The necessity of gender neutral toilets is a hotly debated topic. Some don’t see the need for them, others can’t see what difference they make. Of course, this issue is not really about toilets – for some, gender neutral toilets signify acceptance, and the debate surrounding them is merely a vehicle for people’s confusion surrounding wider LGBT+ issues.
Academics such as Judith Butler put it most eloquently: “Gender is not something that one is, it is something one does, an act… a ‘doing’ rather than a ‘being'”. At the University of Southampton we recently had an LGBT+ awareness week, in which pronoun badges were distributed in order to support people’s choice in how they present their identity to the world. It seems that the UK is starting to accept the idea that gender is fluid and a social construct, and the introduction of gender neutral toilets across the UK is one way in which we are starting to demonstrate these altered views. However, there is still a lot of debate surrounding the idea, showing we still have some way to go towards acceptance of the LGBT+ community.
Many universities across the UK have introduced “gender neutral toilets” as a show of support for the LGBT+ community, saying that all genders may use individual disabled toilets. Yet arguably, this is not a step forward. These toilets always have been gender neutral, but publicly declaring them “gender neutral” is seen as a sign of progression, without any potentially controversial action being taken.
To me, this is not a case of privacy. Cubicles provide privacy and are present regardless of gender. Wouldn’t it just be easier to open up more toilets and increase the availability of them for both genders? Urinals can still be kept private simply by putting a cubicle-style division between them and the rest of the bathroom, and this would not only create a more accepting environment for all genders, but it would also serve to break down the barriers between them. The way we view men peeing in public versus women just goes to show that this is necessary. It would also demystify periods and female excretion, and allow for more comfortable and open relations between men and women that are based on mutually respecting boundaries. There is an argument that gender neutral toilets would increase sexual relations and harassment, which again just shows that mutual respect is a deeper societal issue that needs to be tackled head on – rather than just avoided.
Of course, it goes without saying that introducing gender neutral toilets would hugely benefit those who identify as non-binary. Having gender neutral toilets in public places would signify that everyone is welcome, and they would eradicate uncomfortable definitions or confrontations with where people are “meant” to be. The University of Bristol has already taken the plunge, and spent £3.4 million on upgrading and building new toilets following the NUS campaign that supports this movement of inclusivity. Of course, there are still gendered toilets available too, and therefore surely there is only benefit to be seen in providing facilities for all.
Universities are the best place to begin this movement. A place of free thinking, acceptance and new ideas, this could then have an impact on the rest of the country and help dissolve the gender stereotypes and break down barriers. Though some will not even notice the introduction of gender neutral toilets, what it represents for others and for society deserves everyone’s attention and acceptance.