Quakers, Restrooms, and the Learning Curve

A restroom sign at Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.). Photo courtesy of Debby Churchman.

Quakers tend to follow the leading to be in the world but not of it, although last summer gave us ample reason to not want to be in it much. Holy moly. Still, in our own small way, Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) is meeting the world as it is and working toward a better one.

The summer of 2016 started with the topic of restrooms in the news: word apparently got out that in North Carolina for the past, oh, roughly 240 years, transgender people in that state have been using the restroom assigned to their current gender rather than the one they were born with. This news provoked horror in the hearts of certain legislators, who reacted by passing bills to forbid such usage.

We at FMW had already been (very gently) instructed by transgender people who held meetings here that our restroom signage sometimes felt exclusionary. Our property manager Ken Orvis and I worried about this (probably for too long) and started working our way toward better signs. When the North Carolina bill passed, I put a sign on one of the bathrooms informing folks that “this restroom is for people needing a restroom.” On a men’s room door I put a cartoon showing Jesus being refused entry due to his long hair and robes (this offended some people, so I took it down).

Then in mid-June the Pulse shooting took place in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. The deaths and injuries were such hard news, and we felt the sign problem needed more urgent attention. Ken designed signs for the two meetinghouse restrooms that have more than one stall each. One showed a picture of two toilets and the other a picture of a toilet and a urinal. He ran all this past the property committee, which seemed pleased, and got the signs made and installed.

The next day we had three groups using space at the meetinghouse. They were all from different organizations and cultures, and it was mayhem. No one could understand the signs. I spent much of the day walking in on guys using what used to be called the women’s room (it turns out that many men don’t shut the stall door; eww).

What to do? Hey, we’re Quakers! There is no nonverbal problem we can’t solve by using words—lots of words. We put up three full paragraphs worth of words below our new restroom signs, explaining:

Friends: Our meeting restrooms sport new signs. This is the restroom formerly labeled “WOMEN.”

Now the door has a pictogram showing two toilets (but no urinal), which is exactly what’s inside.

We hope Friends understand that this is not about inviting men into the “women’s room” or women into the “men’s room.” It is about applying the testimony of equality to include people for whom, when asked “Are you a man, or are you a woman?” the truthful answer is “No.” We mean to include people who, when confronted with two doors each denoting the extreme end of a continuum they merely fall someplace along, feel an all-too-familiar sense of confusion, shame, and exclusion.

So the room with a pot and a urinal is for the use of people who feel it is appropriate for them to use a room with a pot and a urinal; and the room with two pots is for the use of people who feel it is appropriate to use a room with two pots. And the single-user restrooms elsewhere are for people who need to use a restroom. Full stop.

We hope and trust this really rather subtle change meets with Friends’ approval and acceptance. This worked, for now. We figure it’s a learning curve, and we’re somewhere on it.

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