letter from philadelphia

A Report From the All-Gender Bathroom at the DNC

Photo: John Taggart/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Two doors down from the gluten-free food stand, directly in front of the Wells Fargo Center’s front entrance, is the most-photographed inanimate object at the Democratic National Convention: a sign for the all-gender bathroom. In one 15-minute stretch, I counted 16 people entering the bathroom to use it, I presume, for its intended purposes — and seven people using its sign, I presume, for Instagram. “So good!” said a boy wearing dozens of colorful bracelets.

This year’s Democratic platform includes a provision to oppose state legislation denying “the right to access public spaces” from LGBT individuals, which would likely include North Carolina’s controversial law limiting transgender access to gendered bathrooms. Or as 65-year-old Oregon delegate Tessa James Scheller put it, “Public restrooms are for the public. I am part of the public.” Scheller transitioned five years ago and has used women’s restrooms ever since. Some advocates and cities have gone even further, introducing legislation to require gender-neutral restrooms in public spaces.

The most frequent phrase from people who have used the DNC’s all-gender bathroom is this: “It was fine.” A pair of middle-age white ladies — one straight, one lesbian — photographed the sign before walking in. “We saw it and thought it was cool,” they told me on the way out. Did they use it? “Of course! We just walked in, walked out. It’s no different from the bathrooms in your house. When men are at my house, I let them use it.”

The sign on the all-gender bathroom is made from foam board and is not permanent. The bathroom in question is a converted ladies’ restroom, I assume because urinals might get awkward. There are two rows of stalls that face one another, adjacent to a bank of sinks. Usage seems evenly divided between the genders. “I took a shit in the all-gender bathroom and it was great,” one straight man told me. “I walked in and saw a pair of pink ballet flats pointing at me, and I was like, ‘Dope, she’s pooping too.’ So I sat, shit, did some stuff on my phone. Then we both came out, washed our hands, did that thing where we look at ourselves in the mirror, and left.” No women or children were harmed. In fact, every person who used the all-gender bathroom while I was observing it (from the outside and in a super-polite-but-still-really-fucking-awkward way) found the experience “fine.” Well, all but one — the armed policeman in a padded flak jacket declined to speak to the press.

There were a few minor complaints about the all-gender bathroom. One man, a six-seven volunteer from Chicago, noted that a man of his stature will need “a steady hand” when dealing with toilets that sit low, as the ones in the all-gender bathroom did. Some men, evidently, do not possess this: “When I went in there was a group of guys and it was totally disgusting. Pee all over the seats,” one woman complained. Not that either gender has a monopoly on bathroom filth. “I don’t know who else used it,” a white-haired man in a navy blazer said. “But I do know this: They didn’t flush. I guess it doesn’t matter which gender, the problem is still the same.”

Though literally everyone I spoke to had a pleasant — and sometimes enlightening — experience in the all-gender bathroom, my first encounter with the post-gender bathroom was less auspicious. On the first day of the convention, the unfortunate confluence of pouring rain and hundreds of confused Uber drivers stalling in a line around the outer periphery of a vast expanse of stadium parking lot resulted in hundreds of guests, delegates, and journalists arriving in the Wells Fargo aren soaked to the bone. I squishy-shoe waded to the nearest restroom, the all-gender one. (There’s another upstairs.) Inside, men and women of all ages and ethnicities were equally bedraggled. We made small talk and laughed while squeezing liquid out of our clothes, unspooling reams of white paper towels for drying our shoes and hair. Then one man took it further. He was elderly, very thin, and dressed politely in a button-down shirt and light summer trousers. He had an unlit cigar in his mouth. He unbuttoned his top button, then wiped off his neck. He unbuttoned two more, then dried off his chest. Soon the man with a cigar had taken off his shirt and was unbuckling his pants. I considered taking a picture, but the politics of the moment were intense and confusing, so I just left.

Now, one might think that this anecdote would feed conservative anxiety about who gets to use which bathroom. It does not. Transwomen are women, so they should be able to use women’s restrooms. Transmen are men, so the same logic applies there. “Lots of people have different bodies and do different things in the bathroom,” Scheller points out. “You could change a colostomy bag, or use a catheter,” or use whatever set of genitals you have, as long as you have the door shut. And, though I did not speak to cigar man, based on the nature of his unblinking stare when he made eye contact with me, I am quite certain that he was a straight man.

One person had no review of the all-gender bathroom: Tessa James Scheller. So far she has only used the women’s. All-gender bathrooms are a great thing to make available, she agrees, “but that’s not likely to be the only solution. The solution that works best, that is most cost-effective, is for people to understand that public restrooms are for the public,” she reiterates. That which occurs with the door shut inside a public restroom is, after all, private.

A Report From the All-Gender Bathroom at the DNC