By Victor Max Smith
On the 25th April, I protested a discussion called A Woman’s Place is Ours to Define that was held by Woman’s Place UK. Woman’s Place UK believe they should define what womanhood means, that transgender women should be excluded from that, and the UK government should enforce gender segregation. They’re adamant that “women’s voices” are united in support for their views. As acceptance of trans people increases in the Western world, what that means for gender segregation has attracted attention. The debate about gender-segregated toilets affects everyone who may need to use a public toilet – in short, most people. Transphobic groups argue that transgender people must use the toilet of the gender they were assigned at birth.
If we take an anthropological perspective, we can look at women’s public toilets objectively. The act of using a toilet takes place alone behind a closed door, so the anatomy of the user should be irrelevant. But what about communal spaces? Women use them to wash and dry their hands, and maybe chat or apply makeup. We see women doing those things in mixed-gender company, so again, the anatomy of other women present should be irrelevant. Possibly it’s related to the risks of sharing an enclosed space with strangers, but enclosed public spaces may also be mixed-gender, like elevators.
Why do we have gendered toilets in the UK and US?
I think we can find answers in the history of our public toilets, which have gone from a liberating necessity to a relic of Victorian sexism. In the early 19th century, cultural norms were that men could urinate outdoors but women could not. This was linked to a belief that women were the “weaker sex”, and that they should be confined to the protection of the home. The industrial revolution bought more women into the public sphere, and policymakers attempted to create “home-like” spaces for women in public. Toilets were gender-segregated, but so were libraries, public transport, hotels, and department stores. Over time, segregation decreased, but people with conservative views on gender remained vocal about segregated toilets. The US nearly passed the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, an amendment to the US Constitution which would ensure that no one would be denied equal rights due to their gender. Conservative opponents defeated the ERA with a campaign claiming that gender equality would lead to catastrophes like unisex toilets full of criminals. Public toilets are the site of society’s anxieties about women and morality.
Can all women use the women’s toilet?
Gender segregation in public toilets has historically been about protecting women from men. Woman’s Place UK believe they are upholding this tradition, as they classify trans women as men. According to the Endocrine Society, an international group of medical experts who study hormones, there is evidence proving that being transgender is a real thing with biological causes. There’s no such thing as a completely male or completely female brain, but trans women‘s brains share characteristics with cis women. There’s no evidence that gender dysphoria is caused by mental illness, and the only proven solution is to transition. I’d argue that this makes genitalia irrelevant, especially since when a woman uses a public toilet, she sits on the throne alone.
Is there any danger in transgender women using women’s toilets?
People who want laws regulating public toilet use have failed to come up with evidence that trans women, or men pretending to be trans women, will make public toilets unsafe. Some people, including Zinnia Jones, argue that proving that it doesn’t happen is irrelevant. There will always be a few people who will commit crimes, and criminals don’t obey laws. Trans people are at risk whenever they enter public space. The charity Stonewall found that 41% of trans people surveyed had experienced hate crime during the previous year, and 48% didn’t feel comfortable using public toilets. Jones writes that toilet laws make trans women targets of transphobia by forcing them to walk into rooms labelled “men”. Woman’s Place UK claim to be feminist, but by demanding that trans women be excluded from women-only spaces, they are surrendering to a status quo that has caused so much inequality. *That’s* dangerous.
How can we achieve “potty parity”?
The practice of gender segregation in toilets is built on sexism. We no longer believe that, as stated in the US Supreme Court in 1873, women are unfit for the occupations of civil life. We acknowledge that misogynistic violence exists, but realise that it would be unreasonable and ineffective to ban mixed-gender strangers from sharing spaces. Gender-segregated toilets have caused problems as well as being a symptom of them. Older buildings were designed for male guests, and women’s toilets are occupied for longer. The result is that queues for the ladies are often longer. Some “potty parity” activists suggest that providing more gender neutral toilets is the answer. A Guardian article estimated less than a minute’s wait if an event with 300 people provided 12 gender-neutral toilet stalls. Continuing to promote gender segregation in public toilets due to irrational fears stemming from the belief that a woman’s place is in the home makes life harder for all women.
Victor is an Anthropology undergraduate at Oxford Brookes. His dissertation will look at community in medieval reenactment. He came out as trans in his first year.