As we move towards a more gender inclusive, gender neutral world, what is the efficacy of toilets? Can we say oui oui to the wee wee of the greater we? If our language, our passport applications and our medical records allow us the fluidity to identify as whoever and whatever we want, then why are we still insisting on such binary definitions of gender for our public toilets? These are relics of a time-gone-by where we are asked to identify as a little armless man in trousers, or a paddle pop stick of a lady. According to the graphic, men are defined as wearing pants and girls wear dresses (or a cape, depending on your point of view). If we’re trying to subvert restrictive gender identity that denotes only two genders, shouldn’t we start here? When you start talking about toileting and safe places to take off your pants, the conversation gets really tricky. A toilet needs to be a safe place. You’re never quite as vulnerable as you are with your pants around your ankles. That’s why I only poo at home. Our home toilets have always been gender neutral. Sure we’ve complained about seat up or seat down. We’ve complained about wee on the floor. We’ve complained about the toilet paper replacement refusal of some genders. But these are minor issues around toilet hygiene. I’ve been a toilet cleaner; often women’s toilets were the most disgusting. So if the issue isn’t (perceptions of) gender cleanliness and toilet hygiene, why haven’t we moved to ‘unisex’ toilets in public settings?
Is it because we’ve had to admit that some men aren’t safe? Is that why there’s such a public outcry about the move towards unisex toilets? A new $80 million school project in Brisbane is building unisex toilets, and there’s a sense of alarm. In fact it made headlines in the Courier Mail with many fearing that this was going to create huge problems and put some young people at risk. That is quite possibly true. Why? Because we accept that some men will cause harm to others. We accept the existence of this sort of potential violence, or threat to safety, as a given.
While on the one hand, unisex toilets feel like pragmatic realistic thinking – on the other, it’s crazy to be exposing vulnerable people to a greater potential for harm. On a more philosophical level, it shows how accepted male violence is. No wonder we can’t get our stats down. Violence against women (and children) is a cultural norm. We accept that it will exist. That some men will cause harm to others (including other men) and we adapt our behaviour accordingly. The whole of society acquiesces to men’s violence. Individual women in DV situations get blamed for not leaving, but on a societal level we’re doing the same. We adapt our behaviour rather than demand that their behaviour changes.
Male toilets are often perceived as ‘unsafe’ places. For years, as a mother of a small boy, I took him to the ladies toilet. I would never send him into the men’s until I was certain he understood how to speak up for himself. The men’s toilet is for men. The women’s toilet has been for children, men who identify as women, women who identify as men and transgender people… basically the women’s toilet has long been open to anyone who doesn’t identify as strictly (cis) male. That’s because ‘women’s space’ is seen as safe space.
Of course in a school setting you have vulnerable young girls – they’re vulnerable because a hostile masculine society makes them so. Some will be dealing with the onset of menstruation and the sensitivities around that, and this is when privacy and having a safe space is essential. Young people are at risk of having the door flung open, being spied on, being cornered and being bullied or assaulted in a setting where often ‘no one’ is watching.
Philosophically I say ‘yes’ to unisex toilets, but in reality I say ‘no’, because it puts too many people at risk. How can we ever make the issues around where we release our gender fluid more gender fluid? So, here’s my idea for non-gender-binary loos: one for ‘Violent Men and Sexual Predators’ and another that says ‘Everyone Else’.