Creating Welcoming Spaces

With the recent rash of legislation specifically limiting the rights of people to access restrooms that correspond with their gender identity, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to create and manage welcoming spaces.  Shared spaces are important to me because they can be an effective way to create space to connect, include, and engage a wide range of people.  Trouble is, unless we personally have experiences of exclusion . . . we are often not aware of the ways in which our space reinforces feeling excluded.  The so-called “bathroom laws” making headlines essentially legislate exclusion, and put those of us in the business of creating welcoming spaces in the hot seat.  Perhaps the silver lining of these painful, discriminatory laws is that it brings the issue of inclusive facilities to the forefront of the national dialogue.  What is our responsibility to ensuring that our whole building is safe and inclusive to all people, regardless of gender performance?

Everybody Wins

Many people have never had to second guess which public restroom to use.  Those who present their gender identity in a way that conforms to gender norms and expectations have the privilege of not having to worry about it.  However, there are many of us who do not.  Folks who identify as transgender and those people who express their gender identity in a way that’s outside what the dominant representation of “male” or “female”, often find themselves in uncomfortable (at best) or unsafe (at worst) situations – especially as it relates to restroom access.

However, being mindful of creating gender-inclusive facilities in our shared space centers generates benefits for many people.  This UUA online resource describes the benefits this way:

“Creating bathrooms, changing facilities, and locker rooms that are specifically designated ‘all-gender’ ensures safe, comfortable access to many people, including:

  • People who are uncomfortable in men’s or women’s rooms for many reasons; for example, people who are not women or men and/or people who are gender nonconforming
  • Parents/caregivers whose children are a different gender from them
  • People with caregivers or personal attendants who are a different gender from them”

Why It Can Be Challenging

Given that all-gender facilities benefit so many people, and specifically ensure a welcoming environment for people who are gender nonconforming, it seems like a no-brainer to create space for all-gender use in our buildings.  However, the reality is that building codes, space, and budgets can limit our options for modifying our facilities.  Check out this resource for a broad overview of the logistical, code, and budgetary challenges you might encounter in integrating all-gender facilities into your space.

Options and Resources

Recently, the The Nonprofit Centers Network Listserv saw a great discussion of approaches various centers have taken to address the issue of all-gender access to restroom facilities – despite the challenges posed.  Within that discussion, centers from across the US weighed in, describing a variety of approaches taken to

Do you want to make sure that your space is welcoming and safe for people of all gender expressions?  Don’t know where to start?  Here are some excellent resources we recommend:

Get the FactsStart hereOr here.  Or get connected to local resources.  But either way, read up and get informed about the experiences of trans* people.

Understand Your Context.  For those of us located in Metro Denver, building code typically requires a certain number of designated “male” and “female” restrooms based on occupancy. However, there are efforts underway to shift these requirements to allow more flexibility.  And currently, variances can be obtained during the permitting process, depending on the specifics of a given project.  If you are local, reach out to the Denver GLBT Commission for more information as they are currently engaged in an advocacy effort locally around these issues.

For example, the Posner Center for International Development secured a variance due to space constraints within their building.  The multi-stall restroom on the main floor is designated unisex; there are no urinals, only small rooms with locking doors.  Doug Vilsack, Posner’s Executive Director shared, “Our experience with our gender-neutral restroom has been positive, and most folks in our building are very used to it by now.”

Prioritize and Plan.  Often the simplest option is to update signage in an existing single-stall restroom to reflect gender-inclusion.  These signs can be purchased from many vendors, and you may even qualify for free signage depending on your space!  If your center does not currently have a single-stall or family bathroom eligible for conversion, we strongly recommend including conversion or addition in your long-term facility improvement budget.  For an interim approach, or if your specific situation will not accommodate creating an all-gender space for whatever reason, here are some ways to demonstrate solidarity and ensure that your signage communicates inclusion.  Thank you to the NCN Listserv participants for graciously sharing these as examples.

Gender Divertisty Restroom

Conclusion

Issues of inclusion and equity are near and dear to my heart.  I am passionate about shared spaces not because I have a particular love of back office efficiencies or a fascination with shared IT infrastructure (although, to be fair, I’m pretty into both of those things, too).  I am motivated by the belief that the physical spaces we inhabit– and the ability to share them with other people – are a critical way that we can build stronger, more resilient communities.

If you are a shared space manager, then you are a in a position to influence if and how your building welcomes people, provides access, and ensures that all people feel safe and included.  If you have specific questions about your context, let us know and we’d be happy to connect you with further resources!