Stalled: The Politics of the Public Toilet

Presented by: Amber Ortlieb, Natalie Badenduck

Recent controversy and legislative changes across North America have raised issues of access and discrimination to public washrooms for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, intersexed, and queer (LGBTIQ) community. Throughout history, cultural shifts have impacted washroom spaces – germ theory (1880s), “potty parity” laws (1980s-1990s), racial desegregation (1960s), the Restroom Equity Act (1987), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990s) (Penner, 2013) with each transition resulting in heated debate. Often raised as a transgender issue, the heteronormative gendering of washrooms impacts a range of individuals including: parents, caregivers, and building managers dealing with inadequate facilities. The transition away from gendered public washrooms is a topical issue that requires the awareness and engagement of designers to enrich the health, safety, and welfare of users. Therefore, this research examined the history and standard practices of binary gender divisions, heteronormative approaches, and expectations within the contemporary washroom. The division of public washroom spaces are vestiges of the Victorian era (Cavanagh, 2010). Introduced as a means of segregating gender, class, and race while suiting the modesty of the time, washrooms came to shape broader cultural perceptions of “masculine” and “feminine” qualities (Cavanagh, 2010). Furthermore, the public washroom became symbols of modernity, civility, cleanliness, and societal status (Penner, 2013). Today, washrooms continue to reflect the belief of strict genderization. However, current political trends indicate governments and institutions are shifting towards policies requiring all-gender public washroom options (House of Commons of Canada, 2016; U.S. Department of Justice & Department of Education, 2016), which is a challenge for interior designers. The phenomena of binary gender washroom was examined using qualitative content analysis to investigate the contemporary public washroom through a comprehensive examination of literature including national and state/provincial laws, journals, books, university policies, advocacy groups and social media. This was achieved in four major themes: 1) history of binary washrooms, 2) politics of exclusivity and inclusivity, 3) user group diversity, and 4) heteronormative approaches and expectations. From the major themes, subdomains were identified to further the analyses 1) rituals of excretion, 2) sexuality, 3) public safety, 4) accessibility, and 5) comfort and privacy. The final product of the analysis revealed safety as a key issue often raised in the discussion of gendering policies in public washrooms. The most cited concern was the safety of women due to the potential risk of men in their environments. Assumptions and biases about the predatory nature of homosexual or transgendered individuals also dominate this dialogue. A significant number of proposed all-gender design solutions recommend binary gender washroom separation and single washroom space to be utilized by those requiring accommodations. Yet, findings indicate exclusivity creates feelings of isolation, insecurity, and inequality for users. As the inclusivity of the public washroom issue continues in public and political conversation, the opportunity for interior design to shape understanding and best practices is rich. Inclusive design of washroom spaces should remove barriers of separation and design spaces that provide equal participation for users to be confident and independent (CABE, 2008). Understanding how interior environments transform spatial expectations, norms and relationship to space and gender is fundamental to the interior designer’s education and practice. Space reflects and shapes culture with the most intimate human inhabitation and interaction occurring within public washrooms.


  • Cavanaugh, S. L. (2010). Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.
  • Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE). (2008). The principles of inclusive design. Retrieved from
  • House of Commons of Canada. (May, 17, 2016). Bill C – 16: An act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code. Retrieved from 1&DocId=8280564
  • Penner, B. (2013). Bathroom. London, UK: Reaktion Books Ltd.
  • U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education. (2016, May, 13). Dear Colleague Letter on Transgender Students. Retrieved from
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