I WAS at Floyd's Coffee Shop on NW Couch last week, glumly fulfilling my daily bagel-consumption quota, when something excellent happened.
A customer flagged down the barista and politely asked to speak to a manager. He came over quickly and the customer quietly questioned whether Floyd's could change its two single-stall male and female bathrooms into gender-neutral bathrooms.
The manager's reply?
"Awesome idea! Thanks for suggesting it!" He seemed sincerely stoked that someone had raised the issue. His swift enthusiasm for the idea is rare, and it made me reflect on how stupidly squeamish I can be about unisex bathrooms.
Whether we take a piss behind a door that says "male," "female," or "whatever" seems like such a small thing. We think of bedrooms as contested gender territory, not bathrooms. But it's a big deal for a lot of people. And even in the progressive frontier of Portland, we get a little delicate about the idea.
Both Reed College and Portland State University moved forward on creating public gender-neutral bathrooms in a major way just last spring, when both institutions staged their first gender-neutral conversions of multi-stall, non-dorm bathrooms.
A couple days after the Floyd's incident, I was surprised to find how awkward I felt using the all-gender bathrooms at Time-Based Art, the contemporary arts fest that wrapped up its performance blitz at the old Washington High School last weekend. TBA is all about pushing boundaries. Previously that night, I had paid $30 to witness the bare ass of a German man dancing on a table while another performer made out onstage with a stranger she'd selected from the audience. But it was peeing in private in the general vicinity of male artgoers that gave me pause. More proof that human prudishness doesn't color between rational lines; we get weird about weird things.
I've gone the other way before, too, jumping to the conclusion that bathrooms are unisex when they're not. My first time at Holocene's queer dance night Gaycation, I was trying to figure out which bathroom to use and thought it was clever that the bar had marked their restroom doors with shapes resembling ink blots. How forward thinking! Your gender is a Rorschach test! Genius! Or: Drunk! Clearly drunk, because hidden in the ink-blot-like door splotch was the letter B, as in Boy, which I only figured out after embarrassing some definitely male-identified dude at the urinal. I was mortified, too.
The point here is we—as people, as a city—should have become cool with unisex bathrooms a long time ago. Hell, we all grew up with unisex bathrooms in our homes. In public places, they're way more efficient that divided-gender restrooms and they're friendly for the thousands of Portlanders who don't think of themselves as either male or female. The vague sense of unease I (and certainly others) feel about mixed restrooms is clearly outweighed by the needs of genderqueer people to not feel constantly alienated every time they try to take a piss. It's a small thing to want, really.
Creating more gender-neutral bathrooms in regular places has become a major campaign for transgender allies. The San Francisco-based "Bathroom Liberation Front" runs a rad website, safe2pee.org, that maps gender-neutral bathrooms in pretty much every city in America. Portland has an extensive user-created map of "gender-free" bathrooms, including the recently installed Portland Loos and that one in the SE Hawthorne Powell's that has the best graffiti in town.
As for Floyd's, its SE Portland location is on the list and its NW Couch café might soon be, too. Floyd's owner Jack Inglis says via email that he made the bathrooms gender specific because he thought it was required under county health code.
"I would like to know if we could fix this, as I have always wanted to make them [unisex]," he writes. Good news: The county health department says there's nothing in the code requiring gendered bathrooms. Unisex away, everyone!