When a Toilet Becomes a Symbol of Exclusion

Photo of a sign with an arrow pointing to the right followed by a transgender symbol at the center and disabled toilet sign.

A toilet sign at the TEDxWomenLondon2018

Toilet /ˈtɔɪlət/

A structure like a seat over a hole where you get rid of waste from your body.

A room in a house or public building that contains a toilet.

Early this month I attended LondonWomen. As per the director and curator of the event – Maryam Pasha – it was 8 years in the making. The stimulating array of speakers showed a labor of love, commitment, and resilience. 

I went to the event to keep up with the state-of-the-art in women’s issues and to network. I did a lot of the first (more at the end of this post), less of the second.

I also had a “toilet” epiphany:

Before the conference started – In my search for a ladies’ toilet, I stumbled upon the sign at the top of this post. I’d never seen the symbol in the center labeled INCLUSIVE before. Google informed me that it was the transgender symbol.

Session 1 –  Journalist Amelia Abraham, who writes about LGBTQ+ politics, discussed the controversy about what toilets should the transgender people use. More specifically,  their use of/ban from women’s toilets. It struck me that it had never occurred to me that transgender people needed special toilets. I also experienced some cognitive dissonance remembering the inclusive toilet symbol in the morning.

Amelia argued that transgender people already suffer enough abuse (one in eight trans people have been physically attacked by colleagues or customers at work in Britain), sexual violence (the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that 47% of transgender people are sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime), and mental health issues (in the UK, two in five trans young people have attempted suicide). They don’t need to be excluded from women’s toilets under the premise that they put women at risk (e.g. some argue that it makes it easier for violent men to sneak into women’s toilets under the pretense that they are transgender people).

She finished her talk quite dramatically by stating “Is feminism really feminism if oppresses people?”.

Session 2Dr. Clara Baker – who manages the Centre for Applied Superconductivity in the Materials Department at Oxford University and is a trans scientist – discussed the lack of trans models when growing up and the positive change once she transitioned and started working at Oxford University.

After the conference – Even if I found the talks very interesting, I have to admit that it was the “transgender toilet” discussion that got stuck in my brain. Is it more inclusive to have men, women and non-gender toilets or should we aim for gender-neutral toilets? Why would somebody prefer to queue to get access to the women’s toilet when they could get their “inclusive” toilet”? Would I mind Dr. Baker using “my” public toilet? Are we leaving women and girls more vulnerable because trans women use female toilets?

I needed additional sources. Some things I learned:

  • As per Stonewall – charity seeking to advance equality and acceptance for LGBT people – in UK “trans people can and have been using the toilets that match their gender for years without issue. This is another media-generated ‘debate’, and it’s actually having a negative effect on many cis people too; people whose appearance doesn’t fit the stereotypes of male or female are increasingly being challenged for simply going into a public loo.”
  • Some trans people avoid gendered public toilets at all costs concerned about experiencing verbal and physical harassment simply for using the restroom. A survey of nearly 28,000 transgender people in the US found
    • Respondents reported being verbally harassed (12%), physically
      attacked (1%), or sexually assaulted (1%) when accessing a restroom.
    • 24% of respondents said that someone had questioned or challenged their presence in a restroom in the past year.
    • More than half (59%) of respondents avoided using a public restroom in the past year because they were afraid of confrontations or other problems they might experience.

Check Refuge Restrooms, a web application that seeks to provide safe restroom access for transgender, intersex, and gender nonconforming individuals.

  • The bathroom bill, AKA the legislation that defines the access of transgender individuals to public toilets in Noth America, has a Wikipedia page.
  • A recent study from The Williams Institute examined public records of restroom crime reports from comparable Massachusetts cities that allowed trans people to use toilets matching their gender with others that don’t. The research concluded that there was no correlation between trans-inclusive policies and toilet safety. Additionally, they found that “reports of privacy and safety violations in public restrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms are exceedingly rare“.
  • This UNISEX toilet sign on a Kroger store stroke a chord. The sign reads:

    We have a UNISEX bathroom because sometimes gender specific toilets put others into uncomfortable situations. And since we have a lot of our friends coming to see us, we want to provide a place for our friends who are:

    • Dads with daughters
    • Moms with sons
    • Parents with disabled children
    • Those in the LGBTQ community
    • Adults with aging parents who may be mentally or physically disabled

    THANK YOU for helping us to provide a safe environment for EVERYONE!

  • Computer simulations run comparing gendered and gender-neutral toilets show that the later reduce waiting time for women, on top of addressing the concerns of transgender individuals as well as disabled people that may have carers of a different gender.
  • Finally, whilst I’ve seen innumerable times women going to men’s toilets rather than languishing on “our” restroom queue, the only times I recall seeing men in a women’s toilet is when cleaning them. On the flip side, male friends and family told me that they avoid at all cost the use of female toilets – even in a case of urgency. The reason? Too afraid of being insulted, beaten or arrested.

With all the evidence above, shouldn’t we strive for gender-neutral toilets that would provide an inclusive and safe environment as well as equal waiting times for all, i.e. “queuing equality“? Undecided yet? Check some designs here.

What are the public toilets for you? A safe place? A ghetto? A “second class” citizen experience? Or simply a room where you get rid of waste from your body?

PS. Other highlights of LondonWomen

  • Josie Young‘s compelling case for designing ethical and feminist AI products. I thoroughly recommend Josie’s workshop Building Feminist Chatbots’, which I attended at the Ada’s List Conference 2018. The material is available on her Twitter account.
  • Baroness Lola Young assertion that slavery is well and thriving in the 21st century. The International Labour Organization estimates there are 40.3 million people in slavery – 71% of them are women and girls. In the UK, the estimate of suspected victims of modern slavery has increased tenfold in the last 5 years – from 13,000 in 2013 to 136,000 in 2018.
  • Ben Hurst’s talk about The Good Lad Initiative, which delivers workshops to enable men and boys to move away from toxic masculinity and towards gender equality. Ben challenges us to change the old adage “Boys will be boys” for “Boys will be what we teach them to be”.

How does this article resonate with you?