled in favor of two transgender students. First of which was Drew Adams of Jacksonville, Florida. He was told that, because he was transgender, he would have to use the gender-neutral restroom instead of the men’s room. And secondly, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a Pennsylvania school district’s decision to implement a trans-friendly restroom policy.

What’s the controversy all about?

So, is there still argument over the gender-neutral and trans-inclusive bathroom debate? It seems that throughout the years, several spots across the United States are implementing trans- and nonbinary-friendly restroom accommodations, including allowing folks to use the restroom of their gender identity.

There have been several claims over the years that implementing trans-inclusive restroom rights and gender-neutral bathrooms would increase the number of sexual assaults, among other ethical and political reasons to oppose it. There are countless cases nationwide that allege that trans- and nonbinary-inclusive restrooms are to blame in sexual assault cases.

In March 2020, a Wisconsin high school in which an 18-year-old student was arrested in a gender-neutral bathroom for sexual assault. Soon after this incident, the inclusive restroom was no longer available to students.

Another case in 2018 involved a Georgia school and their trans-inclusive restroom policy. A student alleged that in the women’s restroom, a genderfluid student who was born male assaulted her.

However, despite these, and other, claims of assault in gender-neutral or trans- and nonbinary-friendly restrooms, a 2019 Harvard study found that transgender teenagers who have restricted bathroom access experience a higher risk of sexual assault. And furthermore, in a 2018 study from the Williams Institute at UCLA and the Police Foundation found that there is no correlation between trans- and nonbinary-inclusive restroom policies and bathroom safety.

The issue about the gender-neutral bathroom debate here is that there shouldn’t be an issue with it.

The only way to ensure everybody’s comfort is to have not only gendered washrooms for those who prefer it that way, but to also install all-gender or gender-neutral restrooms in as many spaces as possible.

And if anybody who identifies as a man or a woman and isn’t AF/AMAB enters a gendered restroom, please, leave them be.

Note: This post does not encapsulate the entirety of the gender-neutral and trans- and nonbinary-inclusive restroom debate. There may be limited information from the sources identified and missed points of discussion. This is not intentional. Please feel free to continue the discussion by participating in friendly conversation in the comments.


Editor’s note: This article was originally posted December 29, 2020.

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