“Your Research is About Restrooms?” Researching Unwritten Gender Rules in Public Restrooms

By Bo James Hwang


Bo James Hwang after presenting research at UCLA’s Undergraduate Research Week

When I arrived at UCLA, I knew that I wanted to do research but I did not have a topic in mind. I had done research before at Los Angeles City College, where I did an honors field research project with Dr. Christine Jun titled “Analysis on the Availability of HIV and AIDS Prevention Information for Transmen.” For my research, I collected safer sex pamphlets from ten health clinics in the county of Los Angeles and conducted a close reading on the pamphlets to analyze if they were culturally and linguistically sensitive to transgender men who have sex with other cissexual (not transgender) men. I presented my research findings at the Honors Transfer Council of California (HTCC) Student Research Conference at UC Irvine for an audience of thirty students and faculty, and at the Latina/o Medical Student Association (LMSA) Conference at UC Davis to thirty undergraduate students. I highly encourage students to become involved with research. But despite all of my previous research experiences, completing an honors research thesis at UCLA was a challenge on a different level.

The fast pace and the demands of a research university were difficult to adjust at first. When I decided that wanted to explore the culture of restrooms, most of my peers responded with surprise: “You want to do research about restrooms?” they would ask. Comments like these were very common. This was due to the fact that most cissexual people have limited experience of going to a restroom designated for people of a different sex. Thus, when I began unpacking the restroom rules that differed in men’s and women’s restroom, my peers told me that I was “exaggerating.” They assumed restroom usage was something simple. But I found that it was far more complicated than one can even imagine. For example, restrooms used to be racially segregated and the explanation for this was based on biological differences, which is similar to today’s sex segregated restrooms. It was only my transgender peers who were transitioning and using the restroom that correlated with their identity who truly understood.

My research project, “The Construction of Gender in Binary Restrooms,” examines unwritten gender rules inside the restroom and how these rules perpetuate heteronormativity, hegemonic femininity and masculinity. Furthermore, my research explores the discourse around privacy, definition of sex, and understanding of transgender people. The purpose of my research is to examine UCLA students’ views about gender inclusive restrooms. My survey design allows me to consider whether outside factors such as a student’s class, major, personal relationships with someone who identifies as transgender, and other factors are correlated with their views on public restroom accommodations for transgender people. By critically examining the traditional sex/gender binary in action and its effects on students at UCLA, the goal of this project is to help college campuses to become more inclusive spaces for all students.

My interest in this topic was sparked because I am a transman. Due to my gender presentation, I have experienced violence inside the women’s restroom, including incidents when I have been yelled at to leave. I have experienced women chuckling with each other about my masculine presentation. I have experienced people questioning my sex assigned at birth. At the same time, I also have experienced sexual violence inside the men’s restroom. Through my gender journey, I had the experience of navigate both spaces designated as men’s and spaces designated as women’s. I realized that there are norms and rules which govern behavior and social relations inside men’s and women’s restrooms which negatively impact transgender people. Moreover, these rules impact other people, including cissexual women, people who are differently-abled, gender nonconforming individuals, homeless people, working class people, parents or caretakers of a person of the different sex, and even cissexual men who are uncomfortable using public urinals.

My research drew on my personal experience to guide my investigation. However, my personal experiences should not be taken as representative of all transgender people and their experiences inside sex-segregated public restrooms. Nonetheless, I believe it is important to incorporate my personal story to underscore the importance of humanizing transgender people and our experiences. I am still in the process of navigating male spaces such as the restroom, locker room, and talking to other guys as a guy. Thus, I believe that these first-hand experiences give me invaluable insight into the current gender regime.

My research findings show that students who learned about transgender people through a class setting and through autobiographical narrative books written by transgender people were more likely to support paying a student fee to support creating more non-gendered restrooms on campus. Interestingly, cisgender students who met someone who appeared to be a different sex in a single sex multi-stall restrooms were also more likely to pay. I speculate that because they experienced transgender and gender nonconforming people inside the restroom this normalized transgender people. Thus, I argue that there must be a curriculum that covers the discourse about transgender individuals from their perspectives.

There were times when it was stressful conducting research. Research is tough. There were moments when I loved it and other moments that I really disliked it. In addition, there were outside factors that made it even more difficult to focus on my research. For example, there were many negative incidents on campus my last quarter that were connected to my research, including an anti-transgender incident and a controversial Trump supporter who came to speak at UCLA. It became emotionally toxic for me to become involved with these incidents. I will never forget what my research adviser, Dr. Juliet Williams said. She said, “Bo, a degree can bring more power into your activism.” This was a new concept to me. Most of my peers would sacrifice their grades to improve campus climate for students of color. But I am starting to see that a balance of both activism and academics is very important.

While I was conducing my research project, I had two advisers: Dr. Juliet Williams, from the Gender Studies and Political Science departments, and Dr. Kathryn Norberg from the Gender Studies and History departments. In addition, Jonathan, my graduate mentor from the Undergraduate Writing Center provided input on my research project. I had amazing writing support from programs on campus such as the Community Programs Office’s Writing Success Program and the Undergraduate Writing Center. Lastly, Samantha Hogan from the Gender Studies Department was very supportive in this journey. I was truly blessed to have worked with such amazing and supportive people.

Bo James Hwang was the recipient of a 2016 CSW Constance Coiner Award. Bo majored in Gender Studies and minored in Asian American Studies at UCLA. He is a motivational speaker who has spoken at over fifty conferences, panels, and graduations, where he shares his story as a former homeless youth. He hosts workshops for students from under-resourced communities about how to write personal narratives for college admission and scholarships. Pursuing a career in public health, research, and medicine, Bo plans to use his education and his lived experiences to develop new ways of thinking about care, prevention, and treatment.

Looking for all-gender restrooms at UCLA? Check out this map from our friends at the UCLA LGBT Resource Center.