The Big Controversy Surrounding Unisex Public Toilets

Can we ensure that public toilets become spaces that are more inclusive for LGBT people, without sacrificing the privacy of others?

Rightly or wrongly, I cannot relate to how members of LGBT communities feel about themselves and the situation they find themselves in. This does not mean that I’m not aware that, most of the time, these human beings are the victims of severe and unwarranted discrimination. The fact is that due to my own sexual orientation, considered as the “norm”, I don’t actually have the problems that they do. The question that remains open to all of us who are considered to be “normal” is how would we react if the “LGBT problem” surged into our professional or personal lives. In other words- how would each of us react if someone we deeply loved admitted that he/she was different to the person we perceived them to be, in terms of their sexuality or gender identity? Furthermore, as an employer, how would we react to a member of the LGBT community responding to a job vacancy that we had posted? These questions could challenge our conception of how tolerant we actually are.

I am free of all prejudices. I hate every one equally. – Groucho Marx

I want to focus on a particular problem facing these minorities in their everyday lives – public toilets.

I myself hate the uncleanliness and lack of privacy in public toilets, and most of the toilet roll will be used to vigorously wipe the toilet seat before I sit on it. However, that isn’t the issue here, and it certainly won’t be the main concern some transgender individuals have when going to use these public spaces.

The first question that should be posed is why are public toilets segregated at all? This causes endless problems for women who have to queue for hours, whereas men can just walk straight into the “Men’s room”. This is, of course, due to the exclusive use of cubicles – dictated by anatomy – by women which, due to lack of space, are limited in numbers.

The United States didn’t even care about gender-specific toilets until the end of the 19th century, when Massachusetts became the first state to pass a law enforcing the use of separate toilets for men and women. The aim was to protect a social morality that was heavily related to the notion of separate spheres for each sex. The notion that a woman’s life is her family and her home has – unfortunately – endured the test of time. Even today, mixing of the sexes in such a confined and intimate environment such as public toilets would potentially cause feelings of uneasiness and embarrassment to a lot of people.

Although replacing gender-specific toilets by unisex ones would seem to be the answer that sections of the LGBT community is looking for, it would only displace the problem. Anti-discrimination measures have to work across the board, and installing extra gender-neutral toilets would possibly make the people who use them easy targets for abuse. On the other hand, eliminating gender-specific toilets would discriminate against people who, for whatever reasons, feel uneasy about sharing a toilet space with other genders. We must be extremely careful that, in enhancing the rights of minorities, we do not diminish the rights of the majority.

If you think about it, the public toilet that comes closest to the ideal one is designed to be used by disabled people. In this instance, disability takes precedence over sexual orientation. If the LGBT community, specifically those who fall outside of perceived gender norms is to have its own specific public toilet facilities, are we conceding that these people have a disability of some kind?

A gender neutral sign is posted outside a bathrooms at Oval Park Grill on May 11, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

 

The fundamental problem we face in this issue is related to human appearance. Accepting the LGBT community as part of our lives still depends on “what you don’t see, is what you tolerate”. Homosexual men and women who do not change their appearance in a way that is clearly visible to all, will be accepted much more easily by others and may even pass unnoticed in public places such as toilets. The problem lies in the fact that most transgender persons are easily recognisable as transitioning between gender norms, and may pose an acceptance issue for others. Whereas I have never asked about the sexual orientation of my “standing neighbour” in a public toilet, how would I feel if a pre-op transgender person, dressed as a woman, were standing next to me? I would be tolerant, of course, but his/her presence  would not go unnoticed. In this way, I would potentially have contributed to the ongoing problems that these people have – being openly noticed and sub-consciously questioned or even rejected.

The situation takes a further twist when considering people who are referred to as “non-binary”. Far from being a mathematical conundrum, the existential problems that some of these people may face run deep into their psyches and are no less important than the rest of the LGBT community. How should we cater for someone who, whilst having the appearance of a man, feels so deeply that he is neither woman or man, that he cannot face using a men’s or ladies’ toilet? Do we need a fourth kind of toilet to cater for these people?

In 2014, the Open Society Foundations published a report entitled “License to Be Yourself”, describing what could be identified as a third gender comprising people who did not identify themselves as being male or female. The report states that in view of the fact that many of these people cannot undergo gender-correction surgery or do not wish to do so, society as a whole should adapt to the needs of this non-negligible community.

Ideally, progressive laws and policies should include more than two sex/gender options for those who identify outside the binary categories of male and female.

Gender-free toilets also pose problems that go beyond accommodating gender differences. Religious sensibilities must also be taken into account, in particular, the need for Muslim women to wash and remove their covering before prayers.

The heated debate taking place over gender-neutral facilities is still in its infancy, but is gathering pace across the globe. Last year, North Carolina adopted a law stating that the gender mentioned on your birth certificate determines which public toilet you should use. Although later repealed, following widespread protests, the mere fact the such a law was considered, underscores the prejudices and uneasiness concerning the implementation of gender rights.

What a perfect world it would be in which multi-storey, multi-gender toilets are the norm, where all you have to do is walk into a cubicle, completely equipped with wash basin, electric dryer and, more importantly, baby changing facilities that men can also use without having to go into the “wrong” toilet. Such a world would even affect the way you speak to the waiter in your high-street bar, enquiring about the location of the bar instead of the rest-rooms. Unfortunately, having gender-free toilets would deny a woman the right to talk exclusively to another woman about her hopeless situation in a male dominated world. The fact that she has just seen her husband dine at a different table in the company of a different woman can only be shared with a complete stranger and in the absence of men. Or do we only see such conversations on the big screen? Be that as it may, the creation of gender-free toilets may well solve the problems of the LGBT community, but will it cure me of my toilet seat phobia?

About George Suchett-Kaye

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George is a British/French national. He has a passion for oral microbiology (obtained a PhD in Lyon, France) and a passion for philosophy and politics.

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One comment

  1. It may well cure you of your toilet seat phobia, as if people know that women are going to need to sit on the seat they’re about to pee on; they will probably take more care and/or lift the seat up. Men will also be less likely to use a cubicle to pee if there are urinals available because of the queues.

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