Credit: Matt Artz / unsplash

Phoenix A. Matthews is a professor of clinical psychology and the Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion in the College of Nursing at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a 2019-2020 Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project.

As of January 1, Illinois joined a growing number of states that are requiring that all sex-segregated single-stall restrooms be converted to all-gender. Illinois’s legislative change, spearheaded by local organizations such as the Chicago Restroom Access Project (CRAP) and Equality Illinois, is anticipated to benefit diverse groups of individuals and communities. In the coming months, public awareness campaigns will be needed to increase acceptance and adherence to the law in cities and small towns across the state. However, state and local officials will need to be thoughtful in their approach to how they educate the public. Planned educational campaigns must take an intersectional approach that highlights how all-gender restrooms benefit all Illinoisans and not just a specific “special interest” group. Awareness campaigns that highlight broad benefits are needed to prevent targeted backlash against transgender, nonbinary, and gender expansive communities, the groups most associated with legislation for equitable restroom laws.

De-sex segregated restrooms are variously identified as all-gender, gender-inclusive, gender-neutral or simply as “restrooms.” Although generating a great deal of controversy, public all-gender single-stall restrooms are the same type found in the majority of American homes—one toilet, with one door, meant to be occupied by one person at a time.

Nevertheless, a number of high profile opposition bills—“bathroom bills” as they are referred to—have preemptively sought to prohibit the passage of laws similar to the one recently enacted in Illinois. To date, regressive bathroom bills have been passed or proposed in several jurisdictions. Stated reasons for the counter measures, which seek to prohibit transgender persons from using the restroom that matches their gender identities, are to ensure the safety of women and girls. 

Infographic by Elizabeth Breen

The data is clear: bathroom bills are needed to ensure the safety of women; however, it is transwomen who are most in need of legislative protections. For this population, sex-segregated public restrooms are contested spaces and obstacles to simply “peeing in peace.” In 2015, survey data collected by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that a quarter of respondents had been questioned, harassed, or assaulted while trying to access gender-segregated public restrooms. Of those, 60 percent reported avoiding public restrooms due to fear. 

Public debate about the right to fair and equitable restroom accommodations is not new. Although most of the current discourse on public restrooms has centered on persons who are transgender or nonbinary, legislation has historically has been needed to ensure appropriate access to restrooms for women, African Americans, persons with disabilities, and even mothers of young children. Beyond the transgender communities, sex-segregated public restrooms can be a source of stress for persons with disabilities, caretakers of the elderly, and parents of opposite-sex children. Cisgender women also benefit from the elimination of gendered single-stalled restrooms as the lines for women’s restrooms are predictably longer than men’s restrooms. Business owners in Chicago also perceive benefits from all-gender restrooms. According to a survey conducted in 2017 by the Chicago Restroom Access Project, 79 percent of participating business owners found single-occupancy all-gender restrooms to be an acceptable legislative change, and 51 percent of those surveyed indicated that a change in restroom laws could have a positive impact on their business.

The civil rights victory achieved in Illinois by passing the Equitable Restrooms Act is a victory for women, people with disabilities, older adults, parents, members of the LGBTQ community, and businesses. As we will all share equally in its benefits, collaborative efforts are needed to increase awareness about the legislative changes and to ensure that no one community stands alone in confronting potential forces against social change. The Chicago Restroom Access Project (CRAP) has created a variety of educational materials including videos, tool kits, suggested restroom signage, and infographics that can be used to increase general education and awareness. All of us who will now be able to “pee in peace” are responsible for helping to shape public awareness and readiness for this much needed policy change.  v