Yes, I know this topic? Again? Really?
But you see it is relevant. It keeps on coming back and people really do care about toilets. They matter. Here is what I mean and why.
The use of ‘women only’ facilities by transgender people, and trans women in particular is an ‘issue’ for many in society. Everyone has an opinion. Some are more valid than others. These opinions range from the ‘trans women are women and are free to use any facility they wish’ to the trans exclusionary radical feminist position that says all trans women are men and no man can use a women’s only space. These are equally fringe positions and most people in society ‘sit’ (or possibly stand) somewhere in between these positions with many going ‘huh… what’s the big deal anyway?’
Well the big deal is that if you are going to function in society having a safe, clean and moderately private place to urinate and defecate is important. These bodily functions are necessary to human biology and not being able to do so leads to discomfort, possible health problems and inhibits anyone’s willingness to go into society. Now this may seem something of a non-issue in the face of a Covid-19 induced lock down, but this will change.
A cursory history of the emancipation of women shows that toilets usage has been a highly contested issue for nearly two centuries. Things arguably came to a head during World War One when many women, especially ‘genteel’ women to whom these things (arguably) mattered most entered the formal (organised) workplace in large numbers for the first time, they needed toilets. Being of a gentler age it was felt that these delicate creatures could not possibly share a toilet seat with a burly, sweaty man so separate facilities were required. As many men were at war this was easily accomplished. There were less men around so some facilities could be set aside for use by women.
When the war was over and men started returning to work they were surprised to find women in ‘their’ spaces. The reaction was swift and sharp. Women’s toilets were closed and returned to men’s only facilities. Women were expected to return to their homes and resume their roles as homemakers, carers and to stop existing in society as fully functional members of society. Women resisted. They campaigned for their rights. The right to work, the right to vote and indeed the right to pee were all won and the era of the women’s toilet was born…
Spin forward a century and we are again at another crossroads in the story of emancipation. Trans woman are increasingly visible in society. The lucky ones ‘pass’ and move around largely unremarked upon, unchallenged and in safety. The less lucky, do not. They are the butt of many a ‘joke’. Fingers are pointed and we face discrimination on a daily basis. Even those that pass will at some point experience all of this. All that changes is the frequency with which it happens and our ability to wipe a tear, put on a brave face and carry on carrying on… Nonetheless as we assert our rights to enter society, to shop, work, relax and be active participants we, just like our cisgender sisters of a previous age need a safe, clean and moderately private place to urinate and defecate. Workplaces, shopping centers, municipalities, theaters etc are all confronted with something of a problem.
If men’s toilets are not ‘safe places’ for a cis gender woman, they are certainly not safe for a trans woman. Indeed the trans woman is likely to experience every danger faced by a cis gender woman and she is also subject to a whole range of prejudice, abuse and other dangers. Men’s toilets are also often ‘icky’ far less pleasant places.
Some parts of society are ‘ready’ for the gender neutral public toilet. They are increasingly common, but not all are as progressive. People are very attached to their safe places. Admittedly some women express concerns for their safety. They feel unsafe in gender neutral facilities and are concerned about trans woman using ‘their’ facilities. Almost all men feel uncomfortable sharing a toilet with a woman. So what is to be done?
Last weekend I had an exchange with someone on Twitter. We do not follow each other but we seem to weigh in on similar topics and so we sometimes ‘bump into’ each other’s tweets as they get liked or retweeted by mutual follows. The exchange started off discussing women’s sport and the complications of trans women competing in women’s events and somehow morphed into a wider discussion of trans women in society.
My interlocutor stated that he ‘would oppose “too much” accommodation of trans identity in society. But, on a personal level, (he) would not want to disrespect another human being merely because they differ from’ him. To be clear he was sincerely engaging with me and expressing his personal opinions and also seeking clarity about our lived reality. I was however deeply troubled by the statement. It seemed that the underlying assumption was that whilst we were a nuisance that could be tolerated, we should ‘know our place’. It also seemed that the underlying principle was that we were a different class of person and that we did not enjoy the same rights as everyone else. This is a highly problematic position to adopt. Not only is it obviously prejudicial and based on an assumption of ‘acceptable inequality’, it also leads to a slippery slope. If there are ‘human rights’ that do not in fact apply to all human rights, then they are in fact not rights but privileges. If a right does not apply to all it becomes contingent and as soon as it is contingent it is no longer a universal right.
