Which restroom should transgender people use?

New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority allows commuters to use bathrooms based on their expressed, rather than biological, gender.

By Page Rockwell

Published October 25, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

As social and legal attitudes toward sex differences evolve, we're headed for lots of debates on how best to modify the sections of society that are currently sex segregated. Schools, shelter systems and restrooms are some of the first places that transgender people get tripped up by the boy-girl binary, and municipalities around the country are engaged in the slow process of piecemeal policy adjustments. One landmark change occurred on Monday, when New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority addressed the restroom problem by consenting to let subway riders use the subway-system restrooms "consistent with their gender expression."

The New York Daily News reports that the decision is part of a settlement with the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, which filed a complaint against the MTA on behalf of repair technician Helena Stone (né Henry Guinness). Stone, who is a phone-repair worker who'd been assigned to fix phones in the city's Grand Central Station terminal, was arrested and allegedly harassed by police officers three times for using the women's restroom. The NYPD doesn't exactly have a sterling record when it comes to interacting with transgender people; the Stone-MTA settlement doesn't seem to pertain to the police, but does require sensitivity training for MTA employees.

The Daily News quoted a few resistant women who dislike the idea of using the toilet next to a (biological) man, or who worry predators will cross-dress in order to lurk in women's restrooms. These apprehensions are probably inevitable; the prospect of phasing out the gender divide raises strong feelings, and most people are so used to sex-segregated public toilets that it can be hard to imagine the system functioning any other way. But the need to make provision for intersex and transgender people isn't going away. And though Daily News writer Pete Donohue quips that the decision means "the line for the girls' room just got longer," the actual impact isn't likely to overwhelm public resources. It's also unlikely that the option of wearing women's clothes will actually embolden would-be attackers, or that an attacker would escape notice simply because of his garb -- security will likely notice, or fail to notice, an attacker based on his or her behavior, not his or her dress.

So three cheers to the MTA for taking a reluctant step into the 21st century. We'll be interested to see how the agency handles related questions, like whether to put tampon and pad dispensers in the men's room.

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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