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What’s the Big Deal About Gender-Neutral Bathrooms?

Picture the scene: It’s a busy day in the library, and after several hours of long hard study with my seminar group, nature calls. ‘I have to pee,’ I say, heading for the bathrooms. A male friend catches up with me as he needs to go too. We walk to the bathrooms together, and, while I join the snaking line leading all the way out to the corridor, I watch him stroll into the male bathrooms. Two minutes later he walks straight back out again. ‘Right, I’ll see you back in there.’ He smiles, re-joining the group, while I spend the next 15 minutes standing cross-legged and bored with the 30 other women, all as desperate to go as myself.

Sound familiar? I thought so. If you’ve ever used a ‘women only’ bathroom you’ll be sure to have come across this disparity in queueing times, and you’re almost certain to have stared longingly after men coming in and out of the ‘men only’ bathrooms. If we all know this happens, why do we continue to divide bathrooms by gender, maintaining the privilege of a speedy bathroom visit for men and leaving women to queue twice as long? And this of course is only the tip of the iceberg.

I, as a cisgender woman, have never really had to think about where I pee. The door marked with the eponymous little bubble-headed, skirt-wearing symbol has only ever really been a sign for me that the wait will soon be over and I can finally empty my bladder.

But for those of us to whom gender is not such a clear-cut thing, making a choice of where to pee can be a minefield. The little bubble-headed figure you feel best represents your gender might not match the way others perceive you, or you may feel more in alignment with one gender on one day and the other the next. You might also feel that neither little bubble-headed figure really represents you, or you may have a child or carer of a different gender to you with whom you need to visit the bathroom.

Binary bathrooms are a throwback to the Victorian era when men had all the power and separating bathrooms was a way to protect sweet, vulnerable women from the dangers of those most dastardly of beasts, men. In a society where we are trying to equalise people’s positions and expand our understanding of gender away from the binary notion of man and woman, it’s surely paramount that the bathrooms in our most important and respected institutions — our universities, offices and public spaces — reflect the image of the society we are trying to create.

I spoke with activist and trans man X.G. about his own experiences dealing with binary bathrooms and the positive impact non-gendered bathrooms can have on us all. He details his personal experiences of binary bathrooms as follows: “I was assigned female at birth but identify outside of the gender binary. However, I feel closer to the category ‘man’ and thus, when presented with binary bathroom options, I would rather go to the men’s. However, because I know I’m perceived by strangers as an androgynous-looking woman, I never go into the men’s bathroom because I don’t feel physically safe in that space. So, instead, I go to the women’s bathroom, which is emotionally unpleasant, but at least I know I won’t be harassed. When I have a gender-neutral bathroom option I don’t have to choose between feeling emotionally triggered and physically unsafe. I can just go to the bathroom and do my thing in peace.”

X.G is far from being alone with this view. A recent instalment of MTV’s webseries ‘Braless’ points out that around 70 percent of trans people experience problems using binary bathrooms. It can be anything from being made to feel uncomfortable by others to serious physical violence.  Furthermore, it’s not just trans people who are affected. X.G draws some interesting connections between gender-neutral bathrooms and the way we see gender in society: “Binary bathrooms are institutionalised and regulated spaces which uphold and reinforce the gender binary. They are a place where gender-policing occurs and where presenting yourself outside of the gender norm can be dangerous. Because of that, gender-neutral bathrooms not only benefit non-binary people such as myself, but they are useful to many others: a femme gay man, a trans woman who is not taking oestrogen and is not perceived as a woman by narrow-minded people, a straight baby daddy who can’t find a diaper-changing table in the men’s bathroom, and so on.”

And it’s true, the way you use a binary bathroom is closely regulated. The use of urinals versus stalls for example in a men’s bathroom comes with its own weird etiquette, and that’s if there are even stalls available. By only providing certain facilities in certain bathrooms, such as changing tables or sanitary bins, binary bathrooms are incredibly prescriptive about the roles and characteristics that ‘males’ and ‘females’ are expected to take on.

It’s the US that is currently paving the way with the ‘bathroom revolution’ that’s sweeping the nation. From Texas passing a law to make all single cubicle public bathrooms gender neutral to the protests in campuses and schools up and down the country, people are beginning to recognise the issues that binary bathrooms create and are asking for change. Students in particular are leading the charge for all-inclusive bathrooms, providing an important mouthpiece to transform the way we all look at gender. “Any place can pave the way, but university campuses are very important,” X.G. asserts. “They are large institutions with many people who visit many bathrooms every day, so a bathroom reform in this context would have a huge impact. Besides, many people question and experiment with gender during their time at university. And even those who don’t, they’re gonna go out into the world. If they become more open-minded about gender as students, they’ll take that with them when they go into the world.”

So there you have it, binary bathrooms affect us all, whether we notice it on a daily basis or not. There are of course still people who worry about having mixed gender bathrooms. Suggestions that this could make things more dangerous for women as they would be sharing the space with men are a concern, and certainly not something to ignore. But as we have already seen; separation leads to problems for gender minorities, and creating binary bathrooms in the first place was a way to reinforce an unequal power balance between men and women, the very thing we’re trying to get away from, so there’s a case to be made here.

In a country like Finland, where gender-related cultural norms are much less segregated than in many other places, gender neutral bathrooms would be the logical next step. Because whether you’re a trans person, a parent with an opposite gender child, a man who’d like to pee in peace (as opposed to into a trough surrounded by strangers), or a woman who’d like to stand in line behind 15 people rather than 30 the next time they want to use the bathroom, gender neutral bathrooms are for you!


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Image from Out & About

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