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Unisex bathrooms send message of inclusion

by Chris Lenn


I was sitting in a local coffee shop in downtown State College when I saw a man lead a young girl, no more than five, into the men's bathroom to, I assume, take care of her business. The young girl hesitated a bit, insisting that was not the bathroom for her; the older man, presumably her father, assured her that it was OK.

The men's bathroom in this particular establishment is one of two single-occupancy bathrooms, one for men and the other for women.

The situation struck me not so much because the girl was hesitant to use a bathroom for "men," but because the single-occupancy bathroom was designated for a certain sex. In another local coffee shop just down the block, there is only one bathroom for all the customers and, therefore, everyone shares.

The bathroom conflict for the man and the young girl is probably a common one. Local parents take their children downtown to spend an afternoon or grab a bite to eat, and many of them are probably not the same sex as all their children.

In thinking about my history as a user of public toilets, I can recall many times when parents or guardians would bring young children of another sex into the bathroom. I don't recall ever giving anyone a hard time about it.

I wonder if other people have to worry about using the bathroom with someone of a different sex. One day, I saw a man using a wheelchair who was accompanied by a woman nurse. Would she go with him if he had to use the bathroom? Would the public be OK with an older woman in a men’s bathroom?


Perhaps an even more complicated problem is that of those in our community who are gender-variant and don’t fit within the boundaries established by men’s and women’s bathrooms. While such people are skilled in finding accommodating bathrooms for themselves, I have to wonder why society makes it so difficult for them to find a suitable toilet.


Much of our daily routine is dependent on the use of public toilets. Whether we are spending a long day on campus or just going out for dinner with friends and family, much of our activity outside the house is dependent on the availability of public toilets.


For a system that perhaps at one point in our history seemed so simple—men here and women there—our culture has certainly evolved. We have more single parents who take care of their children and protect them outside of the house. We also have a much more diversified view of gender and identity that can no longer fit within two restrooms, especially in a college town.


Though I am sure the world, and especially State College, is not ready for truly desegregated public toilets, why do single-occupancy single-sex bathrooms still exist? Are we concerned about public safety in single-stall bathrooms? Perhaps we are just used to the structured separation of men and women.


One way to begin to alleviate some of the negative externalities caused by single-occupancy single-sex bathrooms is to simply change the signs on restroom doors from men or women to unisex. That way, everyone will feel comfortable entering the bathroom, no matter their gender-identity. The single-occupancy public bathroom mirrors what most people have in their own homes, where people likely do not segregate men’s and women’s facilities.


I see many bathrooms downtown that would benefit from the change to a unisex sign. If it were possible for these bathrooms to change, it would send a message of accommodation for all. And really, what is wrong with that?

Chris Lenn is a Penn State student activist and a recent graduate in economics.

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