From Binary to Diversity — Are Gender-Friendly Bathrooms Really Friendly?

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This article is part of the 34th issue of LEAP — Voices of Youth e-letter. Subscribe now.

In 2019, the public bathrooms on the east side of the Citizen Square in New Taipei City were reconstructed to be gender-friendly public bathrooms. Image/ New Taipei City Government

“An important point of consideration in the use of gender-friendly toilets is ‘Will it attract undue attention?’” says Yui, a transgender person currently working at a government agency.

As a transgender person herself, in addition to her own internal struggles while using such bathrooms, she also worries about drawing unwanted attention from others. She feels stressed even though going to the bathroom is nothing out of the ordinary for most people.

Despite rising gender awareness in Taiwan in recent years, gender-friendly bathrooms appear mostly in government buildings and on campuses, and some transgender people employed in more traditional settings still worry about being judged by their colleagues and avoid going to the bathroom.

“Even though I work at a government agency, the gender-friendly bathroom is just the original women’s bathroom with a new sign, and the interior configuration was left unchanged.” says Yui with her head shaking. In her opinion, in addition to replacing the sign, a true gender-friendly bathroom must correspond to the needs of its users.

Improper planning and design of gender-friendly bathrooms often lead to low usage rates

Gender-friendly bathroom in National Taiwan University. Photo: Vivian May

Gender-friendly toilets are designed for the purpose of diversity and to eliminate existing impressions of toilets. However, some gender-friendly toilets do not correspond to any design concepts, but simply add a “gender-friendly toilet” sign at the entrance. In addition, they don’t change the public’s habit of using gender-segregated toilets either.

Many college campuses in Taiwan have started considering installing gender-friendly toilets. However, there is plenty of room for debate regarding whether such spaces achieve their intended purpose and allow the public to use them at ease. The “National Taiwan University Gender-Friendly Toilet Installation Guidelines” point out that even though more than 80 percent of those interviewed are in favor of gender-friendly toilets, their usage rate is quite low.

A few years ago, on the campuses of National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) and National Taiwan University (NTU), gender-friendly toilets were criticized by the students for the following issues: men’s toilets were made into gender-friendly toilets simply by switching the sign on the door, only men’s toilets were converted into gender-friendly toilets, and the lack of privacy due to big gaps between bathroom stalls. Some women were also concerned about privacy issues while using gender-friendly bathrooms.

User feedback indicated that many didn’t think too much while using the bathroom, since the main purpose of installing toilets is simply to meet physiological needs. Some male users felt that the partitions set up in gender-friendly bathrooms provided more privacy when they used urinals.

However, gender-friendly bathrooms may not be able to make all users feel at ease be it because of the partitions or differing opinions about whether sinks should be installed inside or outside of bathrooms.

For example, since people of any gender may enter a gender-friendly bathroom, if the partition walls are too short or small, users may worry about members of the opposite sex, who would have an easier time peeping compared to gender-segregated bathrooms. Therefore, many women would rather take a longer route just to use a women’s-only bathroom. This is why, according to statistics collected by NTU, only less than 20% of women use gender-friendly bathrooms. Such data highlights the room for improvement in terms of privacy and gender considerations in the design of gender-friendly bathrooms.

The ultimate goal is to allow toilets to serve their functions. The removal of the “gender-friendly” label makes it more natural.

Even though Yiyi has lived with her new identity as a woman for quite a while, when she goes to the bathroom, she still worries about being recognized as a transgender and receiving unfriendly treatment.

“The design of gender-friendly bathrooms should make it safe to use for people of all genders and people who are not suited to the regular sex-segregated bathrooms.” Yui points out that the gender-friendly bathroom set up at her workplace isn’t very user-friendly. It seems to deliberately create a sense of divide between transgender and cisgender people, which makes her feel excluded in something as simple as the basic need of toilet use. “Perhaps it’s better to just call it a ‘bathroom.’ We don’t need to call it a gender-friendly bathroom,” says Yui.

Designer Liu Yan-Cen, who assisted in the design of gender-friendly toilets at NTU, also believes that the “gender-friendly” sign isn’t necessary. A sign that says “toilet” would suffice. “Today, when we highlight a bathroom as gender-friendly, it is sort of an emphasis on equal rights,” said Liu. However, as the first university in Taiwan to incorporate gender-friendly bathrooms into university guidelines, the campus-planning team wishes to make the concept of gender-friendly bathrooms an issue. This was a strategy to emphasize equal rights, so the words, “gender-friendly bathroom,” are still visible on bathroom doors. In addition, the original blue and red men and women signs were taken down during the design phase and replaced with images of toilets and faucets that don’t have gender connotations.

While participating in the design of gender-friendly toilets for NTU, Liu Yan-Cen believes that a bathroom must allow people of all genders and types to use it with ease. A bathroom sign can simply be the word “Bathroom” written on a piece of A4 paper. Photo / Liu Yan-Cen.

In 2019, the public bathrooms on the east side of the Citizen Square in New Taipei City were reconstructed to be gender-friendly public bathrooms, which incorporated facilities such as beds for people needing care, changing space, and seating for children, in an effort to provide a bathroom space friendly to all ages and genders. In addition, the public bathroom signage in New Taipei City is gradually changing to an “all-gender” design that no longer differentiates between men and women. The city government hopes to serve as an example and promote the idea of “all-gender” bathrooms in other public bathrooms.

Getting everyone to abandon the habit of using sex-segregated bathrooms is not easy and it isn’t something that can be achieved overnight. It would require the collaboration of various organizations and the willingness of the general public to change their usage concepts. From emphasizing “gender-friendliness,” to no longer needing the emphasis and being friendly to all. We can only reach true friendliness and equality when the installation of toilets in the future takes an approach of a universal design that satisfies all users.

Also in This Issue: When Bathrooms Are No Longer Segregated by Gender: The Development of Gender-Friendly Bathrooms

After nearly two decades of development, gender-friendly bathrooms are catching more public attention in Taiwan.

Author : Vivian May

Freelance journalist exploring gender and public issues.

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