THE concert at the West End Cultural Centre was good, but even more memorable was an encounter in the public washroom during intermission. I emerged from a stall and did a double-take. There was a woman in the room.
The washroom had been designated for males during my past visits to the West End and I hadn’t noticed the sign on the door had been changed. On that night, the washroom was gender neutral.
I felt surprised by her presence and, to be honest, somewhat uneasy. The washroom is small, and we were the only two occupants. At the sink to wash my hands, we were almost shoulder to shoulder. She was leaning close to the mirror and applying a black tar-like substance to her eyelashes with a small stick with a bristly tip.
I felt inclined to acknowledge her presence because we were so physically close that our sleeves almost touched. To be well inside her personal space and to ignore her might make her feel insulted, as if she didn’t exist. I didn’t want to snub her but, also, I didn’t want to say anything that could be construed as creepy.
“So it’s now gender inclusive,” I said.
“Yeah, a lot of them going that way,” she replied.
I wanted to say much more. I wanted to assure her that she could feel safe in this enclosed space even though I am a man she doesn’t know. I also felt inclined to tell her that, for me, this was a historic experience, my first time in an all-gender public washroom.
But, before attempting further conversation, I tried to read the room (or, more exactly, read the washroom). She had barely looked at me, and remained focused on her mirrored image as she renovated her eyes.
My surprise in encountering an open-to-all washroom might soon be shared by many other Winnipeggers, especially those who have reduced their public outings during the pandemic and might not realize that an increasing number of local facilities have dropped the traditional restroom designations of male and female.
When visiting Prairie Theatre Exchange last weekend, I noted its only two washrooms are now gender neutral. I’ve also heard of several prominent restaurants that have opened all their washrooms to all genders. And the Canadian Museum for Human Rights announced May 17 that it’s doing away with male and female washrooms.
To be clear, this trend is not be confused with the many other Winnipeg places, including schools and other government-funded establishments, that have in recent years added a gender-neutral washroom as a third option while still keeping the male and female facilities. The new changes go further by making all lavatories open to all people.
And what if some people might feel uncomfortable performing personal washroom functions in the presence of people of another gender, separated only by a urinal or a stall wall? Well, such people will no longer have a choice.
The cited motivation behind the wave of washroom conversions is commendable. People of LGBTTQ+ orientation have often felt excluded, and have even been verbally and physically abused, when forced to use washrooms that only acknowledged two traditional genders.
It’s possible to respect the needs of non-binary people — everyone deserves to feel safe in public washrooms — but also feel uncertain about how to navigate the new terrain of sharing washrooms with people of different genders. For some of us, this new open attitude toward public washrooms is complicated. Here are two examples:
I would feel wary about being alone in a public washroom with a girl, particularly a young girl. A friend whom I respect as an expert on teenagers, based on his two decades as a high school teacher, says he won’t go behind closed doors with a lone student; rather, he manoeuvres necessary one-on-one conversations to take place at the front of an empty classroom with the door open to the view of hallway passersby.
Following his wise precaution against possible misunderstanding, I wouldn’t want to be alone with a girl I don’t know in a washroom where the door must be closed.
A second scenario that might make me feel self-conscious would be sharing a washroom with women whom I know well, such as colleagues. The dynamics of relationships between men and women in social situations such as offices is a complex code of courteous behaviour and respectful boundaries, which don’t currently include the auditory and olfactory experience of each other’s toilet functions.
Some people will undoubtedly dismiss me as old-fashioned on this topic. Perhaps I need to modernize my toilet training.
But, for now, the doors of the washrooms in my workplace still bear the stick-figure depictions of men and women. For continuing to have that choice, I’m grateful.
Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.
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