In May of 2015, Edmonton city councillors voted unanimously to provide gender-inclusive washrooms in all city-owned buildings. After consulting with community stakeholders, the city replaced the “family” and “handicap” signage on single-occupancy washrooms with gender-neutral signs. The move was applauded by many members of Edmonton’s transgender community.
But according to Mickey Wilson, executive director of the Pride Centre, Edmonton in general still has a lot of work to do when it comes to building safe and inclusive bathrooms.
“I think the average person in the population is not particularly impacted by a single-stall washroom having a name change,” Wilson says. “It does have an impact on people who require handicap access, and that’s not a positive impact. … We shouldn’t be creating hardship as we’re trying to create space.”
The Pride Centre has heard complaints from trans and non-binary people with accessibility issues who are often unable to find available washrooms. Wilson believes that a more transformative approach is needed, both in city buildings and in the broader community.
“There’s lots of examples you can see in other countries and online where [a bathroom] is a series of single-stall washrooms, with the handwashing services outside of that for everyone,” Wilson says. “Usually those kinds of facilities or areas don’t have any entry doors. They’re a free-entry space. And it’s much safer for everyone. People would argue that it’s not, but people are less inclined to do something if there’s no door to shut.”
In addition to safety and accessibility concerns, Wilson points out that segregating gender-inclusive washrooms away from traditional male/female spaces only reinforces social divisions.
“When we take these particular kinds of people and we put their washrooms somewhere else, we isolate them. … That’s what we create, right? Isolated spaces. And the trans people use those ones. And people who have ability issues use those ones. And everybody else uses the regular ones. So again, it’s just othering and isolating and outing. And if we want to think about ourselves as inclusive, we bring those margins to the middle and we put them with everybody else.”
Opening up washrooms to people of all genders may sound scary or radical, but there are already several places in Edmonton adopting this new model—including a few high schools, the city-owned Queen Elizabeth Pool, and local art gallery Latitude 53.
When Latitude 53 moved to its current location, executive director Todd Janes decided that the gallery’s bathrooms would be open and accessible to everyone.
“We wanted something that really played with the idea of a communal, shared, respectful place. And that really allowed people to feel more comfortable, and still respected people, so it didn’t really single out anyone.”
The reactions from gallery patrons have been cautious, but ultimately positive.
“Some people are still like: ‘Oh! Which is the girls’ and which is the boys’ side?’” says Janes. “And I’m like: ‘If you can stand up and pee, you might want to go here. If you need to sit down or squat to pee, you might want to go here.’ …For us as a site or a space that examines ideas and wants our audiences and people to come to consider things—even if they’re peeing while they’re doing it—I think it is an important thing. I think it is a gentle, fundamental, kind of organizational way of engaging in a dialogue. And I think that is important, because after people do it a few times they’re like: ‘Oh, OK.’”
Latitude 53 opened up their washrooms in the simplest way—by taking the doors off, building communal sinks, and creating new signage. The Pride Centre is likewise producing a series of universal-washroom signs. Rather than identifying gender, these signs will merely describe what facilities (toilets, urinals, changing tables) are available inside each space. Businesses will be able to buy them starting in January, to help them transform their washrooms into more inclusive spaces.
Signs and renovations are useful, but ultimately Wilson argues that we should think about washrooms the same way we think about bedrooms or kitchens—not places designed for a specific kind of person, just places designed for a specific thing.
“This is a big conversation,” Wilson says. “It’s not just about bathrooms. It’s about the fear of sexual assault, and what we teach our children about safety. What we think about one another and rethinking safety models—all kinds of things. But if we open those bathroom doors and make them safe to go in and out of, and create floor-to-ceiling stalls…then we can begin to create safer environments.”