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The next frontier for human rights: the humble public toilet

A Public washroom at Stanley Park in Vancouver January 16, 2001


One day this spring a team of volunteers set out to scour the dark recesses of the University of Toronto. Their aim: to catalogue and map every public bathroom on the downtown campus.

This was not a bizarre geographer's quest, but part of a broader trend affecting schools, offices and all manner of public spaces across the country. The humble public toilet is under pressure. Changing times have brought new demands from religious groups, people with disabilities, parents of young children and the elderly, all of whom are pushing for amendments to the traditional architecture of stalls, sinks and urinals.

And much of the new bathroom sensitivity comes from advocates for transgender rights, many of whom do not feel comfortable with the familiar stick-figure symbols that have guarded access to public bathrooms for decades.

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The norm of strict gender segregation may soon be a thing of the past – the cover of Time magazine this week called trans issues America's "next human rights frontier" – to be replaced with a move toward universal washrooms that can be used by anyone. Often these take the form of single-use toilets, but they can also be larger, mixed spaces with a variety of stalls.

Scholars who have studied the way we organize bathrooms point out that it's sensitive territory. Bathrooms have played a role in major social shifts, from the emergence of women in the public sphere, to racial desegregation to the opening of opportunities for the disabled.

"The toilet [is] a symbol of exclusion or inclusion. Do you provide for people or not?" said Barbara Penner, who teaches architectural history at University College London. "I've always thought of bathrooms as a very useful index of status for a variety of social groups."

Changes to bathrooms are often controversial. Many have expressed opposition to Ottawa's "bathroom bill," which proposes to extend human rights protections to cases of discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression. Although trans activists have been pushing for more universal washrooms, some feminists also want to preserve a space that's just for women, according to Prof. Penner. She has found that merely writing on the subject has provoked angry responses, she said.

"There's an incredible cultural insistence on maintaining that segregation … People get seriously worked up about the issue," Prof. Penner said.

The University of Toronto was unable to make anyone available to discuss its mapping project, but it released a statement Tuesday attributed to an assistant vice-president.

"The goal of the Washroom Inclusivity Project is to create a comprehensive inventory of publicly available washrooms and to update our online U of T map to make information about facilities more broadly available for the campus community," the statement said.

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"The project addresses four specific areas of interest: physical accessibility, single-user washrooms for broader gender inclusivity, baby changing stations and footbaths for those who wash before prayer."

Those four areas reflect some of the shifts in the university's population. Without these accommodations, these groups say, it's more difficult to use the public space. Under amendments to the Ontario Building Code, new public buildings will have to include at least one universal washroom for every three floors.

"The bladder functions like a leash, and one can only venture as far as the next available bathroom," said Sheila Cavanagh, a sociology professor at York University and author of Queer Bathroom Stories.

The first public washroom for women in Toronto was built by Timothy Eaton at his department store, to encourage women to shop longer, Prof. Cavanagh said. As women entered the university in greater numbers in the early 20th century schools were forced to adapt, although the result was often unequal provision for men and women. U.S. states eventually passed "potty parity" laws, to ensure equal numbers of toilets for each gender in public buildings, Prof. Penner said.

Arguments in favour of preserving gender segregation are often framed around the need to protect women from violence. But the issue of safety may have more to do with how washrooms are designed, at the end of secondary hallways, often in basements, almost always with only door, Prof. Cavanagh said. And at least some of the violence is visited upon those who are perceived to be in the wrong washroom, based on their appearance, she added. The result is that those who are trans or gender variant tend to not use the bathroom, Prof. Cavanagh said.

Gender mixing in washrooms has been common in some university dorms for many years, but never seems to catch on more broadly. At George Brown College, a movement called Free to Pee has been attempting to raise awareness of trans issues. One poster, which featured the two universal male and female symbols, said "Neither is me but I still got to pee." They've started a mapping exercise similar to the one at U of T.

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"I think where we need to be going is toward universal design," said Dale Hall, human rights adviser to the president at George Brown.

One of the models they're looking at is a new aquatic centre in Toronto's Regent Park neighbourhood. There, the universal washrooms and change areas have common spaces that are visible from the outside, as well as private cubicles.

"It's a space like going to the beach," said Ted Watson, a partner at MJMA architects.

"This is a form of universal change that allows anybody to use any washroom and have complete privacy. This is a progressive way to allow people to feel comfortable and safe."

It may offer a glimpse of the public washroom's future.

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