Gender Neutral Bathrooms: Seclusion, Rights to Privacy, and Queer Othering
→ BFA PTG 2025
↥ Grindr screenshot by the author
I think of the Grindr messages I’ve received in the secluded stall of the Prov-Wash bathroom. It’s quite isolating, really. The frosted glass doors give the illusion of an outside world. The occasional silhouette is visible through the door as the light is obscured from the main cavity of the bathroom. But I do feel quite alone. The space I take up within my small blue oval feels consuming, as if I inflate to fill the geometric forms’ desired structure. Even with the agency given to me by this seemingly neutral space devoid of gender, labels, and structures, I feel restricted, restricted by my lack of ability to self identify—to self govern. Without distinctions and labels, how can I exist within this space?
Geometric symbols adorn the frosted glass panels on the perimeter of the main cavity of the bathroom. Housed in the center console, sinks are shaped individually, each an abstracted geometric form, each as neutral and nondescript as the one next to it. The shapes are an iconoclasm of sorts, challenging the norms of representational iconography of gendered settings. Gone are the silhouettes of girls in dresses and boys in pants and in with the new non-representational-representational forms. Are these not othering in themselves? They remind me of the remaining gendered bathrooms throughout campus, the labels of which many are defaced. Signs that used to say “men” have “wo” sharpied in front of it. Or the letters are completely stripped from the face, creating strange amalgamations like “omen” or “me,” or they are blank entirely. The dichotomy between these revised labels is quite pertinent. One, an act of community abstraction of labels; defacement with intention by the population that utilizes these spaces. The other, an imposed institutional structure.
RISD is a politically charged space, specifically in queer identities, which is why I think actions such as these, even defacement, can be taken as critical and intentional acts. The reason the abstraction in Prov-Wash feels different is because of this institutionalization. Rather than an attempt at neutrality, as the design feels like, this defacement is a rejection of past practices, not the proposition of a new structure by an institution whose motives are unclear. The Prov-Wash building is now the official address of RISD. The recent remodeling cements this as the “New Face” of the institution, however when the rest of the spaces on campus do not reflect this structure and its focus on inclusivity, it is difficult to see this structure outside of a performative object. Perhaps RISD sees this as a showcase space, a stage to highlight conceptual ideals of the institution without implementing them, neutralizing the need for active structural change.
In relation to this distrust of institutional structures, I think of “The Core That Wasn’t,” an essay from Harvard Design Magazine, particularly the discussion of the Bauhaus and the design philosophy of neutrality that was so pertinent to its curriculum and design ethics. The idea of neutrality in design emphasizes that work can be universal, apply to all, and be decontextualized from past design, iconographies, or traditions. This philosophy, of course, is rooted in bigotry, racism, and bias. The idea of universality is representative of the cis-het white male perspective it was conceived by. This must be taken into account when discussing institutionalized intervention in ideals of creating inclusive spaces that are seemingly “neutral.”
I find it interesting that in the shift to work towards inclusion of queer identities and gender non-conforming bodies, the solutions come to is neutrality, or some haphazard attempt at it. This shift towards abstraction and neutrality puts into question how these queer people are viewed in the eyes of the designers. Are they defined by these shifts in iconography? Is comfort and safety merely a shift in facade? Where does a space bridge the gap between personal agency and representational structure? Perhaps a semblance of solace is found in these abstractions for some, the personal agency to define a space as your own, but this comes with a lot of responsibility. Within Western society, one is ostracized if they do not choose labels to confide in, or do not have a quick phrase that describes themself wholly. It may be that I am longing for a broader cultural shift, a decreased reliance on concrete definitions in order for those who do not fit within these constructions to truly feel comfortable.
The bathroom is segmented. Each room that lines the cavity is fully separated and distinct. The agency to physical privacy is something I noted when entering the bathroom, in stark contrast to experiences I have had previously. Going to the bathroom is something that is private, undressing in a public place is something that’s vulnerable. I recall my uncomfortability in using urinals without dividers and changing in public locker rooms all throughout high school. Especially in relation to my experience being bullied as a queer and effeminate teen. In this regard, I think the space is quite successful physically in the privacy and physical agency awarded. The privatization of space within the area comes into question, however. Where is the distinction between private and community space drawn within this context? It seems the line is drawn at each individual door. The rooms are secluded but culminate in a larger space, the island full of sinks in the center of the room acting as a physical and ideological space of gathering to be shared. However, although I can ideologically extrapolate this intention from the design, I struggle with the actual implementation of this space to be an inclusive gathering space—one that celebrates diversity and embraces it.
I’m reminded of Grindr again. I’ve become familiar with the formatting of the app. An endless grid of profile pictures lines the main page, each in its own box, each segmented and seemingly representational of an individual wholly, contextually. Many individuals choose not to use a picture that depicts their face, instead a chest picture, a photo of bulge through jeans, a landscape, or the default anonymous gray silhouette of a portrait. Grindr takes on this vacuous anonymous structure in which identity is abstracted and compartmentalized. This is the same with the Prov-Wash bathroom: a sense of anonymity and agency is abstracted through physical alienation, architecturally, as well as conceptually.
The profile pictures remind me of these non-objective shapes that now identify the spaces, abstracted images that, although specific, feel alienating in their lack of personhood.
The connections and relationships that I have with this space are unique to me and are distinguished by my experiences and positionality. My experience is valuable, however, there is a diaspora of perspectives and experiences that I do not have. To comprehensively judge this space in its effectiveness for the entirety of a community is a task that requires the integration of all of these voices.
Evan Goldhagen would be a good wife.