So, I immediately requested clarification. He responded that he knew that this was a problematic position and that he could not ‘easily define “too much”, and (he knew) that it would be highly subjective. The normal example is a trans woman using toilet facilities alongside young girls, and questions of who gets accepted as a trans woman.’ He clarified that he did not really fear that pedophiles or sexual predators might pose as transgender people in order to prey on women and children. He seemed to accept that this was patently ridiculous, but he did say that he knew that his ‘wife and my daughter would feel uncomfortable in the presence of a trans woman.’
I found this bizarre. There is no actual threat to your safety, but you feel ‘uncomfortable’ anyway and that this should be enough to exclude others from using that facility. You are not experiencing any loss by that person using the facility but your ‘discomfort’ is sufficient reason to discriminate against another human being who is in no way infringing on your rights? Bizarre…
My right to safety is infringed upon if I am forced to use the men’s toilet. It will not go well. It will draw unwelcome attention to me. It will threaten my safety. My right to exist in society, to shop for myself and my family, my right to work and my right to move freely through the world (admittedly all temporarily but fairly currently reduced) are affected if I do not have unfettered access to a public lavatory.
The irony is that we already use public toilets. Most of us use the women’s toilets. Without comment. Without raising so much as an eyebrow. We go in. We sit or hover as is our preference. Finish up, wash and exit. Sometimes stopping to touch up a bit of lipstick. But usually we just want to get done and lower the risk of something going wrong: women are typically far more loquacious in these facilities than men and for some of us our voices are our biggest ‘tell’. Having said that some trans woman have started carrying a tampon or two around with them: they ‘pass’ so well that they get asked by a sister in need and want to help (they will NEVER themselves need a tampon, at least not for its intended purpose)…
So you see, the wife and daughter have probably used the women’s toilets in the local mall at least once in their lives whilst a trans woman was there. They simply did not notice her. She went in, got out and nobody was any the wiser. She posed no threat and she infringed on no ones rights. Why then should we have to jump threw hoops just to be allowed to make use of a facility that everyone else considers their right?
As pointed out at the beginning, for many cisgender folk, this may seem a total non issue: we all have varying degrees of privilege, sometimes cisgender privilege is never having to worry about where and when you will next tinkle. However, it is for us trans people a very real issue. It impacts on our ability to function. It directly reflects society’s tolerance and acceptance of transgender people and it is also a test of society’s regard for universal human rights as well as its understanding of what fundamental, universal human rights even means. Naturally some people fear that this is the thin end of the wedge, that next changing rooms at gyms will be ‘at threat’ (newsflash they already are) and that soon there will be no gender distinctions at all. The truth is that, as William Gibson said, ‘the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed’. These are real issues that we will all have to negotiate and adapt to. The bottom line is that our freedoms end where another persons begins and when these freedoms impinge on each other they need to be negotiated. In this negotiation, the guiding principle has to be that the more fundamental right and the right that creates the greatest absence of harm should be prioritised. It is clear that in the case of using a public facility such as a toilet nobody is being harmed or disadvantaged by a trans woman hovering discreetly in the stall next door.
I have a very limited understanding of how trans men relate to this issue. I would be interested to hear any feedback from them.
There is a prize for the person who can CORRECTLY identify the most puns in this piece. Sorry, but I could not help myself…
I’m not even going to try for the puns. I’ll miss some, and I’m sure others weren’t intended… 🙂
Very good points there. Personally, I’m in favour of gender neutral facilities. Apart from being fair, maybe it can get people over weird bathroom phobias.
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When I was in Germany for an international sports event fifteen years ago the athlete’s change rooms were gender neutral. The SA team were not best pleased. Later, one of my teammates nearly had a heart attack when a female athlete stripped down to just her g string on the competition floor… Like Gibson said the future is here, it is just unevenly distributed.
Parts of SA society will just not cope with gender neutral though…