It’s Time To Get Rid Of Gender-Specific Toilets

Gendered toilet signs
Unsplash / Mike Wilson

The topic of gender has dominated the news over recent months. There’s been the huge controversy within the BBC in the UK, with many questioning the apparent divide between the salaries of male and female employees. As an organization who regard themselves as socially progressive employers, actively promoting equality between men and women, the disconnect between their brand message and the reality of the how these values exist in practice has left many with a bitter taste.

But the topic of gender isn’t the sole reserve of equal opportunities in the workplace, and it impacts us all in a variety of ways. Nowhere has the discussion been more hotly contested than the topic of gender-neutral toilets – and it is in this slightly less glamorous arena that the issue of gender has transformed our collective conception of what going to the toilet should entail.

Why do people want gender neutral toilets?

The rise of gender-neutral toilets is a concerted effort to provide transgender and non-binary individuals with a more comfortable and safe experience when going to the toilet. With many facing the choice of “which bathroom am I less likely to be harassed in?” the approach seems both logical and sensible. However the debate from both sides, and everywhere in-between, has led to controversy both outside and within the trans community.

Granted, the complexity of gender can often make for strained conversation due to a broad diversity of opinion and a variety of personal experiences on the issue, but such debate often obscures the fact that gender-neutral toilets are potentially far more banal than they might sound. But there does exists a wide portion of society that is against the idea, and many of the concerns are arguably entrenched ideals that have their roots in the cloudy origins of single sex toilets.

The murky history of gender specific toilets

The earliest instance of gender specific toilets apparently dates back to a Parisian ball in 1739. Signs at the event directed people to either a “Men’s Toilet” or “Women’s Toilet.”

Prior to this bathroom-based segregation, public toilets were commonly designated for men only, the idea that in order to protect the virtue of women, they needed to stay at home to take care of the children, iron and generally complete household chores.

But as women began to emerge in the workplace, reforms became increasingly necessary. A hundred and fifty years later, urinary segregation came to the United States, and in 1887 Massachusetts became the first state to pass a law mandating women’s restrooms in the workplace. By the 1920s, most other states had followed suit.

The overarching narrative of this newfound toilet apartheid was part of a total gender division in public life; women soon had their own reading rooms at libraries, their own entrances at post offices and banks, and their own carriages on trains. Today society has undoubtedly progressed, and these forms of gender segregation have been largely removed, but it’s surprising that one of the last bastions of this female/male divide throughout public life is the humble wee. Which begs the question: why?

The argument to keep single sex toilets

It seems there are two main reasons why we’ve continued to persevere with separate bathrooms. The first is equipment (a woman using a urinal is both impractical, and a sight to behold if successful), and the other is modesty. The traditional belief that sexes shouldn’t mingle when performing our daily duty has become ingrained in large parts of the public psyche.

The concept of “doing your business” before coming out to meet a member of the opposite sex seems alien to many of us, but is this because it’s just not we’re used to, and is there an inherent problem with that?

The practical considerations, however, seem less concerned with any form of prejudice. It’s fair to say that on the whole, women’s toilets are often nicer than their male counterparts, sporting an array of comfy sofa, mirrors that aren’t cracked, and toilet seats that haven’t been denigrated by a misfiring aim. Put simply, women’s toilets smell of rose petals and rainbows (whatever smell that may be), while the odor emanating from the men’s toilet is often enough to wilt the hardiest cactus.

In this particular context, there’s evidence to suggest that technology may be part of the solution. The equipment already exists where toilets can open and close automatically depending on your particular intentions, and automated cleaning robots can work constantly and tirelessly in order to avoid any potential mishaps. Cleanliness, it would seem, is an obstacle that could be overcome.

Queuing however – although a popular British pastime – is a practical concern for everyone involved. The further introduction of gender neutral toilets could result in men reminiscing about the convenience of their beloved urinals, and women may have to contend with increased cubicle competition.

In Berlin, authorities already have a plan to address the issue of urination efficiency, as they seek to redevelop the city’s conveniences, outlined in a 99-page city strategy paper called “the toilet concept”.

In the future, it’s proposed that urinals throughout Berlin should be used by all genders, and as part of their wider strategy, they’re in the process of testing a new, innovative female urinal. A prototype has already been installed at the university in Gelsenkirchen, and it comes with its very own cubicle door. The system is like a men’s urinal, only lower, and the user has her back to the wall before adopting a pose akin to a downhill skier.

It is not yet clear whether standing up to urinate will be acceptable to most women, but the point is that there are possible answers. As a species we’ve put people on the moon, so efficient toilet designs should be a walk in the park by comparison.

The argument for gender neutral toilets

Single-cubicle unisex conveniences are often touted as something new, a change that shouldn’t take place, but they’ve been around forever and the sky hasn’t fallen in. We use them at home, in cafes, restaurants and bars, and no one thinks anything of them.

The main contention appears to be in larger public facilities, but even here gender neutral washrooms are becoming increasingly common, including Lancaster University, The Barbican and a wealth of private businesses, often with a sign and a caption that reads “We don’t care.”

Anna Lee, vice-president of Lancaster University’s Student’s Union and a trans woman, explains how she campaigned for gender neutral toilets at Lancaster:

“Over the years my university has agreed to have single self-contained cubicles in all new builds. At first they were apprehensive but after the first few had been built it became the norm.”

As it’s an important point, change is often viewed with apprehension and fear, but after time it becomes the status quo, and the whole debate quickly become a non issue.

Carers looking after someone of the opposite sex could also benefit from gender neutral toilets, having the freedom to enter a single bathroom if the solitary disabled toilets found in most locations is occupied. Restaurants and private businesses would also be exonerated from playing gender police, a situation that has previously opened proprietors up to costly lawsuits.

It’s likely that in years to come, society will look back on the toilet gender discussion and wonder what all the fuss was about. It’s starting to happen already, particularly among the younger generation who are increasingly challenging conventional gender stereotypes, with half of US Millennial’s agreeing that gender isn’t limited to the binary concept of male and female. Slowly, people are viewing the bathroom divide as an unnecessary relic of the 19th century.

While there will always exist people on both sides of the argument, the main point is that for transgender and non-binary people, the fear of being attacked in a public bathroom is something that no one should live with. And surely we’re clever enough and adaptable enough to figure out how to go for a wee without the world exploding. TC mark

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