A Less Discriminatory Environment: the Concept of Non-Gendered Toilets

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I’m sure it’s happened to you. I’m sure you confidently walked through a door –a door with a tiny sign on- and in this case, you’ve found yourself walking through the “wrong” one. Ah, the humiliation, the embarrassment –yes, the shame! You just did it; you walked in on a crowd of makeup-applying girls or caught a group of boys with their pants down.

Whilst these little oops-a-daisies might serve for some as “funny” anecdotes over a pint or two, the strict sexual dichotomy of toilets are for others a public painful and daily reminder of fundamental and not-so-funny issues. This is to say that toilets are inherently political in the sense that they reflect, and may even epitomise, the imposing heteronormative social norms prevalent in Britain.

So what’s suddenly wrong with “our” toilets?

The “problem” about toilets that are -according to the common understanding of the concept of sex- split into ‘female’ and ‘male’ is that it is inherently exclusive (and thus hurtful) to persons who do not identify themselves as part of or who do not feel they belong to either category. To be explicit: self-identifying transgender, transsexuals, and persons in transition are flatly “locked out”. Just “popping to the loo” (be it at a restaurant, café, or any public building such as universities) therefore is practically impossible and in any event, highly unpleasant, and (mostly for others involved) rather controversial.

Would you feel comfortable going to the men’s if you aren’t one?

Arguing that the ever-so preeminent dichotomy of the sexes is very much ‘dated’ is no easy task as one falls on deaf ears very quickly –even though a great number of academics and activists have worked on this and related issues for years. It seems that in a society where all signs of otherness are still, to put it carefully, very much frowned upon, such “difference” simply cannot exceed the socially set boundaries of tolerance. A person’s sex is perceived as a biological given, as something one cannot (and must not?) doubt, question or even attempt to change. This notion, however, has been fundamentally challenged, as not only gender (the socially constructed pattern of expectations regarding behaviour, appearance and personal traits based around what is called our ‘natural sex’[1]), but also the understanding of the “biological” body itself is increasingly seen as being subject to social values, norms, and hence standardisation. ‘The body’ is thus not the clear-cut, biologically determined, value-free given that malestream science wants us to believe in but ‘[…] the product of an elaborate system of production, through toilet manners, table manners, sexual manners; appropriate dress […]’[2]

On the way to a non-discriminatory social co-existence…

The University of Manchester Students Union introduced a pair of gender neutral toilets in 2008, which triggered a heated discussion (inter-)nationally, even though the University of Bradford Students Union had introduced ‘unisex’ toilets shortly beforehand –as the first UK public body to do so deliberately and publicly. Numerous Unions followed suit, taking years of ‘Equality and Diversity’ related campaigns to heart.

While this article has focussed on an LGBT point of view, it must be noted that gender-free toilets also make life easier for numerous other groups, notably (male) parents and guardians who mind a child of the opposite sex, as well as disabled people, especially if they are in need of a carer. While so-called ‘family restrooms’ are still very uncommon, toilets designated for disabled people are mostly de-gendered anyway, as a lot of disabled people have carers of the opposite sex.

The right to be oneself is…

One might like to think that in a 21st century liberal democracy, every person would have the right/opportunity to use a public toilet without feeling unnecessarily uncomfortable. Since this is, for instance, simply not the case for a self-identifying woman who does not correspond to the socially expected conception of what a ‘woman’ ought to look like, we can see that not everyone can express their identity as freely as they are entitled to. This is also a reminder that some are clearly still ‘more equal than others’ and that the socially constructed gender a person gets ‘branded’ on is still a considerable hurdle. Sticking to the archaic gendered toilets is not the way forward, as it permeates the exclusive, discriminatory categorisation of people into the binary sexes. All “deviation” is demonised and dismissed as ‘the Other’ –the inferior, the faulty. No real peaceful co-existence can be established in an environment where only fear is stirred. Transphobia is arguably even greater as transgender and transsexual persons are even less integrated and tolerated than, say, homosexuals supposedly are. The universal introduction of (note, not the substitution for) non-gendered toilets would bring about a positive breeze of change that would be a step towards a more integrated and homogenous society.

Article by Katie Pelzelmayer.
Edited by Matthew Byatt.

[1] See Tracie O’Keefe, ‘Gender’, in Sex, Gender & Sexuality, ed. K. Fox (London, Extraordinary People Press, 1999) for the representation of a  ‘classical’ or a more widely accepted understanding of  gender (‘gender is a game people play’, p. 56.). It can be argued, however, that gender is actually more a game people must play in order to be accepted in their social environments.
[2] Liz Stanley, Breaking Out Again –Feminist Ontologies and Epistemologies (London, Routledge, 1993), p. 197.