Gender-neutral changing rooms and bathrooms


Many have questions about changing rooms and bathrooms; especially how you can make these rooms accessible to trans people/people with trans experience or how you can create gender-neutral spaces. We have gathered information for you, including a summary of relevant laws/regulations and different possible solutions that might work as an inspiration. Lastly, you’ll find some tips that may be useful when you carry out the work at your workplace or organisation.

Questions about changing rooms/bathrooms may arise when employers or school staff are working against discrimination and harassment; how do you adapt existing facilities, how important are gender-neutral alternatives, how do you plan for a rebuild or newbuild?

Different people have different needs

Gender-neutral changing rooms and bathrooms are often linked to trans people/people with trans experience. But the group trans people is diverse. Needs, as well as feelings of being safe/unsafe, can vary greatly between individuals.

First and foremost: Many trans men and trans women have a legal gender that corresponds with their gender identity. Many are also ascribed the right gender by society in most contexts. In those cases, bathrooms and changing rooms are seldom a problem, even if there may be a need for, for example, shower curtains to avoid unwelcome questions about scars or genitals.

But there are also many who aren’t ascribed the right gender by society and/or don’t have a legal gender that matches their gender identity. If that is the case, you may risk being questioned or denied entry to a certain changing room or bathroom.

Some non-binary people choose to change with the gender they are ascribed by others. For others, this is not an option. It might be because of gender dysphoria or because you are questioned by other people.

The purpose of gender-neutral, accessible, changing rooms and bathrooms is partly to avoid harassment and discrimination, but it is also a question of people’s right to integrity; to be able to be yourself and minimize gender dysphoria. People within the group trans people have different needs; sometimes it’s having a gender-neutral changing room/bathroom, and sometimes adapting existing rooms by installing shower curtains.

Laws and regulations

In this section, we take a closer look at relevant Swedish laws and regulations. Regardless of what the law states are requirements, we can choose to be pioneers in inclusion and providing safer spaces. Current legislation can be viewed as a minimum level, and you can take the work several steps further if you want to.

The Anti-Discrimination Act

Trans people are subject to the Anti-Discrimination Act. That means that trans people are protected against discrimination and harassment in school and at the workplace. Trans people shouldn’t be treated differently from cis people in a comparable situation. The group trans people are subject to two grounds of discrimination: either gender or gender identity and gender expression (sometimes called “gender transcending identity or expression”). Someone who has changed, or intends to change, legal gender are subject to the ground of discrimination gender. Trans people who don’t want to or can’t change legal gender are subject to the ground of discrimination gender identity and gender expression.

Schools and workplaces are obliged to actively counteract discrimination and harassment. In the legislative history of the Anti-Discrimination Act, it’s stated that employers or education coordinators don’t have to provide special changing rooms or bathrooms, but if you choose not to provide them, you need to find other ways of making sure that there’s no discrimination or harassment. It’s also your responsibility as an employer or education coordinator to investigate whether discrimination or harassment are present, analyse risks and take measures to counteract it. The measures you take should be followed-up and evaluated.

Other laws and investigations

The legislative history of the Anti-Discrimination Act is from 2007. Since then, knowledge has increased, and the Swedish government has written many official reports. There are other laws that can be relevant in this context, like the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Local Government Act (kommunlagen in Swedish). The Convention on the Rights of the Child states that all children are worth the same and have the same rights and that children have the right to private life. The Local Government Act states that municipalities and regions should treat their members equally unless it’s objectively justified not to do so.

The official report of empowerment and better life opportunities for trans people in Sweden (SOU 2017:92) suggested that all public actors should make private bathrooms gender-neutral. It was also suggested that the Equality Ombudsman and The Swedish National Board of Housing, Building and Planning (Boverket) should be tasked with producing a guide for how to make trans inclusive changing rooms and bathrooms. The report also suggested that the current wordings at the Swedish Work Environment Authority (Arbetsmiljöverket) about changing rooms should be reviewed so that they better include trans people’s life opportunities.

Unclear situation but vast possibilities

There are no general regulations about what the access to bathrooms and changing rooms should be like. It’s also unclear how the Anti-Discrimination Act should be interpreted, as few cases have been settled in court. However, there are great opportunities for those who want to work more actively with accessibility and inclusion. You can adapt your own guidelines to increase accessibility for trans people; use it as a requirement in procurement, create guidelines for how to counteract discrimination, have an LGBTQI policy, and so on. For example, in 2016, the city council in Luleå decided to produce an action plan to successively introduce gender-neutral bathrooms and private changing rooms in municipal operations, schools and leisure facilities.

Different solutions

There are several possible solutions for creating a school/workplace that is inclusive and doesn’t create unsafe spaces for trans people. You may want to think about what solution suits your organisation best, based on your preconditions and the needs of your visitors.

