When prominent writer and filmmaker John Waters asked the Baltimore Museum of Art to name its restrooms after him, he suggested that they might become a must-see destination for his hometown.
“Maybe people will come from all over the world to eliminate there,” he said after the museum agreed to his request. “That will be something that the Maryland Tourist Bureau can push.”
But when Waters joined museum leaders to unveil the restrooms during a private reception and dedication ceremony Wednesday night, Waters wasn’t just focusing on their potential to draw tourists. He used the occasion to make a serious statement about transgender rights, and the role institutions such as the BMA can play in changing society.
The new restrooms named after Waters are also 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 minimalist access area containing sinks and mirrors. Lettering by the entrance identifies them as: “The John Waters Restrooms/All Gender.”
“When I heard the new restrooms could be remodeled for all genders, I was even more excited,” Waters said just before the unveiling. “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!”
To help christen the restrooms, Waters invited a special guest, transgender activist Elizabeth Coffey from Philadelphia. 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. Now 73, she’s an artist, community leader and advocate for trans/LGBT elder issues, especially LGBT senior housing.
Waters said he met Coffey while she was transitioning in the early 1970s, has stayed friends with her, and 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.
“She was the first person I know who transitioned in Baltimore,” he told the gathering of several dozen guests. “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? She wanted to be a complete female and Hopkins Hospital and Dr. John Money helped her to do that.”
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.”
Coffey said it’s a big step for an institution such as the BMA 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 shouldn’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?”
As might be expected with anything associated with John Waters, this wasn’t a standard ribbon-cutting. After Waters and Coffey made brief remarks in the museum’s Fox Court, Waters invited the guests down one flight to see the new restrooms and watch as Coffey became the first official user.
Coffey stepped into the second room from the right, one with a magenta-colored accent wall, and closed the door behind her as photographers captured 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.
Waters, 75 and now a museum trustee, requested that the museum name the restrooms after him when he agreed last year 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 in the Jacobs Wing that was christened The John Waters Rotunda in May.
The donation includes 288 works by others and 87 works by Waters, who is a visual artist as well as a writer, actor and filmmaker. It will make the BMA the largest repository of Waters’ work, including prints, sculptures, mixed media and video pieces. Other donated works are by artists such as Andy Warhol; Cy Twombly; Cindy Sherman; Roy Lichtenstein; Diane Arbus; Catherine Opie and Nan Goldin.
In conjunction with the donation, Waters and museum leaders said last fall that the museum would present an exhibition of items from Waters’ collection, to show what the museum will gain.
Yesterday, directors said the exhibit has been scheduled to open in November 2022 and run through April 2023. A title has not been disclosed. The museum’s last exhibit on Waters was John Waters: Indecent Exposure, a retrospective of his own work that ran from Oct. 7, 2018 to Jan. 6, 2019 and then traveled to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. The 2022-2023 exhibit is not expected to travel.
When Waters announced the gift of his private art collection last fall, he said the trustees and directors didn’t initially think he was serious about naming the restrooms, but he was.
Why did he want to be associated with the restrooms?
“Public restrooms make all people nervous,” he said yesterday. “They’re unpredictable, sometimes attract perverts, and they’re fueled by accidents, just like my favorite contemporary art.”
Museum leaders initially indicated that the restrooms bearing Waters’ name would be the existing ones in the 1982 wing, just off the museum’s east lobby. But the ones that were unveiled yesterday are just-constructed restrooms near the Ruth R. Marder Center for Matisse Studies and the Nancy Dorman and Stanley Mazaroff Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, two new areas of the museum that are scheduled to open on Dec. 12. That date is also when the John Waters Restrooms will officially open. Museum officials say the 1982 restrooms may eventually be converted to all-gender restrooms, too, but they won’t be named after Waters.
As designed by Quinn Evans Architects, the four restrooms are essentially the same except that each has a different-colored accent wall – amber, gray, magenta and aqua. Their dimensions appear to meet requirements for accessibility by people in wheelchairs. The common area containing sinks and mirrors has white walls, bright lights and “touchless,” sensor-activated faucets.
Waters marveled at the size and privacy of the separate chambers.
“No urinal,” he said. “Everyone gets a full booth. It’s as big as an apartment. You can do anything.”
Waters said yesterday 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 new restrooms near the Marder Center: “It was a plus.”
After her formal remarks at the reception, Coffey said the museum is setting a good example for others.
“As I said up there, there was a great deal of levity to this, and we’re all having fun. 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 by fiat.
“As with most of John’s things, you have to look at the subtext,” she said. “He knew what he was doing. Even though — 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.”
Underneath the playfulness, “there is something very serious” and meaningful about what Waters did, she said.
“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.”
I think the museum is asking for trouble with this action. They can’t control the actions of individual persons. I won’t be going back there.
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