In a new white paper, the Laboratory's Out and Proud Employee Network discusses community-based planning and best practices in providing inclusive facilities.
A photo showing the interior of the all-gender bathroom. On the left-hand side are doors to the hard-walled stalls, in the middle is a sign saying "Be Yourself," and to the right are sinks.
An all-gender multistall bathroom at Lincoln Laboratory. Photo: Nicole Fandel

In recent years, MIT Lincoln Laboratory has opened the doors to all-gender bathrooms (AGBs) in its facilities. These inclusive spaces are providing community members of all gender identities and expressions a safe, comfortable, and accessible environment.

Members of the Lincoln Laboratory Out and Proud Employee Network (LLOPEN), an employee resource group who oversaw this project, have now published a white paper documenting the cultural change–management process, community-based planning, and design standards that went into implementing the AGBs.

The paper, titled "Designing for Equity: An FFRDC’s Journey to All-Gender Bathrooms," aims to help guide other federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs) and institutions that may be considering implementing all-gender facilities.

"We want to pass on what we learned to other organizations and help support that journey in any way we can. This information and experience shouldn’t stop at the walls of MIT Lincoln Laboratory,” says Christine Carlino, who wrote the paper with Noel Keating. Both authors formerly served as co-chairs of LLOPEN, which is dedicated to supporting employees who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning (LGBTQ+), and other sexual or gender minorities and their allies.

The project got its start in 2017, when an employee reached out to LLOPEN to express that they were struggling to find a bathroom they felt comfortable using that was designated for their gender identity. Sparse single-occupancy restrooms were often in use.

“This mundane task of using the bathroom at work, which most of us take for granted, was causing them stress, anxiety, and loss of valuable work time,” the authors write.

Prompted by this employee's struggle and the struggles of others who shared similar experiences, LLOPEN began a journey to provide AGBs in Laboratory buildings. In partnership with the Diversity and Inclusion Office and the Facility Services Department, they executed two major bathroom renovations, converting existing multistall gendered bathrooms into new, multistall all-gender bathrooms. They also standardized the practice of labelling all single-occupant restrooms as AGBs.

"Whenever you’re introducing a new type of space to existing facilities, anxieties about whether people will be okay with the change can be a barrier," Carlino says. The team addressed this concern by consulting with other employee resource groups, such as Lincoln Employees with Disabilities and the Lincoln Laboratory Women's Network, and then hosting Lab-wide discussions to introduce the idea of AGBs and gather employee feedback. The team also conferred with MIT campus, who shared knowledge from their own AGB renovations. "Ultimately, if you want to build inclusive spaces, then the process needs to be inclusive," Carlino says.

Through community-based design reviews, they refined the standards for the new facilities. In multistall bathrooms, each stall would have full-height hard walls, a door with an occupancy-indicator lock, and its own mirror. Menstrual care dispensers would be placed in every stall, rather than by the sink area. In addition, clear and welcoming signage outside of the bathroom would help people know they were entering an inclusive space.

The Laboratory faced some unique challenges due to its status as an FFRDC. In the team's research of precedent studies, they couldn’t find an example of an FFRDC who had implemented AGBs. Because the Laboratory is on federal land, the all-gender renovations required approval from Hanscom Air Force Base Civil Engineering. They gave the Laboratory their full support for the project.

But once approved, the project faced a major hurdle in acquiring funding. Keating recalled feeling dejected, but determined. "LLOPEN faced a lot of obstacles and some resistance from various stakeholders. In every case, we came up with a logic-based solution and made the case of why we had to keep moving forward with these important projects." That persistence, and the full backing from Chevy Cleaves, the Laboratory's Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, helped secure funding to move the construction forward.

Cleaves says that implementing AGBs supports the goal of creating a more connected, inclusive, and equitable environment across the Laboratory. "It’s important that we think about holistic challenges and take appropriate actions to meet the needs of a diverse workforce," Cleaves says. "Bathrooms need to be easily accessible to everyone in our organization; all-gender bathrooms remove the barriers tied to gender-binary identities, communicating acceptance and solidarity to the LGBTQ+ community, and meet the needs of folks with medical issues, visitors with children, and more.”

On top of providing basic needs to transgender and gender-nonconforming people, AGBs offer security for other demographics — for example, parents of differently gendered children, or people with disabilities who require the accompaniment of an attendant of a different gender. These spaces can also provide safety for people with less-visible disabilities who require total privacy to use the restroom.

For people who must plan their workday around when they might access a restroom, the impacts can cause both physical suffering and a lost sense of belonging to an organization. Keating found that educating the community on these challenges and the benefits of AGBs was vital. "These facilities are in fact more private and safe than a traditional bathroom," Keating says.

Converting gendered bathrooms into AGBs also proved to be an efficient use of space and resources. One renovation reclaimed 115 square-feet of space, which makes room for the construction of other facilities that are important to an equitable workplace, such as lactation rooms or wellness spaces.

And while the team worked diligently to ensure an inclusive design, they acknowledge that not everyone may feel comfortable using AGBs. Their goal is to provide options — not all bathrooms will be converted to AGBs.

Today, LLOPEN is celebrating the success of the project, while taking a moment to reflect on the journey to progress. This June marks 10 years since LLOPEN was established. Events throughout the month are honoring LGBTQ+ voices and culture within and outside the Laboratory.

Beyond the current installations, LLOPEN's efforts will also inform future equitable design. As the Laboratory constructs new facilities to replace aging buildings, single-occupant and multistall AGBs will now be included in those plans, in addition to gendered facilities.

For other FFRDCs or organizations who want to make this change, Carlino offers advice: "Be brave and start asking the questions. Someone will say, 'Yes, I can do that,' or 'I know who we can talk to that can help.' As challenging as change inevitably is, it’s strong partnerships across the typical organizational boundaries that make progress possible."

Media inquiries: contact Kylie Foy.