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John Waters unveils all gender restrooms named after him at art museum

John Waters at the entrance of the Baltimore Museum of Art's "The John Waters Restrooms."
John Waters at the entrance of the Baltimore Museum of Art's "The John Waters Restrooms." Photo: Erika Nizborski

Filmmaker John Waters has heard all the jokes about the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) and his request to have the restrooms there named after him: That they’ll be called “John’s Johns” or “the Waters Closet.” That people will be itching to go, flush with anticipation. That glory holes are bound to appear. He himself joked that the local tourism board should mark the restrooms on maps of the city, right along with Babe Ruth’s birthplace and Edgar Allan Poe’s grave. (“Maybe people will come from all over the world to eliminate there,” he said last year. “That will be something that the Maryland Tourist Bureau can push.”)

But when Waters and the museum unveiled the new restrooms during a private reception this week, Waters did more than make fun of the situation. He used the dedication ceremony to make a serious statement about transgender rights, and the role institutions such as the BMA can play in changing society.

Related: John Waters talks about growing up “different” & why you should never give up on people

The new restrooms are the first at the BMA that were designed to be gender neutral, meaning anyone can use them. They consist of four private rooms — with solid walls and lockable doors that go from floor to ceiling, rather than stalls with swinging doors and metal partitions — plus a communal washroom.

Lettering by the entrance identifies them as: “The John Waters Restrooms/All Gender.”

The 75-year-old requested that the museum name the restrooms after him when he agreed to donate the bulk of his private art collection to the museum after he dies. The restrooms constitute one of two areas in the museum that now bear his name, along with a gallery that was christened The John Waters Rotunda in May.

When the gift of his private art collection was announced last fall, Waters said the trustees didn’t initially think he was serious about naming the restrooms, but he was.

“Public restrooms make all people nervous,” he said this week, explaining why he made that request. “They’re unpredictable, sometimes attract perverts, and they’re fueled by accidents — just like my favorite contemporary art.”

The newly-constructed restrooms are near two new areas of the museum that are scheduled to open on December 12: the Ruth R. Marder Center for Matisse Studies, and the Nancy Dorman and Stanley Mazaroff Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings and Photographs.

That date is also when the John Waters Restrooms will officially open to the public. Officials say other restrooms at the museum may eventually be converted to all-gender restrooms, too.

Waters said at the unveiling that he didn’t initially ask for all-gender restrooms when he requested that the museum name its restrooms after him. “My deal was just that the bathrooms would be named after me.”

He said the idea of also making the restrooms gender neutral “just naturally evolved” after the initial announcement and coincided with construction of restrooms near the new Marder Center. “It was a plus.”

“When I heard the new restrooms could be remodeled for all genders, I was even more excited,” Waters told dozens of guests at the unveiling this week. “I could be part of a much-needed public elimination upgrade.

“Finally, we could all go to the bathroom together in full privacy. That’s what I call progress!”

John Waters speaking at the Baltimore Museum of Art's unveiling of
John Waters speaking at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s unveiling of “The John Waters Restrooms.” Erika Nizborski

“The Baltimore Museum of Art is proud to name its new gender-neutral restrooms for the incomparable artist/author/actor/filmmaker – and now BMA Trustee – John Waters,” the museum said in a statement announcing the completion of construction of the John Waters Restroom.

To help christen the restrooms — or “our all-access tea room,” as he also called it — Waters invited a longtime friend, transgender activist Elizabeth Coffey. Coffey, who also goes by Elizabeth Coffey-Williams, appeared in four of Waters’ films, including roles as the “flasher girl” in Pink Flamingos and Dawn Davenport’s jailhouse lover Ernestine in Female Trouble.

Originating from Brooklyn, New York, Coffey completed her transition and gender confirmation in 1972, the same year Pink Flamingos was released. She was one of the first people to participate in the Johns Hopkins Hospital’s pioneering gender-affirming program, originally referred to as “sex reassignment surgery,” which had an arduous vetting process.

While married for many years and raising a son, Coffey co-founded and facilitated the Chrysalis Gender Group in Rockford, Illinois. She served on the board of a performing arts organization as program director, producing more than 60 concerts a year. She was a board member of the Rockford AIDS Care Network and a “buddy” to a former Act Up member who was living with HIV/AIDS.

Now 73, Coffey is an artist, community leader and advocate for elder trans community issues, especially LGBTQ senior housing. Waters, who said he met Coffey while she was transitioning in the early 1970s, wanted her to be the first person to use the John Waters restrooms.

It was his way of putting a face on an important subject and using humor to make a serious point – just as he does in his films. He made it clear that for him, the need for gender neutral restrooms is no laughing matter.

“She was the first person I know who transitioned in Baltimore,” he said. “In 1972, we didn’t know that word yet. To us, she was just a beautiful hippie chick we knew who had been born in the wrong body. We didn’t care. We already hung out with crazy straight and gay kids. What was another subdivision of sexual disruption?”

Waters said Coffey “joined in the making of Pink Flamingos halfway through transition, and her scene is probably the second most notorious scene I ever filmed. She was a brave, talented underground actress, a gender-fluid body stuntwoman, and I owe her big time for helping me make that film so successful.”

