Annals of signs and symbols: gender-neutrality

From Barbara Partee on Facebook on the 13th, this sign at the UMass Five College Credit Union:


The sign was new to Barbara, though it seems to have been around for several years. Barbara merely pronounced it “interesting”, but I found the trans symbol — half male and half female — disturbing.

From the LGBT Weekly website on 2/19/15, in “A restroom pictogram that sends the wrong message” by Autumn Sandeen:

(#2) At the San Diego LGBT Center

If one needs to go to the Restroom at San Diego’s LGBT Center or at the San Diego Airport, one may find oneself presented with an all gender identities public restroom sign.

The LGBT Center’s public restroom sign has the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) international symbol for males, the ADA international symbol for females and a third gender symbol with the left side male and the right side female. Beneath that row of three symbols is raised text and Braille which says “GENDER NEUTRAL RESTROOM.” The restroom facilities there are multi-stall.

The San Diego Airport public restroom signs have the same three symbols used for The LGBT Center’s public restroom signs, plus a third symbol for an infant. Beneath that row of four symbols is raised text and Braille which says “ALL GENDER RESTROOM.” Then in additional text below the braille letters, the sign states “Anyone can use this restroom regardless of gender identity or expression.” The restroom facilities that have these signs are all single stall.

… Trans community member discomfort often comes with that third gender pictogram of a half-man/half-woman. I’ve talked to a number of trans people over the years who look at that half-man/half-woman pictogram and see it at best as third gendering or at worst saying “she-male” – she-m*** pretty much being the worst pejorative that one can call a trans person.

Perhaps the best way to show inclusivity isn’t to include the half-man/half-woman pictogram on the ADA compliant sign. Trans positive language of “ALL GENDER RESTROOM” or “GENDER NEUTRAL RESTROOM” with just the standard male, female and disability pictograms would certainly be welcomed without the half-man/half-woman pictogram.

My 4/13/13 posting “More sex/gender symbols” looked at symbols that have been suggested for intersex, genderqueer, and bisexual, among other possibilities. But these were devised as badges of identity, not as labels for restroom / toilet use. For the latter purpose, we might reasonably ask whether an abstract symbol is called for at all.

Presumably, the abstract symbols were devised for people who might not recognize words for the sexes in the local language. The shift from sex designation to gender designation isn’t an easy one, especially in a world where many deny the possibility of a gender identity distinct from sex at birth; where intersex individuals are essentially disregarded  (it’s their business to choose a sex and stick to it); and where identification as genderqueer is viewed as frivolous.

If verbal labels on their own — Gender Neutral or All Gender, plus an explanation along the lines of “Anyone can use this restroom regardless of gender identity or expression” — are judged to be inadequate, then the options are to use existing conventional sex/gender symbols (dress silhouette vs. trousers silhouette, circle vs. triangle, Venus vs. Mars) in combination or to devise a new symbol conveying ‘sex/gender neutral’ that will be easily understood — not at all an easy task.

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