Last month, I was struck by something unusual while visiting the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa: the washroom signs.
Beneath the “W” and “M” symbols, the signs read “self-identified.” In the wake of a flurry of putative legislation proposed in the US to police washroom access on terms of “biological gender,” and widespread activism in response, it seemed like a straightforward yet clever way to update washrooms to make them more gender inclusive.
The signage originated after Sam Mogelonsky, the gallery’s manager of marketing and communications, visited the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Philadelphia. “They had similar signs up and I was really inspired and just loved the messaging,” said Mogelonsky. “I presented the idea to the RMG and we just went with it.” The signs were added to the RMG shortly before their event in partnership with Pride Durham and PFLAG Durham on June 3.
“It’s 2016. It simply makes sense,” said the RMG’s CEO, Donna Raetsen-Kemp.
While the move seems self-evident to RMG staff, it’s not one all galleries have yet taken.
“In the art world we are very proud to say that we are very inclusive, especially very queer inclusive,” says Toronto-based artist and activist Coco Guzman. “But I don’t think we’ve reached the point yet that we have brought that reflection to the physical structures of our galleries and museums. We have a lot of work to do.
“I identify as a genderqueer person and I have a very ambiguous gender, so many times I’ve been told that I was in the wrong washroom,” Guzman says.
In response, Guzman began the project Genderpoo, a community-based work that was recently shown at the Textile Museum of Canada, which invites individuals to create washroom signs that transcend the gender binary.
“I started this project when I was a student, and I decided to create my own washroom sign on one day when I was really fed up.” Guzman’s own sign was a mermaid with a moustache, a favourite “because it brings a little bit of magic, a little bit of questioning.”
Structural Change, Literally
At present, there’s a flurry of construction within Canada’s cultural realm, with institutions across the country either currently or very recently undergoing construction or renovation. Presentation House Gallery, Audain Art Museum, Remai Modern, Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto_Canada, Ottawa Art Gallery and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery are just some of these.
But while arts organizations often give clear thought to their future gallery’s storage spaces, cafes and event spaces, thinking around gender-inclusive washrooms is often overlooked.
Some galleries undergoing changes already have gender-inclusive washrooms.
“Since 1983, when an east wing addition was added, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery has had single-person washrooms that ensure that everybody has a right to the use of a washroom and feel comfortable and safe regardless of their sex, gender identity, or gender expression,” said Beaverbrook director/CEO and chief curator Terry Graff from Fredericton. “As part of the Gallery’s current revitalization and expansion project, the Gallery will be upgrading them for better wheelchair access and to better communicate that the Gallery provides gender-inclusive washrooms for the public it serves.”
For others, architectural revamps have offered for an opportunity to overhaul attitudes towards inclusivity.
At the Ottawa Art Gallery, a new building, slated to open in 2017, will include 10 gender-neutral washrooms throughout the building. But this is just one of many changes.
“The washrooms are part of a much wider conversation the gallery is having with its community,” explains director and CEO Alexandra Badzak. This conversation includes asking how galleries can engage non-visual learners, how to put assisted-hearing devices in the gallery, and re-evaluating admission in terms of hours and affordability.
At the Remai Modern in Saskatoon, executive director and CEO Gregory Burke said that decisions on the handling of gender-inclusive washrooms for the new museum, due to open in 2017, are still in progress.
“The matter is under consideration,” Burke said. “We are looking at ways to ensure an inclusive environment for everyone.”
Beyond Token Gestures
Considered, accessible washrooms are an important step towards more inclusive gallery spaces, but they’re just one part of a larger equation.
To begin with, even when gender-neutral washrooms are available within gallery spaces, it’s important to make sure that they are easily visible.
Several large institutions, including the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, have established gender-neutral washrooms—yet, after visiting the CMHR for the Canadian Commission for the United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s annual meeting earlier this year, transgender activist Chase Blodgett said that he was unable to find the gender-neutral washroom.
“To have them [the CMHR] struggle with it, too, demonstrates that there’s just a lot of need for education right now around trans and non-gender conforming people,” Blodgett told Metro News.
And, as artist Coco Guzman underscores, the best way to acknowledge queer and trans communities is not solely by offering needed washrooms. Rather, museums must ensure that more than just visitors are diverse: staff and exhibitors, in addition to visitors, need to demonstrate a range of subject positions.
“Who are the people hired? Who are the people shown? Who are the people in power?” asks Guzman. “Because a lot of people in power in institutions are very often men who are white and able-bodied; that’s the norm in the majority in the art world. So that’s very important thing to challenge.”
Long-term commitments that go beyond the short-lived news cycles are also necessary.
“I think a lot of accessibility comes when we go out of the galleries themselves and we create real bridges—not because we want to be ‘cool’ and ‘open,’ but because we want to create strong and sustainable relationships with organizations in the city, supporting their work through exhibitions, festivals, talks and really working together,” Guzman says. “It’s about creating real relationships—we need to be there in a sustainable mode.”