David Coveney

Design Dilemmas: When bathrooms become battlegrounds

In the world of transgender rights, the battle for the bathroom has reached fever pitch, especially in the USA. Now, I’m not here to referee in this brawl – because on one side of the debate you have the ‘TERFs”, and on the other, the trans rights activists sometimes labelled “handmaidens”. Both are terms about as socially acceptable as weeing all over the toilet seat, and on the extreme fringes of both you find calls for violence. It seems every modern campaign group needs its villains and its sycophantic followers.

Both sides have got themselves worked up about issues that I’m pretty sure most transgender people would prefer to be handled with a little less shouting and little more thought. I have my own opinions, but that’s not for me to share here. What I’m looking at is how design can make the situation better, by picking on one such contentious issue: public bathrooms.

We’ve all got to admit that the concept of women only spaces wasn’t dreamt up at a lovely cocktail party. They often serve as a refuge from the stormy reality of life that many women face. The abused, the desperate, the traumatised who’ve experienced the worst aspects of a male dominated society are, quite rightly, entitled to seek out a safe space away from men.

Meanwhile, imagine you’re a transgender woman and are about to transition.  You’ve got to live life as a woman for at least a year or two before anything permanent happens. It’s an obvious safety precaution so decisions aren’t made in haste.

So out you go on your first night in full femme mode. Nature calls, and you head to the bathrooms. You aim for the ladies, because, well, that’s where you belong now. But for some women in there you might be as welcome as a fox in a chicken coop.

Head into the men’s toilets and many trans women are as vulnerable to the nasty side of men as the traumatised women who want their safe spaces. You don’t feel you belong there.

All you want to do is check your lipstick and adjust the heels.

And there’s a twist here. I’ve met some women who are burly and could beat the majority of men in arm wrestling. They may look pretty masculine too. They’re now sometimes finding themselves being shouted at for heading into the ladies’ bathroom!

About designing loo layouts. The Brits generally build them with two doors going in, and stalls that are pretty private or, as is increasingly common, the toilets are individual spaces with floor to ceiling walls.

Americans, however:

They love a gap! You could pass a handbag through that! Nobody wants to make eye contact with someone taking a dump.

So how about work is done to make sure bathrooms accommodate everyone? Picture a row of stalls which are just little rooms with proper walls. Private, no tinkling sounds being shared. Just a nice, lockable door for each person with a sign saying “Thinking Room”.

We can have scents and nice music for everyone, and ladies can compliment the prospective ladies for their make-up skills. Remember – the more people there are around the more likely they are to hear a shout for help. Predators hide in shadows, after all.

Just a thought. Ultimately then, this isn’t a potty problem. It’s a design problem. And that means we can design our way out of this mess, and make sure everyone is happy. Or are we going to just keep arguing until we’re just too old to care what’s going on in the next door toilet cubicle?

Comments. Please. Just remember the one rule on my site. Be kind.

Have your say

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.