There is an awful lot of noise being generated with respect to the use of public facilities by trans* people of late. This is always a subject of much discussion on relevant internet discussion boards and amongst the trans* community. ‘What toilet do I use,’ is nearly as common a question for us as ‘what is your greatest strength’, is in job interviews; generating about the same level of interest as well. However this issue has now reached the attention of broader society and we may be seeing the first signs of real tension and thus progress in this regard.
Planet Fitness in the USA has taken a stand for self identification and has gone so far as banning a woman from their gym for objecting to their inclusive policy. For more on this you can check out this link https://www.yahoo.com/health/woman-barred-from-planet-fitness-gym-after-113265872887.html or indeed Google it, it has been extensively covered elsewhere. Coincidentally it seems there is something of a backlash against trans* people using public toilets in certain parts of America, as certain states are seeking to prevent trans* people using toilets that are not the same as their assigned sex at birth. There are a number of stories about this, but these links http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/19/kentucky-transgender-bathrooms_n_6715616.html http://time.com/3734714/transgender-bathroom-bills-lgbt-discrimination/ will give you an idea of what has been going on.
Now I am of course very excited that trans* people’s concerns are finally becoming mainstream and of course being sure of your legal and socially condoned right to use a toilet is a good thing, but I think we need to realise that we as trans* people do not exist in a vacuum. We are members of society and as such our actions impact society as much as society’s actions impact on us.
At one and the same time, I applaud Planet Fitness for adhering to an inclusive and tolerant policy and yet have empathy for the woman that found herself unable to share a changing room with a trans* person. She is as much a product of her particular history and circumstances as we are. She has simply not been able to adjust her world view. How do we reconcile these two conflicting positions:
- Trans* people who have a real, legitimate and justified need to function in society
- The broader public who do not understand trans* issues and who are unable to differentiate between sex and gender?
Clearly in an ideal world the problem would not exist. In an ideal world there would be zero hang ups about nudity. In an ideal world there would be no risk of sexual predators in any public space. In an ideal world we would be safe and free. We do not live in an ideal world. Women often feel unsafe. Parents worry about allowing children to use public toilets without ‘supervision’. People of all sorts feel the need to be segregated from the ‘other’ sex when changing, using the toilet, washing hands etc.
I do not think too many people (especially those in ‘Anglo Saxon’ countries) are ready for unisex toilets and change rooms, but I do think we can start to move society towards this acceptance. It would be nice if all public toilets were universally designed. No open urinals, just closed booths and an open area for basins, mirrors etc. Change rooms in gyms could be similarly designed with individual private changing cubicles attached to a small shower.
The costs need not be prohibitive, indeed there may even be some space saving and all that would be required is a law that said all public toilets designed after a particular date will follow this specification. Existing toilets could remain segregated. Trans* people would then start to be accepted into society as people gradually got comfortable with our being there. Sure there would be some teething problems and some conflict and tension will be experienced, but nothing is achieved without conflict. We as a community would need to be sensitive and consider others (as I am sure most of us already do) but by governments acknowledging the wrong headedness of the current approach, society may start to see that we are not as scary as they first thought.
In any event the public debate about what has always been an issue of concern and embarrassment to many of us is to be welcomed. I hope that we will come out of this with a greater acceptance and understanding as well as more tolerance all round. These are indeed exciting times for the trans* community. Furthermore victories won in the USA (or anywhere else) can only make things easier for those in the rest of the world, although some societies move much slower than others. I just cannot see a gym in South Africa championing a trans* person over a cis gender person. Come on, prove me wrong, I dare you! (Not that it should get to that point, with understanding, compassion, empathy and mutual respect a lot can be achieved.)