Public restrooms have long been a flash point in the fight over civil rights. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the humble restroom sign speaks quite loudly. “Whites only” told the story during the Jim Crow era. When disability activists fought for accessibility, the wheelchair icon on the sign signaled progress.
Now, as transgender activists fight to use the facility that matches their identity — in Massachusetts, a controversial transgender protections bill has passed the Senate and is awaiting a planned Wednesday vote in the House — another thorny issue emerges:
What should the restroom signs say?
What images or icons work best?
And how can institutions be certain that the signs they choose today won’t be outdated — and need replacing — just a few years from now?
The answers are not simple.
Consider language that was once acceptable for inclusive restrooms but has now lost some favor: “Gender neutral.”
“It was once widely used, including by me,” said Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and coordinator of the national Campus Pride Trans Policy Clearinghouse.
“But to me [now] it’s like saying ‘color blind.’ We see race. And we see gender — it’s not a neutral concept.”
With the culture changing, Beemyn regularly gets calls from administrators and student affairs professionals who are asking for guidance on the appropriate text and icons for restroom signs. Beemyn advises against using the well-known sign that shows a split male/female stick figure — pant leg on one side, skirt on the other.
That icon may seem well-meaning — it’s on the signs for the inclusive restrooms near Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s City Hall office — but it’s “insulting,” Beemyn said.
“We are not half-male, half- female — that’s like some alien figure.”
The bill before the House — “An Act Relative to Transgender Anti-Discrimination” — would extend antidiscrimination measures to public places, including restrooms, and would allow people to choose which gender-specific public facilities to use, based on their gender identity.
On Tuesday, Governor Charlie Baker said he would sign the House bill in its current form if it reaches his desk.
Even without statewide legislation, many organizations have already made their restrooms inclusive, said Matthew Wilder, a spokesman for Freedom Massachusetts , a bipartisan coalition of gay rights groups and businesses that supports the transgender protections bill.
Some institutions and businesses have signs on single-user restrooms that make it clear they’re unisex, and not men’s or women’s restrooms.
In other instances, transgender people use whichever multiuser restroom feels appropriate, Wilder said, noting that the city of Boston has an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity or expression.
But despite pockets of progress, Wilder said, legislation is needed so transgender individuals can use restrooms without being harassed or singled out.
As the visual landscape changes door by door, some activists say the best signs are the simplest. This would explain the growing popularity of a graphic that’s as basic as it gets: a cheerful-looking toilet.
Drawn in 2014 by Sam Killermann, an author and self-described social-justice comedian, it has been downloaded tens of thousands of times. It took him just 15 minutes to create.
“I published it as a snarky thing — to say ‘The sign is not the problem, it’s being used as a scapegoat,’ ” Killermann said. “So I made my sign with a toilet, and I didn’t expect it to become a thing — and now it’s a thing.”
Killermann’s entire blog post is worth reading, but the pertinent lines read:
“My inspiration in drawing this toilet was a toilet. I had this breakthrough moment where I was like, ‘If I was urgently in need of a toilet, what visual would cue that a room contained a toilet I could use?’ ”
His accompanying blog post was so critical of the “disconcerting” half-man/half-woman sign that one sign company — Brooklyn’s SmartSign — stopped selling it and asked to buy his toilet design.
Killermann donated the design, and in turn, SmartSign donates or subsidizes a variety of gender-inclusive signs to those who request them — so far about $42,000 worth, said marketing director Conrad Lumm.
Most requests for unisex signs come after the issue of inclusivity has been decided. “But every now and then we have a case where the people got back in touch and said, ‘We couldn’t put up the signs. Our administration overruled us. We got smacked down,’ ” he said.
There’s a map of the United States on the company’s website with pins showing where its signs have landed. In Greater Boston, the range of institutions, schools, and private businesses paints a picture of inclusivity working its way into the culture — and in at least one case, the attendant stress over an issue that is far from settled.
That’s at a funeral parlor and crematorium on the South Shore, where a director who answered the phone asked that his business not be named, even though the new bathroom sign doesn’t even contain the word “gender.” It shows a male stick figure, a female stick figure, a wheelchair icon, and reads “Restroom.”
“It’s been such a buzzword and controversial that we’d rather not be quoted,” the man said.
On the other end of the spectrum is the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge.
Not only does the theater have a “unisex” sign for a single-user restroom, but as part of a lobby display, there’s a framed sign about the restroom sign.
Written by the theater’s costume shop manager, Jeannette Hawley, it reads:
“I am a cisgender, lesbian woman, married to a transgender man, Mykael. This gender neutral bathroom symbolizes the great progress made to ensure dignity for all in the most private of public spaces.”
Back in Amherst, as UMass prepares to convert an additional 52 single-user restrooms (currently signed “Men” or “Women”) to unisex, Beemyn, of the Stonewall Center, said it’s important to get the language right.
“We don’t want to have to go back and redo them because 10 years from now ‘all-gender’ or ‘gender inclusive’ doesn’t sound right.”
The new signs will simply read “restroom.”