The UK government has asked for a call for evidence on gendered toilet provision.
A first look, it may seem phrased as a reasonable request. It asks members of the public to submit their opinions on ‘toilet provision for men and women’, citing disability access and the wellbeing of women as reasons for the request.
So what’s the problem? Well, in context the statement which accompanies the call is a clear dog whistle for transphobia and gender stereotyping. It invokes a whole set of ideals and values aimed at policing peoples’ bodies and gender presentation.
The statements made are not neutral. There is a clear support for public toilets that are gender-segregated, with many arguments being listed in favour of this stance. One part reads,
‘Women are also likely to feel less comfortable using mixed sex facilities, and require more space.’
As someone who has been assigned female at birth and is generally ‘read’ easily as female, this does not fit in with my own experiences. In recent years I have encountered a growing number of gender-neutral bathrooms in schools, universities and entertainment venues. Personally I have found these to be welcoming, inclusive and safe spaces, which are convenient to use. The narrative that gender-neutral spaces are inhospitable jars so much with my personal experiences.
It also ignores the actual opposite effect which I seem to be increasingly hearing of. Friends who do not look stereotypically feminine or masculine in some way (regardless of their actual gender or what genitals they have) have reported being challenged on using gender-segregated bathrooms more and more in recent times. This seems an increasingly common experience amongst those who are either butch looking lesbians or trans women. This is misogyny, clear and simple – with women who do not conform to certain ideals of femininity being harassed and made to feel unsafe.
Encouraging people to police each other’s gender performances in public spaces is damaging to many of us. I once heard the artist Travis Alabanza describe this practice, as it relates to gender and bathrooms, as “women doing the work of the patriarchy”. Their excellent live-streamed theatre piece, Overflow, explored exactly some of these issues in relation to trans women navigating the use of public toilets.
Gender-based violence is said to have increased during lockdown in the UK – largely in relation to domestic violence. Calling for more separate public toilets for men and women does nothing to address what has been described as a ‘hidden epidemic’ in the private sphere. What it can do, however, is to make an already marginalised group of women (i.e. trans women) feel even more surveilled, challenged and ultimately unsafe. A Stonewall survey reported that 2 in 5 trans people had experienced a hate crime or incident because of their gender identity, in the 12 months prior to being interviewed.
Other covers used in the call for evidence to attack gender-neutral public toilets are the needs of disabled people and menstrual health needs. Disability access and period health needs are bizarrely used as arguments against gender-neutral toilets. This is disingenuous. It is not an ‘either/or’ situation. It is possible to make gender-neutral toilets accessible to all, including those with physical disabilities. This makes them truly accessible – including to those with disabilities who don’t consider themselves to be either men or women and would be uncomfortable using facilities exclusively for either.
Similarly, it is perfectly possible to provide period hygiene facilities (such as access to pads, tampons and dedicated disposal bins) in gender-neutral toilets. This makes them easier to use for those who have periods but who would not be able to use women’s toilets (such as some trans men).
I also strongly believe that this situation would be beneficial in reducing the stigma that so often surrounds periods. Periods are often assumed to be ‘dirty’ and embarrassing – particularly by those that don’t have them – because of the secrecy surrounding them. It is beneficial in tackling these ideas that people of all genders might use toilets where things like tampon dispensers or sanitary bins are common place. The need for menstrual hygiene should be normalised – both for those that have periods and those that don’t. They should not be presented as something that is so taboo, it should be enshrined in building law that all evidence that they happen must be kept away from people that don’t have them!
The call for evidence is open until 26th February 2021. If you believe that banning gender-neutral toilets is unwelcome, you can let the government know what you think by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org . A good template to base your response on is available here. The original call for evidence is available here.