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Study finds mixed impressions for all-gender restroom and locker room signage among adults

An example of the virtual restrooms shown to participants in the WSU-led study.
Traci Gillig, Leila Bighash and Sonia Jawaid Shaikh
An example of the virtual restrooms shown to participants in the WSU-led study.

A recent study found split reactions among adults who were asked about their attitudes toward trans and nonbinary people.

The study involved 385 U.S. adults, from 19 to 70 years old, who spent at least one year out of the last five working in an office building. In the online survey, they were shown simulated workplaces, some of which had restrooms marked by gender-neutral signs, and some that were marked by the more common male-female labels.

They were then asked to rank their agreement or disagreement with statements such as “transgender people seem absolutely normal to me” or “nonbinary people are misguided.” The participants were also asked if they’ve seen trans or nonbinary people in popular media, or if they personally know anyone who identifies as trans or nonbinary.

The researchers who mounted the study found that while seeing or knowing trans and nonbinary people correlated with more positive attitudes, the restroom signs in the virtual office environment appeared to produce some discomfort.

Traci Gillig, a Washington State University assistant professor who led the project, said researchers wanted to know how adults, who generally have firmer ideas about their worldview than adolescents, are adjusting to evolving ideas about gender.

“We’re thinking about usage of facilities, and some of those potentially changing as all-gender facilities become more common,” Gillig said. “We wanted to see [if] adults [are] reacting to these spaces and their signage in similar ways to younger people, whose ideas about gender might still be forming.”

The study builds on a similar one published earlier this year in which people 12 to 17 years old spent time in a virtual school building and were asked to rate their understanding of gender identity. That assay found that a group exposed to gender-neutral signs in the simulated school environment reported a broader concept of gender and more positive attitudes toward transgender and non-binary people.

Gillig said the results of the adult study could be an example of a generation gap, in which social changes are regarded more positively by younger people than by their elders.

“Younger individuals in America today are more likely to identify as trans and nonbinary. They’re more likely to use gender-natural pronouns, like they/them. They’re generally a lot more familiar with identities beyond the traditional binary of male and female,” Gillig said. “So we’re seeing that younger people are in general more supportive of policies and practices that include and support people who are trans and nonbinary, where…some adults think that we’re moving too fast in how we’re addressing issues related to gender.”

Examining the results along demographic lines revealed other connections. Adults who identify as liberal, those who profess no or neutral religious faith, and those with college degrees were more likely to be open to broader definitions of gender and have more positive attitudes toward trans and nonbinary people. Participants who identified as conservative and/or religious, and those without a college education, were more likely to define gender as binary and hold more negative attitudes.

The same factors lined up when participants were asked about gender-affirming policies and other social and political concepts associated with trans and nonbinary people.

But while the study shed some light on possible factors for adult attitudes, it also opened more questions researchers will need to tackle, Gillig said.

“We can’t quite determine from our study whether the signage that adults encountered in their everyday lives was causing more negative attitudes towards trans and nonbinary people, or if it was that adults who already had more negative attitudes were noticing these signs more so,” Gillig said. “The actual cause of that, we still have to do more research to fully understand.”

Gillig and her fellow researchers noted the 385 people in the study group were representative of the American population as a whole in terms of age, ethnicity and religion.

Results were published in the journal Communication Studies.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.