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TBA Online: News & Features: August 2019

Bay Area Theatres Shift The Culture with Gender-Inclusive Restrooms

Tuesday, August 6, 2019   (2 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Kari Barclay

It’s a Thursday night at San Francisco's Exploratorium museum, and visitors see an unexpected sight at the restrooms. The usual gender labels are covered up, and they have been replaced with “5’6” and taller” and “5’4” and shorter.” People approach the doors with bewilderment, then tentatively enter the restroom aligning with their height. Some wonder which restroom people who are 5’5” would enter and—more importantly—why anyone would ever divide restrooms this way.  

The signs were part of an installation called “Bathroom Boundaries”, created by Sal Alper and Shafer Mazow in Spring of 2017. Mazow, now managing director of San Francisco’s Z Space, says the installation was aimed at prompting visitors to question how gender influences people’s experience of binary gender restrooms. For many trans and gender-nonconforming people, restrooms have often felt like  uncomfortable, dangerous, and arbitrarily divisive spaces.

Shafer Mazow.

“It’s about creating artificial, seemingly clear-cut binary categories that are not really clear-cut,” says Mazow. The installation “let people know what it’s like when they can’t take care of basic needs or when they’re categorized in ways that don’t make sense to them or when there’s not a facility for your category.”
For theatres around the Bay Area, the question of how to label restrooms is one entry point into a discussion of gender diversity and inclusion. Rather than divide restrooms into “men’s” and “women’s,” some venues like Z Space now designate their restrooms “all-gender” and let people choose a restroom based on its fixtures—whether it has only stalls or stalls and urinals. At a time when states like North Carolina and Texas have implemented anti-trans bathroom bills and the Presidential Administration has moved to limit the rights of trans people (banning them from the military, for instance), all-gender bathrooms show a commitment to increasing access and comfort for trans and gender-nonconforming patrons, staff and artists.
According to Mazow, who as a trans man has experienced anxiety in gender-segregated restrooms, Z Space’s all-gender restrooms have “been really embraced and accepted by all the audiences that we have here, and we have a wide range of audiences.” In his position at Z Space, he has been eager to encourage gender-inclusive restrooms in theatres around the Bay.
Mazow reports that gender-inclusive restrooms were an important topic of conversation in Theatres Advancing Social Change (TASC), a program of Theatre Bay Area led by Carmen Morgan and the renowned trainers at artEquity. The nine-month initiative brought together ten Bay Area theatres, plus TBA, for a training intensive on equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). This year’s cohort included American Conservatory Theatre, California Shakespeare Theatre, City Lights, Fools Fury, Marin Theatre Company, Ragged Wing Ensemble, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, San Francisco Youth Theatre, Woodminster Theatricals, and Z Space. Representatives from these organizations have committed to advancing equity and inclusion in their own companies and in the wider theatre community.
“We as a cohort chose a few action items with which to move forward,” reports Mazow. In the fall, the cohort plans to draft an open letter encouraging theaters and arts spaces to adopt gender-inclusive policies. The letter will include suggestions like offering inventories about what fixtures are inside a bathroom (urinals vs. stalls) or at the very least placing signage that patrons can use restrooms matching their genders.

Lisa Malette. Photo courtesy Silicon Valley Artist Laureates.

“Even though it’s just one aspect, it represents a lot,” says Lisa Mallette, executive artistic director of San Jose’s City Lights Theater Company. “It’s a great place to start conversations about equity, diversity, and inclusion because everybody has to use it.”
City Lights' current space is a former warehouse, and Mallette says that for years the focus was not on the restrooms’ gender designations but on getting enough fixtures to meet audience demand. Transforming two single-stall restrooms into one single-stall restroom and one two-stall restroom was its own hurdle. Today, the theatre’s restrooms bear “men’s room” and “women’s room” labels, says Mallette, but City Lights has added a sign affirming the right of patrons to use the restroom aligning with their gender identities.
Within the next three to five years, however, City Lights is moving to a new space, and Mallette is working with developers and architects to make the space more inclusive. “If you’re building something from scratch, there’s zero excuse not to make it 100 percent accessible for everyone. I’m standing really firm on that.”
Mallette reports that developers have been receptive. If making a space gender inclusive does not cost extra money and might even bring in more patrons and revenue, then people are eager to learn more. “We have to look ahead. What are all those barriers to access, and how can we address them? And bathrooms are the easy one.”
In July 2018, San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) released its own statement on gender diversity and added new signage to their restrooms. The statement also encouraged staff and artists to include their pronouns as part of introductions and email signatures as a way to acknowledge trans and nonbinary identities.
A.C.T. executive director Jennifer Bielstein says, “All of our restrooms everywhere—in our offices, in our dressing rooms, behind the scenes, and public-facing restrooms—have signage that says ‘gender diversity is welcome at A.C.T. Please use the restroom that best fits your gender identity or expression.’”
Bielstein reports that people have “been largely, almost unanimously, receptive” to the statement and bathroom policies. Some staff, artists, students, and fellows have encouraged the company to take a next step of making their restrooms all-gender.
This move from men’s, women’s, and single-stalled bathrooms to all-gender restrooms is often a point of hesitation for theatres, says Mazow. Some raise concerns about safety, especially for cisgender (non-transgender) women.
“With the #MeToo movement happening at the same time, both have to be considered,” emphasizes Mallette. “Some people have a history of sexual violence from people of the opposite gender. We have to be thoughtful and considerate about both.”
However, Mazow points out, gender-segregated restrooms are not necessarily any safer than all-gender ones. “There’s a mythology around what safety is that needs to be disrupted.” Trans and gender-nonconforming people are more likely to encounter violence and danger in restrooms, not perpetrate it. Although there might be discomfort for those using all-gender restrooms for the first time, says Mazow, cisgender people can push through that discomfort to make environments safer and more comfortable for trans folks.
“In all the conversations, urinals get a lot of attention,” he adds. “What ciswomen are expecting to see is a big point of anxiety.” Without changing theatre architecture, there are ways to lessen this anxiety. By having a sign listing whether restrooms have urinals or not and/or by adding a curtain in front of urinals, theatres can “make restrooms accessible and let people choose their level of discomfort so that theoretically everyone can feel supported.”
Not all institutions are ready to change overnight, and interventions like those at the Exploratorium can help reshape cisgender people’s attitudes toward gender-segregated restrooms. City Lights’ Lisa Mallette says that sometimes making change requires working through discomfort. “You can’t go from zero to 60 on any of this in an authentic way in a short amount of time, but we have to move forward with changes on a daily basis to shift the culture.”

Kari Barclay is a queer director, writer, and educator completing his PhD at Stanford University.


Elizabeth Finkler says...
Posted Tuesday, August 13, 2019
Just a thought on terminology: In the early 1990s, when I was reviewing theater in Philadelphia, one company referred to its all-gender restrooms as "family style." A little humor helps, too. A restaurant there had bathrooms labeled "Republicans" and "Democrats." (The door labeled "Anarchists" led to the janitor's closet.) And I've seen a sign that declares, "Whatever. Just wash your hands after, OK?"
Charles Belov says...
Posted Wednesday, August 7, 2019
Shotgun's and MTC's addition of a curtain at the urinal definitely made it more comfortable for this cis male to share a non-gendered restroom. PianoFight's all-private stall single restroom makes it even simpler, and solves the issue of insufficient facilities for women due to thoughtless architecture.