The necessity of gender-neutral toilets

Image Credit: sarahmirk via Wikimedia Commons

Entering a toilet is a choice; a choice between entering a women’s or a men’s toilet. It’s so easy, that some people may not even think about it as a choice. To be exact, cis people (people who are completely comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth) don’t have to think twice about it, because for most, the most difficult part of a toilet trip might be to figure out which gender the entrance symbols mean. For men, a Mars symbol or a silhouette with no discernible clothes would indicate where to go, and for women, a Venus symbol or a silhouette with a dress would do the same. However, even a basic need like a toilet isn’t an easy choice for trans people (people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) and non-binary people (people who don’t completely identify as male or female). Think about it, how often do you see a transgender or non-binary symbols on doors?

One can argue that trans people who identify as male or female can still use gendered toilets with no problem, because they need only to enter a toilet marked as the gender they align with. However, gendered toilets don’t often accommodate for trans people. In a standard men’s toilet for example, trans men will find no dispensers for sanitary products, and lack cubicles which anyone can use, in favour of urinals which not everyone can. Does this mean that, in order to be trans-inclusive, existing facilities need only be adjusted? Yes, but it won’t be a solution for all trans and non-binary people.

This need for gender-neutral toilets was exposed in a 2017 report by TransEDU Scotland, a Strathclyde University project on experiences of trans students and staff in Scottish higher education

There are various reasons for this. If a trans person does not ‘pass’ as cis, cis people might vocalise their discomfort towards or accost a trans person for being in the ‘wrong’ toilet. The trans person must then experience the feeling of being invalidated, fear further harassment, and for those who still have the emotional energy to do so, spend it on having a conversation with a stranger, who may or may not be receptive. This is inconvenient when all you want to do is simply visit the toilet. This leads to tired trans people entering toilets that do not align with their gender, where they are sure to be misgendered. A closeted trans person may end up in this situation because they do not want to come out to strangers every time they visit the toilet. It’s a catch-22 situation, where going to either toilet will leave the trans person feeling invalidated, exhausted and anxious.

Add non-binary people into the equation, and the issue becomes even more complex. Not having a third option for toilets can make non-binary people feel excluded, as the toilet-providing area clearly don’t have non-binary people on their agenda. Plus, by going into one of two toilets, non-binary people are having to choose which of the two genders they align with, which is a dilemma, as non-binary people do not completely align with either gender. Not to mention, non-binary people should not have to limit themselves to these two genders on a daily basis. Currently, the only option for non-binary people in public spaces is disabled toilets, which is not ideal. Facilities specific to disabled toilets is often essential for disabled people (cis or trans), which leads to non-disabled trans and non-binary people feeling as if they are taking up disabled people’s spaces. It’s worth noting that accessible spaces are scarce to begin with, as usually there would be one disabled toilet per person, whereas there would be a number of gendered toilets for several people. To take up that space would mean reducing accessibility for those who really need these facilities.

It becomes obvious then, why a gender-neutral toilet would be inclusive and beneficial. As anyone of any gender can enter these toilets, there is no sense of someone with the ‘wrong’ gender entering the toilet. This drastically reduces the chance of being questioned or accosted for coming into the toilet. It also means that non-binary people do not have to choose one binary gender over another. In offering them a third choice, non-binary people are empowered with the ability to choose for themselves which facilities they want to use. Gender-neutral toilet is thus essential for the welfare of trans and non-binary people.

This need for gender-neutral toilets was exposed in a 2017 report by TransEDU Scotland, a Strathclyde University project on experiences of trans students and staff in Scottish higher education. Such research is important in informing gender-neutral toilet construction, so that toilets can be constructed that are as inclusive and accessible as possible.

A closeted trans person may end up in this situation because they do not want to come out to strangers every time they visit the toilet. It’s a catch-22 situation, where going to either toilet will leave the trans person feeling invalidated, exhausted and anxious

TransEDU Scotland posted a Gender Neutral Toilet Signage Toolkit from Ellen Murray, a Northern Irish trans activist who founded TransgenderNI. According to Murray, ‘It is vital to ensure that there are a number of gender neutral toilet facilities across your campus, alongside gender-neutral changing facilities in Sports Centres, laboratories, and on professional placements, etc. There are a number of important matters to consider when developing this provision, including location, access and appropriate signage.’ Murray advised that when setting up gender-neutral toilets for the first time, they should be clearly marked as gender-neutral with signage, have sanitary bins, more cubicles than urinals, and should not be treated like disabled toilets, such as being accessible only with a key. Gender-neutral toilets should also be signposted, such as in campus maps, so that more non-binary people are aware they exist and can access them more easily.

Trans and non-binary people-led initiatives such as TransEDU Scotland help improve awareness of what trans and non-binary university members really need. Only by giving agency to trans and non-binary people on improving their own quality of life, can universities become more inclusive and comfortable for everyone.

If you are a staff or student at a Scottish university, whether cis or trans, TransEDU Scotland has educational resources informing people about trans and non-binary experience, as well as provide guidance for trans and non-binary people on campus.

This post was written by Shin Woo Kim and edited by Karolina Zieba.

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