Since September 2014 all the bathrooms on the third floor of the Queen Margaret Union have been gender neutral. They’re perfectly pleasant as loos go, but more than that, they are important, and not just to fix the mysterious problem of the mile-long queue for the ladies, while the men’s is free, nor so you can wander in on someone weeing at the urinals by accident (I did this once, in Amsterdam train station. Apparently the Dutch are also fans of gender-neutral bathrooms, which I did not know. We made eye contact by accident. It was awks.)
They are important because gender does not exist as a rigid pink and blue binary, as suggested by the usual triangular woman and stick man signs. Gender exists on a spectrum, and for those who, for a number of reasons, do not exist directly at either end, public bathrooms are one of the most obvious, often unpleasant exclusions of their identities.
For those of you who are cisgender (from the Latin for “on this side of”, meaning you identify as the gender associated with the body you were born with – what is called “gender assigned at birth”) this probably, and understandably, doesn’t occur. But for transgender, non-binary and intersex people, gendered toilets can be what is known as a “micro aggression” – a social occurrence in relation to gender, race, sexuality which may seem minor, but which, when happening to a person frequently, often several times a day, can become upsetting.
In some cases, gender neutral bathrooms solve a problem that shouldn’t exist in the first place – harassment of people for the bathroom they choose to use.
One of the most important things I have to say in this article is if you see someone in a public bathroom and, for whatever reason, you think “they don’t look like [x gender] to me” then please. Leave. Them. Alone. I don’t care if they’re in the ladies with a thick, fuzzy beard, I don’t care if they’re in the men’s in a pink dress and heels, I don’t care if you’re steaming drunk and you think it’s funny (it’s not) do not bother them about it, do not point them out to other people. They just want to go for a wee, dude, and they just want to do it in the space where they feel most comfortable. Do not make them feel uncomfortable.
Here, gender neutral bathrooms do solve this problem – you can’t harass a person for being in a bathroom of the wrong gender if it’s a genderless space – but there’s an easier solution: don’t be an arse. But there are people who simply don’t identify as either male or female, and in this case neither bathroom is appropriate. Here, gender neutral bathrooms are great! You’re not subtly being asked “are you a boy or a girl?” and sent into a deep existential crisis! You can just go for a wee!
I can understand why this mightn’t seem like a big deal, if your gender isn’t something you’ve ever felt the need to think about, if you’re asked “male or female” and you can tick a box without any thought. But for some people, their gender is a source of questioning and confusion for years, can be a painful process to work through, can cost them their relationships, jobs, safety, can mean an important part of their identity is rarely acknowledged.
I can’t say this ever happened to me – I stumbled across the term “non binary gender” (when you identify as neither male nor female, or both, or somewhere in between) one day and was like “hey, that kind of sounds like me!” and felt kind of warm to know I wasn’t the only person to feel that way, and that was roughly my experience of discovery in gender identity. But I still felt pretty happy when I could edit my Facebook feed to say “Clare Patterson changed their profile picture” instead of “her”, and when websites leave a blank box to type in your gender (I usually put “gelatinous blob” or something equally annoying to the person compiling customer service feedback forms) and gender-neutral loos give me the same kind of feeling; it’s just nice to not have to go to the Pink Triangle Woman loo when I’m not feeling very Pink Triangle Woman that day.
[Claire Patterson – @clurrpatterson]