Unisex restroom signage
Unisex or gender-neutral restrooms have long been used in spaces where square footage is in short supply, such as college dorms and bars and clubs in crowded cities. They’re also sometimes installed to support transgender civil rights, sparing those who do not identify with conventional gender categories both stigma and conflict.
A simple and widespread issue surrounding unisex toilets is the complaint that they aren't as clean as single-sex restrooms. Depending on the situation, however, the cause of this problem could be the number of people using the restroom, rather than the fact that both sexes are using the same facilities. When the bathroom is single-occupancy rather than a shared restroom with multiple stalls, it also creates the potential problem of simply not having enough facilities to meet demand.
This topic recently reignited in New York City, when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg signed legislation allowing small restaurants and coffee shops with an occupancy of 30 people or less to provide patrons with one unisex bathroom rather than one bathroom for each sex. Combined with the city's health department code, which allows establishments with less than 20 seats to forgo having a public bathroom entirely, the change is raising concerns that there won't be enough toilets to go around.
As a boon, unisex restrooms can help spread out lines evenly between the two different rooms, rather than having, say, four women waiting for a women’s restroom while the men’s room sits empty. Yet mixing genders causes some people discomfort: concerns about sufficient privacy can cause some visitors to feel anxious or embarrassed. On the other hand, unisex bathrooms make it easier for parents with a child of the opposite gender to take their child with them to the restroom.
While this is an understandably hot topic, the unisex restroom is at the heart of another controversy that's even more contentious: the availability of toilets for people who are transgender, and whether they should be able to choose which bathroom they use - if the choices are single-sex male and female - according to their gender identity.
Various cities and states have come down on both sides of the issue. According to the ACLU, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that discrimination laws do not apply to a transgender person's right to choose a "gender identity-appropriate" restroom in the workplace. In the same vein, a New York appeals court ruled it was not discrimination to prevent a transgender person from using a gender identity-appropriate restroom in buildings that house several businesses.
The San Francisco Human Rights Commission, however, requires businesses and public places to allow people to use the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity, provided they have identification listing this gender. And this year, the U.S. Department of Justice became involved when university officials at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith told a transgender student that she couldn't use the women's restroom, but could use the "gender-neutral" bathroom. The Department of Justice sided with the student's right to use the women's restroom.