Gender-neutral washrooms at the Royal Ontario Museum reflect changing times

Consultations with Toronto's LGBT community for a new exhibition exploring gender fluidity have led the Royal Ontario Museum to a more lasting change: adding more gender-neutral washrooms.

Museum rethinks public washrooms to become more inclusive

Signage for a gender-neutral washroom is seen at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Inspired by an exhibit exploring gender diversity in ancient Japan, the museum has added more all gender washrooms. (CBC)

A new Royal Ontario Museum exhibit exploring gender diversity in ancient Japan has inspired a new set of gender-neutral washrooms at the Toronto museum.

A Third Gender explores gender and sexual diversity during the Edo period in Japan. It focuses on wakashu: male youths who were considered objects of desire for men and women, and who also looked different from both women and adult men.

Prior to the exhibit's opening in early May, curators held workshops with the LGBT community in Toronto. 

How did the ROM make washrooms gender neutral?

  • In a previous women's room, signage on the door was changed to an "All Gender" sign.
  • In a previous men's room, the urinals were covered with professional plastic covers, existing toilet cubicles remain intact and signage was changed to an "All Gender" sign.
  • Wayfinding signs directing visitors to washrooms were altered to denote gender-neutral washrooms. 

The issue of gender-neutral washrooms came up and resulted in ROM officials deciding to open more, in addition to several the museum opened in December 2015. 

"The exhibition sharpened our thinking around gender and sexual diversity at the museum and expedited our efforts,ROM managing director Sascha Priewe told CBC News.

Art galleries and museums do not fall under federal regulation, so the decision about what types of washrooms are available on the premises rests with the individual institution and its stakeholders.

Gender-specific public washrooms don't go back as far as some might think: the first instance of separate public toilet facilities for men and women is believed to date to Paris in the 1700s. 

'Something to celebrate and value'

Both the revamped washrooms and the exhibit impressed Sheila Cavanagh, a professor of gender and sexuality studies at York University and author of Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality and the Hygienic Imagination. 

"This development enables those who are gender variant and trans to more easily access the museum. I hope other cultural institutions follow suit," she said.

"It is high time we designed public toilets to include and celebrate a myriad of ways of being gendered. Gender variance is not something to fear. It is something to celebrate and value," Cavanagh added.

The ROM's Priewe agreed.

"I do hope that the goal of creating inclusive institutions for staff and audiences is at the forefront of the thinking of cultural institutions," he said.

A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints continues at the ROM through November 27.