Gender Neutral Toilet, Not Sideshow Attraction

Debbie says:

Lisa Wade at Sociological Images has a brief post about the sign problem for gender-neutral bathrooms. (I always thought they could just say “Everyone,” but of course there’s an argument for icons rather than words.) In case anyone hasn’t thought it out, gender-neutral bathrooms are an important safety feature for trans and gender nonconforming people who are all too frequently threatened and attacked for using the “wrong” binary gender public toilet.

She quotes Sam Killermann, a social justice comedian, who has a perfectly sensible iconic solution:


But what struck me was the option that Killermann rightly objects to, which is in use at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.


Killermann and I object to this because, as he says, “the literal interpretation of this image (a half ‘man’ half ‘woman’) is a disconcerting representation of ‘gender neutral.’” Not to mention the infantilization that happens just from choosing that size for the wheelchair user. Yes, I know, it’s approximately the “accurate” height of a person in a chair next to a standing person. It’s still infantilizing.

What struck me most about the “half man/half woman” image is how it harks back to a very common performance at carnival sideshows and vaudeville performances, where a performer (most famously Josephine Joseph) would shave, cream, and soften one side of their body, growing hair long on that side and building up a false breast, while buffing up their muscles on the other side, with short hair and perhaps a half mustache. Split clothing enhanced the effect. The highlight of this performance was usually the performer dancing alone in low light, arms around waist, creating the illusion of two people dancing.


Audiences found this fascinating and often titillating. Gender transgressive, yes. Gender nonconforming, yes. Gender neutral, hardly! Recreating this in bathroom door icons in 2014 is way less constructive than putting up a picture of a toilet. And I just don’t want restroom signs to start dancing at me, especially if I’m sleepy.

(I still love this post on bathroom door signs which  I wrote several years ago.)

4 thoughts on “Gender Neutral Toilet, Not Sideshow Attraction

  1. The non-sex-segregated toilets in the UK just have both the male and female symbols next to each other. It never occurred to me that there was any difficulty in making signs for toilets that accommodate multiple gender presentations! I should probably take a picture and send it to the people at Sociological Images.

  2. I find this image creepy. i can’t say why exactly but it does call up “creepy sideshow” image to me first and foremost. And the wheelchair image does seem to be showing a small person.

    i’ve been bugged for YEARS about the skirted image for “female” in iconography. In thousands of places around the world, that image is totally useless and incorrect. Where women wear robes, long skirts or pants, tunics and leggings, long wraps of all kinds, this would be meaningless. Of course we don’t seem to know what the wheelchair user is wearing but maybe that’s because our gender doesn’t matter?

    I dunno. But ick. For sure. Ick.

  3. The head height for the icon person in the wheelchair may be correct (it looks a little low to me, but that may be because I’m short), but the wheelchair user is definitely presented as having a much smaller body than the standing person.

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