Anxiety and Activism in Transgender Bathroom Signs

I notice logos and probably think about them too much. I have opinions about their design, the color choices and how they visually connect to other ideas (e.g., Starbuck’s logo design trajectory, the Helvetica documentary or the story of the Lucky Strike logo [pg 68]). I don’t have the creative skill to make good ones myself, but from time to time I have hired graphic designers to make them for my projects and organizations. I like the challenge of communicating values simply and visually. Of course, logos aren’t the only kinds of images that do this. The more generic icons that are used in public spaces function in much the same way.

For example, the handicapped parking sign in the United States. It is very specific and standardized. It has been criticized for representing handicappedness as a person in a wheelchair, which is only one among many possible disabilities, and for showing a stationary wheelchair at that (see The Accessible Icon Project), it nonetheless has been very effective at quickly communicating features of accessible design in public spaces. This icon and others like it communicate culture, law and practices that are part of the physical world. The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) has developed 50 such icons that are nearly ubiquitous now. Among other things, the icons reflect that we live in a world with norms about garbage, customs checkpoints, bathrooms, coffee, and escalators.

AIGA icons for Litter Disposal, Customs, Unisex Toilets, Coffeeshop, and Escalator

Amidst all the recent discussion around transgender politics and policies, I’ve been noticing that a part of the discussion is also playing out in new restroom icons that different facilities have been experimenting with. Just like a corporate logo, these visual experiments communicate values and aspirations while trying to develop effective design solutions to real-world problems. The graphic design choices reflect different approaches to navigating a changing world. Below are a small collection of examples and some thoughts on what values I read in them.

Boston Logan Airport

This sign was photographed at Boston Logan Airport. Assisted care restrooms are a fairly recent development but certainly predate the national conversation around transgender bathroom access. When they are available, though, they provide an option for transgender bathroom access without explicitly naming it. It allows for a range of possible non-binary gender usages in addition to handicapped, assisted care and family usage. As a father of four, I would have very much appreciated an assisted-care option like this when my daughters were young and instead had to accompany me into the men’s restroom. This icon flies below the radar and is a very conservative approach to transgender accommodation. Some would argue that by not explicitly naming gender inclusion it is not actually an accommodation at all.

Southern California High School

This sign, photographed at a high school in Southern California, is also subtle but not completely below the radar. The iconography is identifying this bathroom as having handicapped accommodations, but includes a very specific text sign calling out the additional accommodation for non-binary genders. This arrangement reflects a particular local history in which student activists campaigned to have the restroom officially identified as serving transgender students. The sign was the result of the desire of the activists to be explicit about acceptance of transgender students in the community. The administration’s response was conservative. They added the text sign on the side. The bathroom itself didn’t need any changes. While this approach doesn’t redesign the iconography, by saying “all-gender” it is much more clearly an accommodation for transgender students. A more conservative (and standardized) approach would have been to simply add the AIGA unisex toilet logo or perhaps use this modified unisex logo design as seen at the Phoenix Airport:

Unisex bathroom iconography from the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport
Los Angeles Airport

The sign above, from the Los Angeles airport, combines and extends the two previous approaches. It uses new iconography, includes text that specifically allows for non-binary gender usage, but the figures themselves remain classic representations. (One wonders if girl children are allowed to use this restroom.) The text suggest transgender accommodation, but the images remain largely traditional.

Santa Barbara Bowl

This sign located at a concert venue in Santa Barbara California, the Santa Barbara Bowl, introduces the silhouette of a third person. This icon is neither male nor female, but wears half a dress. Perhaps it half wears a dress. The icon itself, looks to me less like a representation of transgenderism than a person swishing with a dress flaring out. The handicapped icon remains as a transitional bridge between the previous special category of “handicapped” bathroom and the new “all gender” bathroom. The new icon chooses to actively represent a third gender in its visual representation, leaving no question that “all-gender” is meant to signify more than just male or female usage. This sign draws attention to the way in which accomodations in the previous signs implicitly categorized transgender individuals as handicapped — because that was the only non-binary image visible — or perhaps as children in the case of the LA airport. Both categories, were they intentional, would certainly be offensive to transgender people. This is probably at least partially responsible for the next choice of iconography:

University of California, Irvine

At the University of California, Irvine, the approach to transgender accommodation is much more explicit. The old silhouetted icons are replaced with a modified Mars/Venus astrological symbol that includes a transgendered version of them both. All three are superimposed on one another putting them in a position of equality. The use of a new symbology reflects the most explicit visual statement of transgender accommodation in this collection. This is bolstered by the use of the text, “Inclusive Restroom” which calls out other restrooms as being “Exclusive”. This approach is very active and is designed to create a new normative approach to gender through new icons. This does not fly under the radar, it is in your face to make a point. Handicapped people may also use this restroom, but that is secondary to how this space now functions. (Also it saves water.)

Pie in the Sky Bakery, Woods Hole, Massachusetts

Finally, in Woods Hole Massachusetts at the Pie in the Sky bakery the restroom is labelled in a way that reflects the exasperation and/or exhaustion that this conversation has brought about. This tongue-in-cheek sign uses the new swishing dress iconography even to the point of abandoning the standard male and female icons. It accommodates handicapped usage as well and argues that non-binary genders should be accepted under a live-and-let live argument. Whatever anxiety and activism is reflected in the other signs, this one asks for us to just be polite to one another and get on with it. (Also please practice good hygiene.)

In the many different approaches to gender icons in restroom signs, I see a lot of politics working itself out. Personally, I don’t like the conflict that it creates and that makes me a lot more uncomfortable than the actual underlying issue of transgender accommodation. Of course, the solutions above are the easiest ones to manage because they are all single-person restrooms. Working out access to multi-person restrooms has been much more contentious and building a consensus going forward promises to be much more difficult.

One thing that I appreciate about the conflict, is that it has caused me to call into question why we are asking about gender in the first place. In the case of a single person restroom, do we need to say anything about gender on the door at all? What about in other realms of life? After all, this conversation isn’t just happening on restroom doors. Does it matter what gender you are when you fill out that credit card form, job application, or salary worksheet? Rather than having a culture war about whether your identification card supports “M”, “F” or “X”, or if your particular database application allows for any of Facebook’s numerous gender-identities, what if we just drop the question? There aren’t many situations outside of the medical domain where making decisions based on gender is just and equitable anyway. But if the data is captured by the database, then some organization, person or algorithm will be tempted to use it.

The icons that we use to describe public space reflect our continual conversation about what is important to us. They provide insight into how we think about issues and where our anxieties and aspirations lie. As much as they are aesthetic choices they also support and reinforce our policies. Trying to make good visual choices can also cause us to reflect and will hopefully spur us on to developing policies that are good for as many as possible.

Have your own images? Send them to d_j_p_3+transgendersignage@djp3.net with copyright permission to post the image and a note with the persom whom should receive credit. I’ll update this post with any images that help describe the design space of approaches. Don’t send images of male and female bathroom signs, that while creative, don’t reflect the point of this article.