Change the bathroom from female to male or vice versa
January 23, 2014 8:53 AM   Subscribe

I tried my best to Google this but with no luck. I'm not sure if this a state law thing but the event I'm attending is in California. Let's say you were attending an event (at a convention center) where the attendees were disproportionately one sex rather than the other. Can the venue, or the event organizers, change a majority of the women's restroom to men's or vice versa? An example: Can the organizers of MenCon 2014 (where the attendees are 98% men) change most of the women's bathrooms to men's for the run of the event? thanks in advance!
posted by pibeandres to Law & Government (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
i know of no reason why they can't. the people in control of the bathrooms can designate them anything they want. the bathrooms themselves have no right of status continuity.
posted by bruce at 8:55 AM on January 23 [2 favorites]

They regularly do this in ad-hoc ways at library conferences where the majority of attendees are female. I've seen it done in the sort of clunky "paper over the door saying this is now a women's room" way, in a number of different states.
posted by jessamyn at 8:56 AM on January 23 [2 favorites]

I've seen this happen at a girls volleyball event in Maryland. It was usually done as Jessamyn describes--with a piece of paper over the door.
posted by sperose at 9:02 AM on January 23

I have also seen people doing this in ad-hoc ways at conferences, generally by putting up signs saying "Gender neutral bathrooms are available at Location X" and taping a "Gender Neutral Bathroom" sign over the existing gender signifier. (Location: Massachusetts.)
posted by pie ninja at 9:03 AM on January 23

They can, certainly, though whether they will depends on the individual you happen to talk to - the idea can hit some people in their squeamish zone, even if you're not actually proposing shared sex bathrooms. Some events (I'm thinking of the reproductive rights conference held at my alma mater) just go ahead and put up/take down bathroom signs and deal with it later if the venue complains. And then of course there's the "unisex with urinals" and "unisex without urinals" signage option, my personal favorite...*sigh*
posted by theweasel at 9:04 AM on January 23 [1 favorite]

After refreshing, pie ninja and I are almost certainly using the same example, so maybe the answer changes whether or not the venue you're using is a hippie college in the Berkshires.
posted by theweasel at 9:11 AM on January 23 [1 favorite]

My example isn't from a hippie college in the Berkshires -- it's from multiple SF conferences at hotel/conference facilities in the greater Boston area. :-)
posted by pie ninja at 9:17 AM on January 23

At a conference in Virginia where participants of both sexes stayed in what were normally single-sex dorms, organizers just taped a piece of paper that said "Women" to the bathrooms in the half of the building where women were staying. I assume that any men assigned to what was normally an all-women's dorm had similar, with a "Men" sign taped over their closest bathrooms.

It was kinda fun to use the co-opted bathrooms though. I was obeying the sign and yet there was still a urinal! Perhaps this is why the OP doesn't see this question as obvious - the bathrooms do have "status continuity" even if you don't use them as such.
posted by chainsofreedom at 9:19 AM on January 23

Depends on the restrooms too. Many men's facilities are urinal heavy with only a couple stalls, which wouldn't add much to a function that has a large female attendance. I know of some larger colliseums that have trough urinals that occupy a whole wall along with maybe 5 stalls.
posted by PJMoore at 9:33 AM on January 23

Building codes in many jurisdictions designate the number of washrooms required for each sex based on the allowable occupancy of the building. So, technically, temporarily resigning the washrooms to be for women instead of men during a NOW conference or (in my personal experience) at a sewing and knitting festival is probably not entirely legal in those places. But when the signage consists of a taped up sheet of paper marked with a sharpie, it's not like it's hard to get the building back to code in the unlikely event that anyone makes a fuss.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:41 AM on January 23 [3 favorites]

I was at an event in Oakland (at a convention center) where the conference organizers not only changed a bathroom (with the paper-over-the-sign method) but changed it to gender-neutral (it was a conference for people where gender-neutral bathrooms would be the best fit.) But that's the Bay Area.
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:42 AM on January 23

My example isn't from a hippie college in the Berkshires -- it's from multiple SF conferences at hotel/conference facilities in the greater Boston area.

Hooray! It's spreading!

Actually, the idea that California specifically might have gendered bathrooms on the books reminded me of that law they passed last year for trans kids to use the bathrooms they identified with, which also made me wonder if it was normally illegal. I mean, is anyone going to arrest a kid who needs to pee real bad? Maybe there is indeed a gendered bathroom requirement in CA. Still, if you're dealing with a private venue and not a public school, and you're specifically gendering the bathrooms, you're not going to have a problem.
posted by theweasel at 9:56 AM on January 23

Yes. The trick here is to not place an undue burden on folks who will need to go further. In particular, people who might be mobility-impaired. One of the recent SF conventions that I assume pie ninja was talking about, Arisia, had a "Gender-Free Bathroom" designated, but it wasn't very far from that to a standard set of M/F bathrooms for anyone who was not comfortable in a gender-free bathroom.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:05 AM on January 23

If you update them to a specific gender and not "unisex", please update the signs and maps in the conference facility as well. I've been to several conferences that are in the 85-95% male range, and if a proportional number of restroom signs led to papered-over "men's rooms" I would have been deeply unimpressed and considered myself explicitly unwelcomed. (In practice, I have never seen this, perhaps because lopsided representation has not been the goal of these conferences.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:46 AM on January 23

