There was recently discussion on my blog about problems that transgender people face when using public toilets. I have always supported everybody’s right to be treated equally before the law, and free from discrimination, but I didn’t know how best to apply this principle to the use of public toilets.
After some research, I have found toilet talk more fascinating than I expected. One book in particular proved very useful. Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing is a series of essays by various experts, published by New York University Press and edited by Harvey Molotch and Laura Noren.
The dynamic of using public toilets is complicated. It is entangled with personal embarrassment and prejudice, as well as the practicalities of sanitation and resources. And gender-segregated toilets cause problems for men, women, parents, carers and transgender people.
We should stop segregating public toilets based on gender. If we were today segregating public toilets based on race, we would immediately know that it was wrong. And many of the concerns expressed today about ending gender segregation, used to be expressed in the past about ending race segregation.
Any segregation should be based on how the toilet is used, not on who is using it. We could have single-toilet rooms for people who need or prefer comfort and privacy, and multi-toilet rooms for people who need or prefer efficiency or social interaction. We could have some rooms with only stand-up urinals, and different rooms with only sit-down cubicles.
It will take time to have such a change supported and implemented, partly because many people don’t even like discussing public toilets, never mind campaigning about them, and partly because the existing system is already physically embedded into so many public buildings as well as appearing in so many legal building codes.
So, until we reach that ideal, we should add an extra option of new single-toilet rooms that anybody can use, whatever their gender. This would include cis people, transgender people, disabled people with carers of different genders, and parents with children of different genders. In other words, anybody who values the privacy and practicality of going to the toilet in comfort, over either the speed or the problems of using a segregated multi-toilet room.
That would address the practical issue of everyone being able to go to the toilet with the minimum of discomfort in the existing imperfect system, if they want to merely go to the toilet rather than make a political stand. Meanwhile, we can also address the wider political issues of phasing out gender segregation, and making the existing rules more flexible to enable transgender people, disabled people with carers, and families with children, to use segregated rooms if they want or need to.
Balancing the different concerns
To keep things in perspective, New York sociology professor Harvey Molotch reminds us that many people around the world have to go to the toilet in the open, possibly in a ditch full of untreated sewage. Even in Western democracies, homeless people and taxi drivers can find it difficult to easily access a public toilet. And the design of public toilets can cause discomfort and problems for various categories of people.
An ideal public toilet system would meet the needs of all these people. In reality, most public toilet systems are limited by space and financial resources, and so the challenge is balancing the different concerns of everybody in as fair a way as possible.
Sometimes meeting the needs of some people can cause problems for other people. For example, some disabled people need unique cubicle design, while blind people prefer continuity in design. Gender segregation can make some people more comfortable, at the expense of making other people less comfortable or even afraid.
The most basic mismatching of needs is having the same amount of public toilet spaces for men and women. On the surface, this seems fair, but in practice, men and women use public toilets differently.
Largely because of the efficiency of urinals, men can get in and out of toilets quicker than women. Also, women tend to use the washing and mirror area to do their hair and make-up, and chat to each other, more than men do.
This means there are typically longer queues outside the female toilet. Research suggests that, to equalise queuing time, there should be twice as many female toilet spaces as male ones.
Why are public toilets segregated by gender?
Of course, this raises the question of why public toilets should be segregated by gender in the first place. Most of us use the same toilet when at home, or when sharing hotel rooms, or when visiting friends, regardless of our gender. Even many small restaurants have just one or more single user toilets that everybody uses. So why should it be different in shared public toilets?
Terry Kogan, a Utah Law Professor who has written on legal issues relevant to LGBT people, says that the practice started during the Industrial Revolution. Men were expected to work outside the home, and women inside the home. Women would retire to a different room after domestic meals, to allow men to deliberate alone on important matters over brandy and cigars. When women ventured outside the home, they were segregated into different carriages on trains, different reading rooms in libraries, and different toilets in the workplace.
What arguments were used to justify this blatant sexism? They included protecting the delicate sensitivities of women who were likely to become dizzy and faint at work, the Victorian obsession with public modesty among women who had ventured outside their homes, and the inconvenience for men who might be distracted or worse by the presence of women in public places.
Most Western democracies have since repealed most laws that supported this sexist segregation. However, the segregation laws for public toilets were typically incorporated into laws about public sanitation and architecture, then embedded into actual buildings. This has helped this particular aspect of sex discrimination to remain resistant to change, even though there are no health or architectural benefits to segregating toilets users by gender.
Concerns about embarrassment and discomfort
I started to study this topic because of discussions in my comments sections about transgender people using public toilets. Should transgender people use the segregated toilets of their birth gender or their trans gender?
Both cis and transgender people can fear embarrassment and discomfort when sharing the same public toilet. These concerns are real. But they are a factor whichever toilets transgender people use. For example, some cis women don’t want male-to-female transgender people using toilets segregated for females, either because of who they are or because of fears that cis men would pretend to be transgender females.