Private- and gender-neutral changing rooms

A common way of accommodating trans people’s need for accessibility is by offering a private changing room and bathroom. Many trans people think this is a good alternative. Some facilities with gender-neutral changing rooms are Karlsbrobadet in Eslöv, Fjärran Höjderbadet in Gävle and Sundbybergs simhall. The latter two are LGBTQI certified by RFSL. Högevall in Lund, also LGBTQI certified, has two so-called flex changing rooms “for all genders and no gender”. There are also changing rooms that have different regulations at different times, for example, Queer Kallis in Malmö, which was started on the initiative of LGBTQI people. It’s a collaboration between LGBTQI activists and a municipal swimming pool, where the bath foregoes gender segregation at certain times; all changing rooms are open to everybody at these times.

Some facilities have a wheel-chair accessible restroom with a shower that can be used by everybody, regardless of gender. This works as a third changing room/alternative. It’s important to have lockers for storage; lockers that aren’t just accessible through the gender-segregated changing rooms. It’s also important that the sports facilities can be accessed without having to go through the gender-segregated changing rooms.

Gender-segregated changing rooms

Many trans people want to be able to change in one of the gender-segregated changing rooms. Along with providing gender-neutral changing rooms, you can work with accessibility in the gender-segregated areas. The goal should be that all men (trans or cis) should be able to change and feel safe. In the same way, the goal should be that all women (trans or cis) should be able to do the same.

One way of increasing accessibility in gender-segregated changing rooms is to provide shower curtains or private shower cubicles. Friskis & Svettis has done this in many of their facilities in Stockholm after a proposal by LGBTQI activists at an annual meeting. Increased security may mean the presence of staff or clear rules of conduct. A sense of security can also come from the option of private booths for those who don’t feel comfortable in a common changing room.

Gender-neutral bathrooms

It’s often easy to satisfy the need for accessible bathrooms. It may be enough to replace gender-coded signs with an image of a toilet or the text “Toilet” or “WC”. Many organisations, companies and authorities have removed gender-coded bathroom signs, and there’s a great variety of gender-neutral bathroom signs to choose from.

There are also more imaginative bathroom signs, for example, people with mixed gender expressions (both “skirt/dress” and “pants”) or imaginary animals. Such signs can be perceived as fun and de-dramatizing, but they also make way for jokes at the expense of trans people.

It’s not necessary to make all bathrooms gender-neutral; there’s nothing that says that there can’t be both a “ladies”, “gentlemen” as well as a gender-neutral bathroom. But there should be enough gender-neutral options. The gender-neutral bathrooms should also be easily accessible and easy to find. It’s also important that the wheel-chair accessible bathroom isn’t the only gender-neutral option.

One argument against making bathrooms gender-neutral is that they become dirtier because men are less orderly or less hygienic. In that case, you can address the problem by introducing etiquette rules at the school/workplace, provide information, or clean more frequently.

To think about

Planning and further work depend on your needs and preconditions. Depending on if you are a big sports facility that is going to be rebuilt, a school with many students who are openly trans, or a psychiatric clinic with the need for new toilet signs, the way forward may vary greatly.

Planning and responsibility

You should plan for accessibility beforehand so that the issue doesn’t have to be brought up by private trans people. You can create a third, gender-neutral, changing room when the municipality rebuilds a new swimming pool or when you renovate the school.

It’s the school or workplace’s obligation and responsibility to ensure that everybody feels safe and included. To be able to use the bathroom and changing rooms are often prerequisites for being able to work or participate at school. The lack of accessibility at high-school, university and work can affect both your private economy and health. Therefore, it should be in society’s (and, of course, the employer or school’s) interest to meet that need.

When someone comes out

When a person comes out as trans in school or at a workplace, it might be fruitful to ask the person what they need. A shower curtain, the opportunity to start work earlier/later to gain access to the changing room alone or a private changing room are some possible solutions. To create a private changing room, you may install a shower in a wheel-chair accessible bathroom (since these often are bigger) as long as too many people don’t have to share the same space. Otherwise, an additional wheel-chair accessible bathroom/changing room may be needed.

Not just an issue for trans people

Access to gender-neutral changing rooms and bathrooms is relevant to trans people. But it’s also relevant to people with children, people with personal assistants, some people with intersex variations and all others, who, for different reasons, don’t want to, or aren’t comfortable with, being naked with others.

Therefore, the target group for gender-neutral changing rooms and bathrooms is bigger than you might think. If the size of the group is used as an argument or excuse for lack of accessibility, the above can be used as a counter-argument.

Communication and message

One way of increasing accessibility and creating more inclusive contexts is through communication. For sports facilities, this can mean having information on the website about what the opportunities for changing and showering are, and if all parts of the facility can be accessed without having to pass through a gender-segregated changing room. Schools can also provide information about facilities.

Communication is also a question of dialogue. In rebuilds, municipalities have sometimes spoken to local trans organisations, and schools have talked to student groups, to find out about needs and pitfalls. Such collaboration is often very rewarding. But keep in mind that this collaboration can’t always free. It may be necessary to reimburse organisations for the time they put in.

Changing rooms and bathrooms that are accessible to trans people is important both to private individuals and the trans group as a whole. It signals how you as a school, workplace or authority work for accessibility, equal opportunities and against discrimination. It may increase people’s knowledge about trans issues and affect norms and attitudes.