voices of women in law // voix des femmes en droit


Lauren Phizicky and Philippa Duchastel De Montrouge

Think back to the last time you really, really, really had to go. What if there were no washrooms, no 24-hour McDonalds, no shopping malls nearby? Now, imagine this happened daily. For individuals who do not identify with one of the mutually exclusive gender options that public washrooms offer — either women’s or men’s — finding a washroom that they feel comfortable using can be a daily discomfort. Their discomfort of needing to go is compounded by concern that choosing either of the two gendered bathroom options might lead to verbal or physical altercations. As a result, trans and gender non-conforming people often attempt to suppress their need to use a public washroom, which can have both negative physical and emotional ramifications.

While gender-specific washrooms are presently the norm in public buildings, norms evolve. Not long ago, there were washrooms, drinking fountains, benches and waiting rooms in parts of North America that were labeled “Whites Only.” In the last century, these norms of racial segregation evolved from being widely accepted to being seen as a shameful part of our history. We must learn from our past mistakes of treating people differently when it was neither necessary nor right. This past experience should inform how we perceive and proceed with the current situation of washrooms divided by mainstream gender.

The current situation of having washrooms divided into two gendered options is outdated, unnecessary, and quite frankly, discriminatory towards those who do not identify with one of the two gender options on offer. “MEN” on one side, “WOMEN” on the other. The pictograms used to designate the bathrooms — with pants on one side and a skirt on the other — serve to reinforce stereotypes about how individuals of either gender should look and dress, and the choice between two genders ignores the fact that not everyone fits into the socially constructed binary of men and women.

McGill is one of several universities that have attempted to rectify this situation by creating more single-stall washrooms to be designated as gender-inclusive. However, introducing this third option for those who do not identify within the gender binary is still stigmatizing, as it isolates individuals into a new category of “other.” It again serves to further isolate people. In our society, the ubiquitous sign that designates that there are washrooms nearby is a pictogram of a person in pants and a person in a skirt. In reality, this image should be of a toilet, but it is not. As a result, even washrooms that are designated as gender-free — those which are generally single-stall units — are still designated by the standard sign of both a “man” and a “woman,” reinforcing again that these are the socially acceptable categories. But gender is much more complicated than that. This socially constructed binary system is exclusive and discriminatory towards those who do not identify with either of these stereotypes, and simply want a space where they can be comfortable to pee in peace. Which got us thinking: why do bathrooms need to have any categorization at all?

Bathrooms are ubiquitous and act as a frequent reinforcement of the mistaken assumption that there are two mutually exclusive gender options for a person to identify with. However, in reality, gender is much more flexible than bathrooms and stereotypes would lead us to believe. In discussing this issue, we have been repeatedly faced with the opinion that although people might fall somewhere on a gender spectrum, there is still clearly a “right” or “wrong” bathroom for each of those people to be in. Despite the label that differently-gendered people choose to use, by looking at them naked, surely each person could be slotted into one of these two boxes. This belief incorrectly implies that all individuals are cisgender, meaning that their gender (most commonly designated as masculine or feminine) matches their sex (most commonly designated as male and female). This also mistakenly implies that gender is a fact that can be determined by others. This is simply not true.

Sex does not fall as clearly into a male/female dichotomy as most people think it does. Scientifically speaking, XX chromosomes are commonly associated with women, and XY with men. However, while it is true that these chromosomes often trigger the development of typically female or male-associated physical and social characteristics, it is not always so cut and dry. Individuals can have different chromosomal makeups, which result in them developing both physical and social characteristics that are neither entirely masculine nor feminine. Alternatively, they can have either XX or XY chromosomes, but not develop the associated masculine or feminine traits due to hormone insensitivities. While the science on this matter is a bit complicated, the conclusions are rather simple: both sex and gender cannot be cut into two neat options. The dichotomies of male/female and masculine/feminine are social constructs, and they have been incredibly convenient for classifying people. However, now that we know what we do about the diversity that can exist in both gender and sex, continuing to propagate these binary systems is unacceptable. These false binaries have alienating consequences for anyone who does not fit within their confines. Science aside, should everyone not feel free to choose who they wish to be? Something as silly as a washroom should not be able to constantly undermine a person’s identity.

Individuals who fall somewhere on the spectrum — those who identify as genderfluid, genderqueer, or a myriad of other gender options — often feel that there is no “right” choice for them to choose when it comes to using a washroom. This can be an incredibly stressful situation for these individuals. Gendered bathrooms are an almost hourly reminder to anyone who does not identify within the gender binary that they are considered “different” by society. If an individual walks through what others consider to be the “wrong” door, at best, they might be stared at as people wonder “what they are.” At worst, they might be attacked.

