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December 16, 2016

They’re Not Just Toilets!

by Jess Guth

A couple of days ago my institution opened a new entrance to one of the university buildings.  Not exciting, but in that entrance area (it’s a glorified porch really) there are new toilets, not exciting either, but these  toilets are gender neutral toilets. Now this is exciting. I was going to blog about them then but somehow it didn’t seem important enough. Well I think I was wrong about that. I actually think that having those toilets there is massively important and an email sent by a colleague mocking them and noting (sarcastically it seems) ‘As tens of thousands of innocent people are being cynically and perhaps routinely slaughtered in Aleppo, this remains the most compelling issue facing Students & Staff today’ suggests that maybe celebrating the toilets is even more important than I thought. Stick with me as I try to unpick this and try not to rant.

I don’t really get the obsession with toilets split by gender. It’s a toilet. I actually think it would make perfect sense to just have toilets – full stop. That would just be so much more inclusive and, well equal. Who gets to pee where isn’t about biological differences, it never has been. It’s about some old-fashioned concerns about what women should and shouldn’t be doing in public. It’s about anxiety and the misplaced perception that there is a need to protect women (or just generally protect us from each other). The research into public toilets is fascinating (see for example Molotch and Norens 2010 book ‘Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing’ which also contains a chapter by Terry Kogan on segregation) and I wish I had the time to read more of this stuff (yep, maybe I should have been a sociologist after all!). There are a number of issues around gender neutral toilets which jump out at me. I know there’s research and I am also keenly aware that most of it I haven’t read. What follows is my gut feeling about this and my initial reaction to the email I got at work which, to put it mildly, made my blood boil. I have tried to sense check my gut feelings and perceptions by talking to friends and reading some stuff but I know there’s a whole load of stuff I’m missing. If you have ideas for something I should read to help me get a fuller and more nuanced picture please leave me a note in the comments

  1. Gender neutral toilets are for everyone. They make sense. In buildings where there is limited space for toilets – just have toilets. Don’t make (almost always) women walk further and wait longer to pee.
  2. We don’t need segregation. Women do not need protecting. Segregation just encourages us to deal with each other in a slightly artificial and negative way. (I hadn’t really thought about this until one of my friends mentioned this – thanks, you know who you are). Segregation encourages us to view each other with suspicion. Well, as someone who routinely skipped the lines for the Ladies’ and walked into the blokes’ toilets – there’s no mystery. You might encounter a few more hairbrushes and a little more make-up in the little girls’ room but that’s it. Also – segregation doesn’t work. There is no magic safe space. See a recent Guardian article for examples
  3. Toilets can be the venue for many a drama, many tears and confidential chats and comforting. This has come up in conversation several times with female friends whose best friends are men. If the toilet is the only area at work or wherever where you can have a private conversation and a bit of a cry when you’re having a rough day, and your best friend or trusted colleague is male, you’re stuffed. You have to do your crying on your own leaving your bestie outside feeling properly useless. That doesn’t make sense
  4. Gender neutral toilets also make sense for parents – it means they can take their child of whatever gender to the toilet without any awkwardness whatsoever. None.
  5. Gender neutral toilets are also imperative for trans people. Here I think safety is an issue. The US trans survey results are pretty scary – 59% have avoided using public bathrooms (including at work and school) because of fear. Just think about that for a minute – 59% of respondents to that survey did not go to the loo because they were scared. That alone makes gender neutral toilets not just a good thing but absolutely crucial in any society or organisation that takes equality in any way seriously.
  6. I have re-written this paragraph several times now and I can’t quite get it right. The email I received (which went to a selection of people in response to the announcement that we now had these gender neutral toilets) was dismissive of ‘gender dis-specific’ people and pointed to the fact that there may be 3 in the institution and that ‘their survival is threatened by both a lack of tolerance and the lack of an arena where they can take a dump without the wolf-whistles’. I don’t even know what to say to this. Yep, there’s a lack of tolerance – nicely exemplified by the email. And yes actually their survival (in some cases, actual survival) and safety is threatened. Have a look for example at this article in the advocate which highlights some of the issues.
  7. Perhaps the most upsetting bit in the email is the assertion that because we care about gender neutral toilets we don’t care about Aleppo. I stopped breathing for a second when I read that. I care, as do my friends, about injustice. If I care about having gender neutral toilets, I can still care about Syria, about Human Rights abuses, about the gender pay gap, about every day sexism, about trans equality, about whatever f-ing injustice there is. I don’t have a finite amount of ‘caring’. Using one massive injustice to justify doing nothing about other injustices (on the basis that this means we don’t care enough about the massive one) is just idiotic. But of course I am missing the point here – if you don’t see not having gender neutral toilets as an injustice…
  8. For my institution as a university those gender neutral toilets are a great first step. There is somewhere to go for staff and students who do not want to deal with the ‘which toilet is the right one for me’ debate or issue every time they need to pee. I don’t care what the reason for that debate might be, nobody should have to worry about going for a pee at work/uni. I’d like to see gender specific toilets disappear – I don’t see the point in having them

So there we are. Do you see now why they are not just toilets? Why they are much more than that, a symbol of inclusiveness and equality or at least a step towards those values. They can also be genuine life-savers and certainly stress savers for many – and it’s not for me, you or anyone else to decide who gets to pee where.

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