Gender Identity Accommodation in Performing Arts Facility Planning


Posted on December 18th, by Peter Scheu in Theatre Consultants, Theatre Design Article. Comments Off on Gender Identity Accommodation in Performing Arts Facility Planning

Perhaps tongue in cheek, but is this the future for all bathrooms?

Perhaps tongue in cheek, but is this the future for all bathrooms?

photo provided by Lain Mathers

Accommodating gender identity in public facilities has been a topic of much discussion over the past couple of years, not only in the mass media, the halls of academia, and political circles, but in the planning of performing arts venues. Architects, along with their Theatre Consultants, struggle with ill-defined societal trends, lack of precedents, and the need to look ahead when designing a venue with a projected life span of 30, 40, and maybe even 50 years. At the 2016 North American Theatre and Engineering Conference (NATEAC) a panel discussed these challenges.

The specific issue for gender identity in performing arts venue planning is most frequently framed as providing toilet, changing/dressing space, or showering accommodation for transgender individuals. As a little bit of context: “Transgender” is an umbrella term referring to all people living within, between, and/or beyond the gender binary (male/female), which may also be used to denote an individual gender identity. So, what are the specific issues we are trying to solve though building design?

First and foremost is a desire to end or mitigate harassment as well as increase safety for the LGBT community. Secondly, there are institutional non-discrimination policies, mandates for diversity, laws, and even building codes that need to be followed, some of which may conflict with each other. Adding to the challenge, any accommodations must fit within a defined building square footage plan, whether existing or as new construction.

It is interesting to briefly note the history of how men and women were accommodated in separate spaces. In the ages prior to the 18th Century, men and women often shared toilet facilities, so historically, separation is a relatively recent development. As women were increasingly perceived as “the weaker sex” and in need of protection (especially during Victorian times), facilities were separated to keep them “safe” from men with dubious intent.

However good the intentions, this separation (as well as changing public views towards the LGBT community), has consequences. Lain Mathers, a Sociologist from the University of Illinois who presented at NATEAC 2016, cited studies that found those not comfortable in using the proscribed gendered facility often feel harassed or discriminated against. Providing a separate, third gender-neutral or “Family” restroom option is not preferred because it tends to stigmatize some transgender users. Serious health issues such as kidney conditions and depression have been found in individuals who avoid gendered spaces, because waiting to get home or to some other perceived safe space increases the risk. Sociological research over the years has suggested a “power hierarchy of gender” may be enforced by the design of public spaces.

As there has been greater acceptance of the LGBT community, greater legal protections have arisen, such as the number of states which specifically prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and or gender identity. Within the performing arts world, there seems to be greater inclusion and in fact celebration of LGBT individuals.

Several other factors are at play. Mathers points to The Civil Rights Act of 1964, in Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in any federally funded education program or activity. This section applies to all educational institutions at all levels (K-12 and Higher Education). Because of this legislation, we have seen a “norming” of diverse cultures at on campuses, but also a rise in resistance by local school boards, politics, and cultures. Further, Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. This is most often applied in professional venues where paid employees (stagehands, actors, etc.) ply their trade. However, the requirements are different for institutions that receive no federal funding or “employ” no paid individuals, so many community, religious, and volunteer organizations are exempt from the federal regulations (though state or local non-discrimination laws may apply).

In both instances of Title VII and IX, courts have ruled these protections extend to the LGBT communities according to Mathers.

The most frequently cited need for gender accommodation is in both front of house and backstage rest rooms and dressing rooms. State and local building codes, laws, and regulations may set limitations on what must be provided, or local Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) may support or override them. For example, North Carolina legislators recently explicitly disallowed transgender accommodation in public restrooms, but the University of North Carolina system has interpreted the ruling to permit continued accommodations. Verifying with the client which regulations are to be followed is key, but allowances for future accommodations should be considered as well.

Individual jurisdictions and user groups have taken their own, independent actions. Many municipalities currently require single-user restrooms to be labeled without gender, such as New York City, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco, and Austin, TX. Re-labeling of traditional ganged toilet rooms to “Gender Neutral” has occurred at Cooper Union, UC-Berkeley and the during 2016 Theatre Communications Group Conference.

A trend toward gender-neutral restroom facilities is beginning to be taken up in building codes. For instance, the upcoming 2018 International Plumbing Code, Section 403.1.2 (IBC 2902.1.2) covering single-user toilet facility and bathing room fixtures states:

“The plumbing fixtures located in single-user toilet facilities and bathing rooms, including family or assisted-use toilet and bathing rooms that are required by Section 1109.2.1 of the International Building Code, shall contribute towards the total number of required plumbing fixtures for a building or tenant space. Single-user toilet facilities and bathing rooms, and family or assisted-use toilet and bathing rooms shall be identified for use by either sex.”

In spite of this upcoming change, International Code Council (ICC) Staff Architect Kimberly Paarlberg noted that in the 2018 plumbing code, “’Gang type” toilet facilities having multiple fixtures are still required to be labeled for use by only males or by only females.

In 2015, OSHA weighed in with their “Guide to Restroom Access for Transgender Workers”, stating:

“The best policies also provide additional options, which employees may choose, but are not required, to use. These include:

  • Single-occupancy gender-neutral (unisex) facilities; and
  • Use of multiple-occupant, gender-neutral restroom facilities with lockable single occupant stalls”

The ICC is inviting proposals for the 2021 revision cycle. Initial indications are code development participants are planning a preference for single-user rooms, because multi-fixture gender-neutral rooms require greater area and lead to increased cleaning costs. The ICC is advising local AHJs and institutions to use their “discretion” in enforcement.

Even with all the conflicting regulations and varying interpretations, what else do design professionals need to consider when making accommodation? Here are only a few things to think about:

  • Layout
  • Adjustable partitions in non-gender specific dressing areas
  • Completely enclosed toilet stalls
  • “Noise abatement”
  • Cleanliness
  • ADA and companion accessibility
  • How far out should be we planning?

Here’s the question that designers should ask themselves: Should we be advocates for social change? Regardless of one’s personal feelings on the matter, how do we design buildings where the regulations may change during the course of design or construction, while also serving our clients? We design performing arts facilities to last for decades; while regulations and opinions seem to change with greater frequency. Anthony Pacheco, writing in The Architect’s Newspaper, posits the question clearly: “As this form of inequality gains a wider understanding, architects and designers must decide whether they wish to perpetuate inequality through their designs or advocate for change.”

Attitudes, not to mention laws are changing. This is a discussion worth having.

With contributions from Todd Hensley, ASTC, and Lain Mathers, Sociologist, University of Illinois at Chicago

By Peter Scheu, ASTC





Comments are closed.