But, if this thinking was enforced, and male-to-female transgender people were not allowed to use toilets segregated for females, then it would instead be female-to-male transgender people who would use the toilets segregated for females. Surely this would lead to the same problems of embarrassment and discomfort that the concerns are trying to avoid?
Or is the embarrassment and discomfort based on whether a person in a female-segregated toilet has a penis, regardless of whether they are cis or transgender? If that is the case, how would you even know whether they have a penis, unless they undress outside the cubicles or you follow them into a cubicle?
Ironically, embarrassment about seeing penises already exists in existing male-segregated toilets, where some men using urinals are concerned about themselves or the man standing beside them looking at each other’s penis. This can lead to some men using cubicles to pee, which strengthens further the argument for unisex toilets.
Ultimately, whoever is using whatever toilets, we should tackle embarrassment and discomfort with education about tolerance and human nature.
Concerns about harassment and violence
Both cis and transgender people can also fear harassment and violence in public toilets. On the one hand, some transgender people fear harassment and violence if they are forced to use the male-segregated toilets. On the other hand, some cis women fear that they can face these problems if transgender people are allowed to enter female-segregated toilets.
These concerns are also real, but they assume that harassment and violence comes only from cis straight male perpetrators against female victims. Whatever toilets transgender people use, it would not change harassment or violence by straight men or women against LGBT people, or by LGBT people against any victims, or any other combination of perpetrator and victim.
Ultimately, many fears about harassment and violence in public toilets rest on the belief that gender-segregated toilets will keep both cis and transgender women safer from being attacked. But is this belief reasonable? Mary Anne Case, a Chicago law professor specialising in the regulation of sex, gender and sexuality, suggests not.
She points out that crimes against women in female-segregated toilets already take place, independently of what transgender people do. Indeed, she argues that the expected presence of both sexes in a unisex toilet could act as a deterrent, by decreasing the likelihood that a perpetrator will be alone with his intended victim, and increasing the chances of a bystander able and willing to offer aid will be present.
Harassment and violence are crimes. We should tackle crimes with a combination of public education and effective law enforcement, regardless of where the crimes take place, and regardless of the gender of the perpetrators and the victims. We should not allow the fact that criminals will commit crimes to prevent law-abiding people from using public toilets.
Related concerns in other areas
Some of the same issues arise with regard to gender segregation in changing rooms, swimming pools, domestic violence shelters and migrant accommodation. And there can be an overlap between prejudices based on gender, class and race. We should continually challenge such prejudices, and ensure that regulations and laws are based on people’s behaviour, not their background.
A century ago in north America, swimming pools were segregated by gender but not by race. When municipal pools introduced unisex swimming during the 1920s, in order to make swimming more family friendly, they started to segregate by race instead. When that became illegal from the 1950s onward, many white middle-class Americans built private domestic swimming pools, leaving others to swim at inner-city municipal pools.
Today in some European countries, there are concerns about an increase in sexual assaults perpetrated by migrants from countries with cultures that are disrespectful to women. In Sweden, which has pioneered gender neutral toilets and changing rooms, some swimming pools are now introducing gender segregation to protect women and children from such assaults. We should resist eroding our commitment to gender equality in this way.
We should enforce strong legal consequences for people who commit sexual assaults, whether these assaults happen in public toilets or swimming pools or public squares or anywhere else. And we should make both indigenous citizens, and migrants from countries with different cultures, aware of these strong legal consequences. We have to practically protect our values of human rights and gender equality if we are to retain them.
What toilets should transgender people use? My answer to this question is shaped by my belief that we should stop segregating public toilets based on gender. We should treat everybody equally before the law, and free from discrimination, based on gender as much as based on race, when they are going to the toilet.
Until we reach the ideal of public toilets that everybody can use equally, I believe that transgender people should use whichever segregated toilet that they feel most comfortable using. It should not matter to the functional act of going to the toilet what your gender is, or what other people think your gender is.
For as long as we use such arbitrary criteria as gender to segregate people using toilets, we should apply these rules flexibly enough to enable transgender people, disabled people with carers of different genders, and parents with children of different genders, to use segregated rooms if they want or need to.
Also, until we reach the ideal of public toilets that everybody can use equally, we should add an extra option of new single-toilet rooms that anybody can use, whatever their gender or race or height or hair colour or life philosophy.
We should also recognise that many people sincerely disagree with these views. We should not describe such people as transphobic. They are mostly good people who have a different opinion about something they feel strongly about. We should seek to persuade them of the merits of tolerance and reasoned evidence over unfounded fears and social pressures.
As a reminder, much of my analysis has been informed by the book Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing, edited by Harvey Molotch and Laura Noren. If you are interested ins serious toilet talk, it is well worth reading.