Expert Commentary

Single-sex restrooms and transgender individuals: A roundup of research

2016 collection of research and reports aimed at helping journalists write about the public policy debate surrounding transgender individuals and bathroom access.

Across the country, public restrooms have become the subject of heated debate as school district officials, state legislators, federal authorities and business leaders argue over the appropriateness of unisex bathrooms and whether transgender individuals should be able to use facilities that match the gender with which they identify.

Those who oppose eliminating gendered restrooms – or opening them to transgender people — voice concerns about safety. Many of them argue that there is a potential danger in allowing transgender women into ladies’ rooms because men posing as transgender women will enter restrooms to prey upon girls and other women. In April 2016, Target drew national criticism after the retail giant announced that it welcomes transgender employees and customers to use the restroom or fitting room that corresponds with their gender identity. The American Family Association responded by launching a petition to boycott Target – an online petition that more than 1.2 million people had joined as of mid-May 2016.

The rancor over restroom access has grown as transgender activism has become more mainstream, thanks partly to the high visibility of transgender celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox. In recent years, lawmakers in several states, including Kentucky, Nevada, Minnesota and Florida, have considered bills that would restrict the use of public toilets. In March 2016, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a bill that, among other things, requires students in state schools to use bathrooms and changing areas that match the sex listed on their birth certificates. The move has prompted a federal civil rights lawsuit, filed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

To help reporters navigate this highly charged issue and put it into context, Journalist’s Resource has pulled together a collection of academic research and reports. Reporters should also review the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association’s stylebook for guidance on the correct and appropriate use of certain words and phrases. The American Psychological Association has created a short Q&A using neutral language to explain terms such as “transgender,” “gender identity,” and “sexual orientation.” Another key resource for journalists is the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA Law School that conducts research on law and public policy issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity.



Transgender Adults’ Access to College Bathrooms and Housing and the Relationship to Suicidality
Seelman, Kristie L. Journal of Homosexuality, 2016. doi:10.1080/00918369.2016.1157998.

Abstract: “Transgender and gender non-conforming people frequently experience discrimination, harassment, and marginalization across college and university campuses (Bilodeau, 2007; Finger, 2010; Rankin et al., 2010; Seelman et al., 2012). The minority stress model (Meyer, 2007) posits that experiences of discrimination often negatively impact the psychological wellbeing of minority groups. However, few scholars have examined whether college institutional climate factors — such as being denied access to bathrooms or gender-appropriate campus housing — are significantly associated with detrimental psychological outcomes for transgender people. Using the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, this study analyzes whether being denied access to these spaces is associated with lifetime suicide attempts, after controlling for interpersonal victimization by students or teachers. Findings from sequential logistic regression (N = 2,316) indicate that denial of access to either space had a significant relationship to suicidality, even after controlling for interpersonal victimization. This article discusses implications for higher education professionals and researchers.”


Estimates of Transgender Populations in States with Legislation Impacting Transgender People
Herman, Jody L.; Mallory, Christy; Wilson, Bianca D.M. Report from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, March 2016.

Summary: “Nearly 300,000 transgender youth and adults may be negatively impacted by legislation introduced in 15 states. This report estimates the number of transgender people ages 13 and older in each of those states, including Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. These bills would limit access to single-sex restrooms and locker rooms at schools and in public places; limit protections based on gender identity; permit individuals and businesses to discriminate against transgender people based on religious and moral beliefs; and limit the ability to change certain vital records documents, such as birth certificates, or enforce the use of birth certificates to establish an individual’s sex for certain purposes. The report includes a brief description of each bill, which age groups it would affect, and how many transgender people we estimate live in each state.”


Potty Parity in Perspective: Gender and Family Issues in Planning and Designing Public Restrooms
Anthony, Kathryn H.; Dufresne, Meghan. Journal of Planning Literature, 2007. doi: 10.1177/0885412206295846.

Abstract: “Public restrooms are among the few remaining sex-segregated spaces in the American landscape, tangible relics of gender discrimination. This article describes how public restrooms have historically discriminated by class, race, physical ability, sexual orientation, as well as gender. It examines how public restrooms pose special health and safety problems for women, men, children, elderly, persons with disabilities, and caregivers. It chronicles potty parity legislation, examining impacts of and backlash from recent laws. It presents new developments signaling a growing international movement and a quiet restroom revolution: the newly formed World Toilet Organization, American Restroom Association, increased family and unisex restrooms, and technological inventions such as automatic self-cleaning public toilets. It proposes innovative solutions about how twenty-first-century public restrooms can make cities more livable; offers roles for planners, designers, and civic officials, and suggests new research directions. Sources include an extensive literature review of relevant legal research, scholarly publications, and media coverage.”


Gendered Restrooms and Minority Stress: The Public Regulation of Gender and its Impact on Transgender People’s Lives
Herman, Jody L. Journal of Public Management & Social Policy, 2013, Vol. 19.

Abstract: “The designers of our built environment have created public facilities that are segregated by gender, such as public restrooms, locker rooms, jails, and shelters. Reliance upon gender segregation in our public spaces harms transgender and gender non-conforming people. This paper employs a minority stress framework to discuss findings from an original survey of transgender and gender non-conforming people in Washington, D.C. about their experiences in gendered public restrooms. Seventy percent of survey respondents reported being denied access, verbally harassed, or physically assaulted in public restrooms. These experiences impacted respondents’ education, employment, health, and participation in public life. This paper concludes with a discussion of how public policy and public administration can begin to address these problems by pointing to innovative regulatory language and implementation efforts in Washington, D.C. and suggests other policies informed by the survey findings.”


Transgender Individuals’ Access to College Housing and Bathrooms: Findings from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey
Seelman, Kristie L. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, 2014, Vol. 26. doi: 10.1080/10538720.2014.891091.

Abstract: “Within higher education settings, transgender people are at risk for discrimination and harassment within housing and bathrooms. Yet, few have examined this topic using quantitative data or compared the experiences of subgroups of transgender individuals to predict denial of access to these spaces. The current study utilizes the National Transgender Discrimination Survey to research this issue. Findings indicate that being transgender and having another marginalized identity matters for students’ access to housing and bathrooms. Trans-women are at greater risk than gender-nonconforming people for being denied access to school housing and bathrooms. Implications for practice and research are detailed.”


Keywords: public toilet, gender identity, gender queer, university housing, locker room, water closet