Coffey’s personal life “has been just as amazing and today she is still causing trouble in a great way,” he said. “She’s an activist for senior trans housing, which just proves ‘the Filthiest People Alive,’ as we were once called, never retire. They continue to agitate.”

A prominent quilter, Coffey has been a member and facilitator for the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Her work has been displayed at venues around the country, including the Chicago Art Institute. Her story as a trans woman has been featured in numerous publications over the years, including Sisters and The Book of Pride, LGBTQ Heroes Who Changed the World, and in the Netflix documentary, Disclosure.

A resident of the John C. Anderson LGBT Friendly Apartment Community in Philadelphia, she currently co-facilitates TransWay, a gender non-conforming support group at the William Way LGBT Community Center. She also serves on the endorsement committee of the Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club, and the board of the Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Fund.

Coffey said it’s a big step for an institution such as the Baltimore Museum of Art to create “all gender” restrooms, and that’s meaningful to transgender people such as herself. While the thought of naming restrooms after John Waters is humorous on one level, she said, the decision to make them gender neutral brings up a serious issue that can’t be overlooked.

“Yes, a lot of this is funny. It’s playful,” she said of an event designed to let people look at new restrooms. “But what I’m really excited about is that we’re going to get to do it together. I don’t have to look at you and say we can go together but you have to go somewhere else and the rest – I don’t know where you can go. We can all go, and we can all go.”

Too often, she said, that’s not the case.

“Other than the joy and the fun we’re sharing tonight, there are a lot of people that, in many, many places, are driven out of a place where they just want to go to bathroom,” she said. “Can you think of anything any more elementary than just going to the bathroom?”

John Waters and Elizabeth Coffey outside the Baltimore Museum of Art's
John Waters and Elizabeth Coffey outside the Baltimore Museum of Art’s “The John Waters Restrooms.” Erika Nizborski

As might be expected of anything associated with John Waters, this wasn’t a standard ribbon-cutting. After Waters and Coffey made preliminary remarks in the museum’s Fox Court, Waters invited the guests down one flight to see the new restrooms and watch as Coffey became their first official “user.”

As designed by Quinn Evans Architects, the four restrooms are essentially the same, except that each has a different-colored accent wall – amber, gray, red or aqua. The common area containing sinks and mirrors has white walls, bright lights and “touchless,” sensor-activated faucets.

Waters marveled at the size of the separate chambers.

“No urinal,” he said. “Everyone gets a full booth. It’s as big as an apartment. You can do anything!”

Coffey stepped into the second restroom from the right, the one with the red accent wall, and closed the door behind her as photographers documented the moment for posterity. She emerged a minute later, holding the toilet paper she used. After that inaugural flush, other guests were invited to relieve themselves as well, or head back upstairs to the reception.

Elizabeth Coffey-Williams
Elizabeth Coffey-Williams becoming the first “user” of one of the gender-neutral restrooms at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s “The John Waters Restrooms.” Erika Nizborski

One sign that all-gender restrooms really are different from others, noted arts writer Cara Ober, is the equal-opportunity nature of the line of people that formed to get in.

“In an embodiment of true gender parity, a long line for the restroom formed, unrestricted to any one gender,” Ober wrote in BmoreArt. “Instead, a combination of women, men, gender-neutral and nonbinary people, cisgender and transgender, gay and straight people, all waited together to go to the bathroom.”

Waters’ pledged donation includes 87 works by the writer, actor and filmmaker himself, and 288 works by others. It will make the BMA the largest repository of Waters’ work, including prints, sculptures, mixed media and video pieces, in the world.

In conjunction with the donation, Waters and museum leaders also said last fall that the museum would present an exhibit of items from Waters’ collection to show what the museum will gain. That exhibit, still untitled, is scheduled to open in November of 2022 and run through April of 2023.

After her formal remarks at the reception, Coffey said the museum is setting a good example for others.

“There was a great deal of levity to this, and we’re all having fun,” she said. “But there are people who still can’t go to the bathroom. There are still people who get attacked. There are still people who are murdered. I didn’t want to be a buzzkill up there, but it’s true.”

Museums, she said, are places of “culture and sophistication” that ought to welcome everyone in every way.

“People can come to the museum and they can enjoy the art. They can enjoy the gardens. They can enjoy the sculpture. Why on earth should they have any type of difficulty because they want to use the restroom?”

Trans people “don’t pose any kind of threat” to anyone in a public restroom, she said. “They just want to pee.”

Coffey gives Waters credit for setting an example, too, by sneaking in a solution rather than forcing it. Underneath the playfulness, “there is something very serious” and meaningful about what Waters did, she said.

“As with most of John’s things, you have to look at the subtext,” she said. “He knew what he was doing. Even though [it comes across as] ‘ha ha ha, let’s name the bathroom after me,’ he was getting the Baltimore Museum of Art to make gender-neutral bathrooms because he is in support of it, and that’s so important. I might be the figurehead, but he is the energy behind making it happen, and I think that’s extraordinary. He didn’t have to do it.

“He supports inclusivity. He has never supported exclusivity…This is about John doing his part to make sure that people are included in a space where he has some control. And if we all did that, we could all make a difference.”

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