As it stands, our cultural norms and societal structures do not accommodate this minority, and this results in discrimination that leaves these individuals significantly worse off when compared with the rest of the population. There are few, if any, statistics about differently-gendered people. Forms that are used to collect information often do not give individuals the option to choose anything other than M or F. Some more evolved forms include a transgender option, but this does not solve the categorization issue for all differently-gendered people. The statistics that we do have about transgender people, however, are chilling. Transgender people are more likely to live in poverty, experience unemployment, and be subjected to verbal threats or harassment. More concerning still is that 77% of trans respondents in an Ontario-based survey had seriously considered suicide and 45% had attempted suicide, compared with 1.6% of the general population. The level of exclusion and otherness felt by trans people likely contributes significantly to the prevalence of these negative experiences. Inclusive washrooms are only a start, but given their ubiquitousness in everyday life, we felt that these were a good area to tackle first.

People often roll their eyes when we bring up this subject. They just cannot see this washroom “issue” as being the big deal that we are making it out to be. As cisgender women ourselves, we have never experienced any type of discomfort upon choosing a public washroom to use. But we did not have to look far to find many people who had. The What’s Underneath Project is a YouTube series that features stories of individuals who challenge society’s perceptions of gender identity. In one video, writer and musician Nikkiesha McLeod describes how she feels most vulnerable when she needs to use a public washroom, and how she was once attacked by a girl’s boyfriend for being in the women’s washroom. Another video features iO Tillett Wright, who was assigned female at birth but lived as a boy between the ages of 6 and 14. She currently identifies as a woman, but has androgynous looks and style. Although iO identifies her sex as female, she emphatically states that none of the gender labels fit her. She describes how when she uses the women’s washroom, she alters her behaviour to act more “girly” and “smiley,” and how when she uses the men’s washroom, she hunches over, moves quickly, and avoids eye contact.

There is no functional reason why individuals need to be externally categorized by gender when all they are trying to do is pee. However, in our conversations with others, we have been emphatically challenged on this point. People are wary of the safety issues that would arise if all people used the same washrooms. Most raised concerns that this set up would increase the risk of physical and sexual abuse, primarily towards women. These defences almost perfectly echo those used by proponents of racial segregation, those who said that having black men around white women would lead to rape and argued that allowing black families to move into white neighborhoods would lead to an increase in crime and violence. We strongly reject the idea that we should be maintaining the current flawed bathroom divisions for this reason or any other like it. Our society is increasingly rejecting calls for girls to dress more modestly to avoid distracting boys or being assaulted — rejecting the idea that a woman might be “asking for it” based on what she wears. The same goes for sharing washrooms. It is not the job of binaried bathrooms to keep women safe, nor do we believe that they would be any less safe in shared washrooms. It is up to us to eliminate rape culture and reduce these risks by targeting the potential perpetrators, not by trying to shelter the potential victims.

Prior to proposing a policy change for gender-inclusive washrooms, we recognize that it is essential to educate those in our community about why this policy change is needed. Focusing on awareness, empathy and inclusiveness through education is the first step to positively transform the McGill community culture and eventually bring change to the broader societal culture in North America. We all need to understand what it feels like for those whose gender identity is not widely recognized and to recognize the challenges and discomfort people face daily when they have to do something as simple and fundamental as going to the washroom.

As society becomes more aware of groups that are marginalized, it is everyone’s responsibility to adapt our structural and cultural perceptions to match our new understandings. Gender has long been a battleground for equality, and alongside women’s continued fight for equality, a new gender-based struggle has developed: individuals whose gender identities stray from the standard binary system.

We propose that public washrooms should be gender-inclusive spaces where all people can #PeeInPeace. These spaces would ideally be outfitted with multiple floor-to-ceiling stalls, which would provide added privacy for all users. This set up would effectively challenge and ultimately eradicate society’s false assumptions about gender as a binary, which would increase inclusiveness for all individuals.

Our biggest challenge is the lack of awareness that people have about how diverse gender identities can be. In general, the idea of sharing a public washroom makes people nervous, and this is a difficult hurdle to overcome. The majority of us take our access to public washrooms for granted, and we hope that more people will come to realize that non-gendered bathrooms will create a safer and more egalitarian system for everyone. This is where you come in. It is time to break the silence, start conversations and get actively involved in changing attitudes. Because really, shouldn’t everyone be able to #PeeInPeace?


To the best of our ability, this article uses language that is intended to be sensitive to all individuals. At various points, we employed common vocabulary and phrases that might be seen as reinforcing stereotypes and norms, but we did this with the larger goal of clarity and succinctness in mind. We apologize to anyone who may take offense at our choices.

Contours is made possible by funding from the McGill Law Students’ Association / L’Association des étudiant-e-s en droit de McGill. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part without permission from the authors.

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