Don't know from state law, but a California city enacted a regulation in 1991 allowing use of the other restroom, when there's a line.
posted by Rash at 11:40 AM on January 23

I think the main reason this doesn't happen more often is that gendered bathrooms in conference facilities are typically paired, meaning that if you changed, say, a men's room to a women's room, you would have two women's rooms next to each other and the nearest men's room could be a considerable distance away. Even if the attendee split is heavily lopsided, the exhibitors, caterers, cleaners, laborers, security, etc... at your convention may be using the same restrooms as attendees and need access to the restrooms too. Building codes often specify maximum path of travel to

A common place where bathrooms do get switched around (or designed this way) is same-sex K-12 schools. It's not uncommon to have, in an all-girls school, mostly large ladies' restrooms, with a sprinkling of small men's rooms for teachers and visitors. I doubt a specific building code provision permits this, but it's simple enough for the property owner to switch signs around.

Actually, at least some editions of the International Building Code (IBC) have an exception for cases like these (state and local amendments may vary):
2902.1.1 Fixture calculations. To determine the occupant load of each sex, the total occupant load shall be divided in half. To determine the required number of fixtures, the fixture ratio or ratios for each fixture type shall be applied to the occupant load of each sex in accordance with Table 2902.1. Fractional numbers resulting from applying the fixture ratios of Table 2902.1 shall be rounded up to the next whole number. For calculations involving multiple occupancies, such fractional numbers for each occupancy shall first be summed and then rounded up to the next whole number.

Exception: The total occupant load shall not be required to be divided in half where approved statistical data indicate a distribution of the sexes of other than 50 percent of each sex.
This is obviously intended for long-term use in facilities with uneven gender balances, not temporary use at a conference (nobody's pulling permits to change the signs on a restroom!), but it does indicate that the code anticipates this kind of situation.
posted by zachlipton at 11:49 AM on January 23

If you're using paper signs to temporarily change men's bathrooms to women's bathrooms (for example), do the guys a favor and have the sign include directions to the closest *actual* men's bathroom that is still a men's room.
posted by rmd1023 at 12:02 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]

I work in architecture in California - zachlipton basically has your answer. While there are requirements for separated gender toilet occupancies, they usually don't kick in until you get to 50 or so occupants (I'm guessing/going off memory - I'm not going to go look it up). If you wanted to change the distribution officially per the code section zachlipton posted (in the exception portion), the key part would be having the "approved statistical data" in hand and getting the building department to accept it. So, if you had a convention and have a number of pre-registered delegates, you can take that list to the building department and ask if it's OK for you to temporarily switch restroom genders out and it'll probably be fine. If you wanted to do it informally via sharpie, you'd only run into problems if someone reported it to the local building official, who probably wouldn't get out there before the signs were taken down.

Generally there's a whole calculation based on the number of occupants in the space, and assigning one fixture per however many people. While the calculations for men's rooms and women's rooms are slightly different, you'll be glad to know that the code requires women's rooms to have the same number of stalls as the men's room has toilets and urinals combined.
posted by LionIndex at 12:09 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]

Note: there are requirements for accessible signage for restrooms and other building features, and a sharpie isn't going to cut it, so if you do it officially you'll actually have to have the real signs put up with braille and all that.
posted by LionIndex at 12:10 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]

I go to many librarian conferences, so 80% female, and a few big halls (none in CA that I know of) have started using flexible bathrooms. Imagine it like this: There is one large bathroom with stalls and sinks only that runs along the entire side of the ballroom. There are 10 entrances to the bathroom, evenly spaced along the wall, and each entrance has sign that can be slid around to indicate "men" or "women." Inside the long bathroom, there are inside doors that divide the space into segments; these lock and only facilities has a key. Each segment has a door to the ballroom, 10 toilets, and 5 sinks. So you have 100 stalls and sinks, and can open/close internal doors and change signs to make the right number of restrooms for any event-- leave em all open, you have a long genderless. Close one door at the end, now you have one bathroom with 10 toilets and a second bathroom with 90 toilets. Close the door in the middle to make two 50-seaters. 99% sure this was at the Seattle and Minneapolis Convention centers, but I could be incorrect.

This requires discussion with the venue but it is VERY AWESOME and obviously OK with them, and likely something they have had complaints about as I cannot imagine why else to have this setup. I would contact the venue to ask if they have something similar or can re-brand some bathrooms officially.
posted by holyrood at 12:27 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]

Anecdotally, I went to Lillith Fair in California (1998 or so) and the mens bathrooms were all changed to be "unisex."
posted by radioamy at 1:32 PM on January 23

I'd be careful with this, depending on numbers. I am female and have been to tech conferences where I was the only female amongst 100 men. Sure it would have made sense to make the bathrooms gender neutral from a logical standpoint with these numbers but honestly? It was bad enough that I found myself in 100% of the photos of the event, presumably because the organisers were interested in looking like they had thought about inclusion. Personally I would have felt more uncomfortable and overlooked by a temporary renamed bathroom situation.

Having said all that, if the numbers were even 90/10 I would have felt less uncomfortable about it.

I realise you're talking about practicalities, but sometimes just having people wait in line is the less complicated choice.
posted by unbearablylight at 1:53 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the great answers! Just to clarify: I'm not part of the group hosting this event, I'm just an attendee.
posted by pibeandres at 2:13 PM on January 23

I've seen it done at large teacher conferences where most of the attendees were female and most were extremely grateful.
posted by tamitang at 7:33 PM on January 23

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