February 14-20, 2007

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Peeing by Design

By Annalee Newitz

IF YOU THINK it's hard to find a decent public bathroom in a big city, try finding a bathroom for the gender ambiguous. People who appear androgynous, whether unintentionally or because they're going for that cool genderqueer look, know that finding a bathroom is an ordeal.

It sucks to walk into the women's room and have the ladies tell you to get out just because you've got short hair and like to wear ties. Same goes for short, girly boys who get the hairy eyeball in the men's room. Sometimes, these nasty encounters get violent or lead to indignant bathroom patrons contacting security to get the androgynous "interloper" out of their binary gender space.

Luckily, this is one social problem that has a technical solution. A genderqueer hackers collective has created one of the best map mashup websites I've ever seen: It's a dynamic, constantly updating map of publicly accessible, gender-neutral bathrooms throughout the United States.

Just plug in the name of your city or town and up pops a Google map with bathrooms marked with those spermy-looking markers that Google favors. Most of these bathrooms are unisex, single-person ones. But some are just "genderfree," as site co-developer Bailey puts it.

Visitors at Safe2Pee can plug in the location, gender status and accessibility of the bathroom on a handy form. Even if the bathroom isn't gender-free, but is simply in a nice spot, you can note that it's gendered but really clean or available to anyone who comes into the place where it's located.

As somebody who often has to pee while going for walks, I can't recommend Safe2Pee enough—I can plot my course around the city based on where I can get to nice public bathrooms. And though I rarely get hassled for my gender presentation in bathrooms, I also hate having to declare my gender just because I need to take a piss. I'd rather just use the toilet without having to decide whether I look more like the stick figure in a dress or the stick figure without one.

What's really great about Safe2Pee, however, is the matter-of-fact way it suggests that technology can help encourage gender tolerance. If merchants realize that having gender-free bathrooms will pull in more paying customers, there will be more incentive for people to build such bathrooms. Having a map of those bathrooms available online makes it far easier for consumers to make choices that nudge merchants in that direction.

Plus, just from a nerd point of view, Safe2Pee is full of yummy Web 2.0 goodness. There's a tag cloud for cities included in the database, in which the names of cities with more categorized bathrooms appear much larger than cities with fewer. You can also search the database by proximity to where you are, or for particular types of bathrooms (i.e., ones you can use for free vs. ones where you should buy something before asking to pee). Programmable Web, a blog about mashups, gave Safe2Pee a "mashup of the day" award. And Bailey says the genderqueer hacker collective behind the site is growing. "The collective has morphed, at least geographically speaking," Bailey said via email. "It has grown beyond the Bay Area, and now it's just me here. Others are in Seattle, Portland and Boston."

Not surprisingly, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Boston are also well-represented in the bathroom database. But Bailey says the group plans to stick with it and keep expanding. The site co-author draws a comparison between gender fluidity and geek attention spans when it comes to finishing projects: "When conventional notions of gender and sexuality are always blurred or challenged or in flux, I think perhaps all the fluidity carries over to form a particularly postmodern attention span." Or maybe Bailey is just a new breed of gendernerd, whose attachment to one particular gender identity morphs as often as an attachment to a particular flavor of Linux—or a particular API.

In my old workplace, I frequently pasted over the gender markers on the single-room bathrooms—I printed "Carbon-based life forms only" on a piece of paper that was just big enough to cover the stick figure in a skirt. Luckily, my co-workers enjoyed the joke, and we all made it an unwritten rule that we would use whatever bathroom was available, no matter what our genders. Now I plan to spread the gender-free bathroom meme online by adding good bathrooms to the database. When I can write a sentence like that, I really do feel like I'm living in the future.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who really has to pee right now.

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