Binary Sex and Gender as Expressed in Restroom Signs

Debbie says:

Ampersand linked to this delightful (and thoughtful) post about restroom signs.

My thinking about restroom signs dates back to the days when Raphael Carter had an “androgyny RAQ” posted on the Web (sadly long gone). One of the suggestions Carter made was to re-sign restrooms (especially the ones that are single-stall and have no social reason for separation) with other binaries, such as “Left/Right” or “Outside/Inside” just to mess with people’s minds. Then a friend of mine, very jet-lagged in an airport one day, looked at the conventional male silhouette and thought to herself, “head, arms, legs, that’s me” and walked straight into the men’s room.

stylized signs with the man's body being a straight line with right-angled arms and the woman's body an upwards pointing triangle with similar arms

Now Marissa at This Is Hysteria! has posted an extensive survey and commentary of restroom signs, what they say and what they mean, illustrated by literally dozens of signs from the familiar (at least to U.S. readers) through the stylized to the surreal.

a square upward pointing triangle arrow for men and an identical square downward pointing triangle arrow for women

Marissa says: “washroom signs are very telling of the way societies construct gender. They identify the male as the universal and the female as the variation. They express expectations of gender performance. And they conflate gender with sex.” The degree to which a little head hair or a skirt signify female is visible everywhere, but never so clearly as in restroom signs.

She goes on to discuss signs where the sex divisions are metaphorical (flowers, birds, beer pouring as if the beer bottle was the penis and as if it was the vagina), and even signs that reflect cultural beliefs about why restrooms are gendered.

the man is climbing over the divider to peek into the women's room

More than anything, what these signs talk about to me, especially all together like this, is how desperately committed we are to gender binaries, and to very very simple iconic representations of these binaries. Of course, as Marissa says, “To many people the separation of the two, and the signs used to distinguish them, may seem innocuous and necessary. Trans people know that this is not the case, and that public battles have been waged over who is allowed to use which washroom.”

So I’ll just close by reminding folks, in case anyone reading this doesn’t know and needs to, about Safe2Pee, the website that helps people outside of the gender binary to find a measure of protection.