By Juliette Cule
In my research for this article, I found that most people initially expressed indifference as to whether we should have gender neutral toilets. However, when you begin to scratch the surface of this seemingly simple question – should we all pee together? – it became an emotional minefield. This article from 2000 shows that it is an ongoing debate, and there are a myriad of opinions to be had, and over the course of two posts, I’m going to consider as many of these opinions as possible. Firstly I will outline the logistics and practicalities of gender-neutral toilets. In my next post, I will try to unpack some of the responses to the question, and explore some of the problems that either GNT (gender neutral toilets) or gendered toilets pose.
Why am I asking this question? Well – in considering how gender equality affects our daily lives, I noticed that toilets and clothing often have gender divides that we are so used to. It is imperative that we question everything around us, and in this case the answers seemed a lot more complicated than expected. Why are toilets gendered? Where did this come from? Why are we so used to it? How do I feel about it as a women, a feminist, and a human (among other personas!). Why is it that we accept gender neutral toilets in some spaces – on trains, aeroplanes and most likely in our homes – but we react to them when they are unexpected? With increasing acceptance that gender is fluid and structured by society, why do we still divide people along strict gender binaries on a daily basis? It was one of the most overt gender divides I could think of, and yet it has taken me 22 years to consider why this is (I’m usually much quicker as my mother will attest). The discussion also opened up into the idea of ‘mother and baby’ areas being outdated, and when you become too old to go to your ‘gender opposite’ toilet with your parent. All of this has fed into a week of lively debates and surprising opinions.
So before we outline why GNTs are worth considering, we should consider what they are. A good place to start is this briefing written by the NUS for student unions considering implementing a GNT policy. The NUS recommends three forms of GNT – GNTs being ‘toilets and/or bathroom facilities which do not have gendered signage and do not require the person using them to define into a gender’
They outline these three models as:
• the Single Toilet Model, which is one or more single gender-neutral toilets with their own sink/hand dryers etc (similar to a disabled toilet);
• the Multiple Cubicle Model, a set of toilets without gendered signage. This can be done by putting in a new set of toilets entirely, or by changing the signs on a set of existing toilets;
• the ‘Accessible’ Toilet Model, whereby the existing disabled toilet is changed into an ‘accessible’ toilet. These are accessible for disabled people and those who wish to use gender-neutral toilets.
So we can see that the toilet itself remains the same – it is the sign that changes. In the context of the NUS policy, GNTs would be installed alongside gendered toilets to ensure everyone had a comfortable space. I’m also interested in the implications that a complete conversion to GNTs would hypothetically have – although I wouldn’t campaign for this change.
One of the key proposals for these toilets is that they allow for greater gender inclusivity. These toilets can be used by anyone, regardless of gender. This provides a safer space for people with a more ambiguous gender identity and people who identify outside of the gender binary. It ensures that people do not have to choose a ‘best option’ and have a space which they feel comfortable and safe in. It is a simple and effective way of making an everyday space more inclusive. The need for spaces like this is made apparent by websites such as safe2pee – a directory of gender neutral toilets for those who feel they need them. There is also a new app (with a startling but effective name!) to help people find the toilets that suit them.
This NUS briefing is obviously very student-centric but I think it is worthwhile considering the what, whys and hows of gendered toilets and the social, philosophical and individual implications that a change in the system would bring. Public toilets are a relatively new phenomenon – in 1358 there were said to be four public toilets in the whole of London, one of which discharged straight into the river. The need for public toilets was brought to light in the Victorian era with the Public Health Act of 1848 calling for Public Necessaries to improve sanitation. Indeed, I am following a worthy path as George Jennings from Brighton installed one of the first examples of Public Toilets at the Great Exhibition in 1851. For more interesting history about public toilets check out here – I think I have found my favorite history subject.
Given we are at Belle Jar, lets add a feminist slant. The first public conveniences was a ‘Gents’, and nearly all toilets were for men – women were not expected to be out of the house long enough to require them. Now that we have gone someway to address that issue (there are ongoing campaigns to improve and expand public toilets for women), lets continue to look at ways of improving gender inclusivity for everybody, however they identify.
(for the second part of this article click here)