Gender-Neutral Washrooms: Campus and Community

This month Bristol University was the subject of controversy when transphobic posters appeared on campus in response to a campaign by the school’s Student Union (UBU) LGBT+ Society.

The original poster was released in association with the LGBT+ Society’s Transgender Awareness Week, and read: “If you are in a public bathroom and you think a stranger’s gender does not match the sign on the door, follow these steps: 1. Don’t worry about it, they know better than you”.

These posters bring light to the all-too relevant stigma towards, and harassment faced by, transgender people in public spaces. This is heightened in gendered public washrooms that dictate spaces for only two of many gender identities. When gender-neutral washrooms are not available – an issue the UBU’s LGBT+ Society is lobbying the university to improve on – it is important to eradicate problematic attitudes within these spaces. Not just important, vital for student safety.

Soon after the original posters went public, anonymous parody posters appeared across campus: “Women, if a man tries to enter a womens’ bathroom, please take these simple steps: 1. Kindly ignore the fact that men including transgender males rape women every 9 minutes; 2. Kindly surrender your boundaries; 3. Don’t worry about it, men know better than you.” The hashtag #whataboutthemenz was a direct response to the original posters hashtag #transawarebristol.

The president of the UBU’s LGBT+ Society, Jamie Cross, responded to Epigram stating: “I think that whoever has parodied the poster has, in every way, misinterpreted the campaign. In fact I think that anyone who believes that we have not considered the need for safety for all self-identifying women in public bathrooms has also misinterpreted what we were trying to achieve with the original poster. I’m both angry and hurt that this may have been put up by a student at the university.”

Hattie Stamp, the president of the UBU’s Feminist Society also spoke to Epigram stating “I think it’s a really hateful thing to do, its intention is to make trans people feel unsafe at Uni by calling them transgender males (when they self-identify as a woman) and completely dismisses their experiences and incites discrimination.”

While it is clear the parody posters are transphobic, and as Cross said “in every way, misinterpreted the campaign”, they ironically draw attention to the necessity of the LGBT+ Society’s Transgender Awareness Campaign and extremely dangerous prejudices that persist. Many universities around the world have actively implemented gender-neutral washrooms across campus, Glasgow University included. Yet, in the wider community, gender-neutral washrooms are rare.

While it is common for public spaces to have accessible washrooms for people with disabilities, which tend to be gender neutral, writers of Beyond the Binary UK point out: “there is debate about whether these toilets should be considered accessible toilets for anyone who can’t use the other toilets for any reason, or for people with disabilities only. It’s worth remembering that some people with disabilities need quick access to the bathroom without having to queue.” What’s more is it does not address the systemic marginalization of the Transgender community in these spaces.

Certain businesses in Glasgow such as Stereo, 13th Note, and CCA have intentionally gender-neutral washrooms, while the majority of buildings open to the public – be they publically or privately owned – do not. Unsurprisingly the locations noted above are more socially liberal, and attract a likewise clientele, while Universities are known as hubs of social and political advocacy.

For business owners with gendered washrooms, reasons for not making the shift can range from a lack of awareness of trans-issues to the perceived financial cost. This expresses the need for campaigns like UBU’s LGBT+ Society’s Transgender Awareness Week to create an understanding of how to create safe spaces. As Nat Titman, a Non-Binary advocate suggests “that gender neutral toilets be included in the building regulations for new public buildings and that single stall toilets in existing public buildings be made explicitly gender neutral”.

Gender–neutral washrooms alone are not the solution to transphobic attitudes, the manifestation of which is clear with recent events at Bristol University. However, coupled with education of transgender-issues, it is an extremely important step where the impact of silence is harmful to the physical and mental well being of members of our community, on campus and beyond.

[Emma Bolf]

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