#9: I want all-gender bathrooms at work but worry about retaliation against my coworker

A statue in a thoughtful pose

Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),

I work at a large university in Florida, where I’ve been the Administrative Assistant in our building for more than a decade. I’m white, female, cis, and queer.

We currently have a “men’s” bathroom and a “women’s” bathroom. I’ve been wanting to make our building’s bathrooms all-gender for a while because we have 4 times as many women as men who work in the building. It’s not a public building, so it’s generally only University staff and our visitors who use the bathrooms, about 25 people a day.

However, before I made the request, a new co-worker joined who hasn’t told me their gender explicitly but uses “they/them/theirs” as their pronouns. Now I don’t want to make the request, because I don’t want to risk drawing unwanted attention to them. Most of the people in my building are very quiet and introverted, including my new co-worker (I am one of the few extroverts).

—Stalled on Bathrooms

I like this question because I see this pattern a lot: someone wants to take action to fight oppression, spends some time thinking through the consequences, and realizes that taking action might risk retaliation against marginalized people. Then they get stuck because they don’t have a framework for figuring out how to compare the risk of retaliation against the risk of letting the current (bad) situation continue. Many people end up in your situation: paralyzed by the fear of future guilt. Let’s talk about what you can do to break the deadlock!

Do the research

Start by educating yourself on the basics if you haven’t already. The Wikipedia page on unisex public toilets is a reasonable starting place and includes most of the difficult issues, such as the many problems with urinals or requirements of outdated building codes. Here’s a resource on inclusive restrooms and signage from the trans inclusion project at the University of Maryland. Here is a system for changing who can use a multi-stall bathroom based on the preferences of the person currently in the bathroom. Ask around to find out if other bathrooms in your university have been converted to all-gender and how they accomplished that. A few more ways to make gendered bathrooms more inclusive without converting them to all-gender:

  • Post a sign telling people to respect other people’s choice of bathroom.
  • Post a sign with directions to the nearest all-gender bathroom.
  • Stock menstrual supplies in all bathrooms, including men’s bathrooms.

Accept that you’ll make some mistakes

When I teach ally skills, I repeat the same advice over and over again: “If you make a mistake, apologize, correct yourself, and move on.” This is because many people are so afraid of making a mistake that they never take action to support a marginalized group they aren’t part of.

Here’s the reality: you’re going to make a mistake—lots of mistakes. You’re going to continue making mistakes for the rest of your life, no matter what you do or don’t do. You can’t avoid making mistakes, but what you can do is try hard to learn from your mistakes and make fewer and different mistakes going forward. Once you’ve accepted the inevitability of making mistakes, it becomes easier to weigh the risk of making a mistake against the harm of doing nothing.

Think about the harm of doing nothing

The next step is to spend some time thinking about what will happen if you do nothing. Who will be harmed? Who will suffer? When you are acting from a position of privilege and power to help a marginalized group you aren’t part of, the answer is usually “Not you.” The burden and harm of doing nothing are therefore more theoretical and distant.

In this case, what could happen if you don’t advocate for all-gender bathrooms? Someone might challenge one of your coworkers or a visitor about which bathroom they choose. Even if that doesn’t happen, some people will have to plan for the possibility, which takes valuable time and energy. Your workplace will continue reinforcing the gender binary. Women will continue having 1/5th of the bathroom facilities as men (which does affect you personally). People interviewing for jobs at your workplace will see the bathroom arrangement and come to certain conclusions about your workplace culture.

None of these situations are emergencies and you’ve been living with them so far—two reasons why it’s often difficult to see the risk in sticking with the status quo. But thinking about them and counting them explicitly as the cost of doing nothing helps you make a decision about whether to act.

Get more input from others

Crows perched on a leafless tree, silhouetted by a red and pink sunsetI could be wrong, but I get the impression that the majority of this debate is happening solely in your head. You’ve reached out to Dear Ally for advice, which is a great first step! Next, talk with your coworkers, both to get advice and to gauge their support.

Start with someone who shares a lot of your values, is generally kind and supportive, and whom you can trust to keep this discussion private. Include your own feelings about advocating for the all-gender bathrooms and about asking for advice. When I’m feeling conflicted about asking for help, I have learned to just tell (trustworthy, kind) people exactly what I’m feeling and trust them to respond appropriately. “Hey coworker, I’ve been struggling with this problem in my head for a while and I’d really appreciate a chance to talk about this confidentially with someone else. I’d like to ask for all-gender bathrooms, but I’m afraid I might accidentally trigger retaliation against our non gender-conforming coworkers. Can you help me think this through?”

I recommend avoiding directly asking coworkers that might be the subject of retaliation until you’ve done the basic research and worked out some avenues of approach, unless the coworker in question is already an outspoken advocate for themselves.

At this point, you have enough information to decide what, if any, change you might advocate for. The next two tips are about how to advocate for that change while reducing the chance of retaliation against marginalized people.

Avoid singling out marginalized people

Avoid singling out one group of marginalized people by figuring out how to implement a change in a way that will benefit many different groups of people. For example, if you’ve decided to ask for all-gender bathrooms, think of ways to do it that make bathroom access fairer and more equitable for everyone. In this case, you have about five times the number of people using the women’s bathroom as the men’s, so making both gendered bathrooms all-gender instead would reduce sexism. If only one of your bathrooms has a baby-changing facility, that change would support people who are caring for infants. If both bathrooms have accessible stalls, then allowing people to use both will increase the likelihood of an accessible stall being available for use by disabled people (especially with one of the bathrooms being heavily used). If one of the bathrooms is located much farther away or on a different floor, all-gender bathrooms would reduce time used traveling to the bathroom. Note that cis men and women can also directly benefit from all-gender bathrooms—I know at least one cis woman who is regularly challenged when she uses the women’s bathroom, and a result, tries to avoid using gendered public bathrooms.

Speak from your values for yourself

When advocating for change, base your arguments on your values and speak for yourself. You value fairness and equal access to bathrooms. You would be bothered if people were challenged about their bathroom choice. You are tired of waiting to use the bathroom when there are plenty of empty stalls available in the bathroom next door. You want people to feel welcome when they visit your building. Avoid advocating for change by speaking about what marginalized people feel or want unless they have explicitly asked you to speak for them.

Ally skill: Be aware of the harm of doing nothing

When trying to decide whether to act as an ally, take into account the harm of doing nothing. Often, the harm caused by accepting the status quo doesn’t directly affect the people with more privilege, so it can be easy for people with more privilege to downplay or ignore that harm. When many people act like there is no urgency to stop the harm, it makes it even more difficult for the people experiencing that harm. Take the time to do some research and think about the cost of leaving things as they are right now, as well as ask for advice. That will help you make better decisions about how and when to act as an ally.

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