Now before I begin, I must clearly state that I am by no means an expert on gender identity or expression. This is just a piece on my own thoughts, aiming to encourage discussions about accessibility for all.
Recently, I have been having conversations with family and friends about the way in which most toilets in the UK are designed. Usually you will find that there will be a ‘Mens’, ‘Womens’ and ‘Disabled’ toilet. In my opinion, the gender binary system is too restrictive and unaccepting, it uncomfortably sweeps individuals into categories that they may not fit into. Our identity is made up of so many factors, our gender and sex only being 2 of these. If you are unclear of the difference between the two, sex refers to biological differences such as chromosomes and internal and external sex organs. Gender however, is performed and has been created by society, such as the concept of masculinity and femininity.
Some people feel incredibly anxious about the idea of ‘unisex’ toilets. Why? For many reasons. From a young age gender and sex can play a huge part in your life. Boys and girls are often separated physically and by the way they are treated by teachers and guardians. There have been numerous studies showing that young children are treated differently depending on their sex and are encouraged and punished to shape the characteristics they will possess as they get older, simply because of what society deems appropriate for your gender.
So how does this relate to toilets. Well, for many transsexuals* or gender fluid individuals, going to the toilet can be an extremely nerve-racking experience, as it is a public way of announcing who you are. More importantly, individuals are stigmatised if others feel they are in the wrong bathroom. Whether this is through stares, mutters to friends or by actually telling them “this is the ladies”.
My partner recently pointed out that when you’re at a friends house, you don’t even think about who else uses their bathroom, as long as it’s clean. In most households it will be unisex. Often public disabled toilets are unisex and no one really gives that a second thought. I guess you could be stereotypical in assuming men are smelly and messy blah blah blah. But that’s a whole other issue entirely. Women may feel uncomfortable sharing toilets because they may feel they are in a vulnerable position or wish to keep certain things private like touching up makeup or dealing with menstruation. However I would strongly argue that this is contributing to the pressure there is on women to act and ‘perform’. Women must be perfectly put together and keep any “messy business” hidden away from the male gaze. We shouldn’t be reinforcing this. Everyone has to go the toilet. Toilets should be designed in away that is accessible for everyone. Okay, some men might prefer urinals, that’s fine. Have one block, with lots of cubicles. Some with urinals, others without. An all inclusive space, accommodating for disability, all gender identities and changing facilities.
It’s about developing an understanding of the general publics diverse needs. It’s all about designing public spaces in a way that works for everyone.
*Helpful video on Gender Identity (including some definitions): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5sHBAVjahp8
Want to learn more? MTV Braless (Laci Green) recently posted a video titled “Should All Bathrooms be Gender Neutral?” Definitely go watch! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRSXSWDxMlk (Published on Jan 23, 2015)