Why we should continue pushing for gender-neutral toilets

Lili Bidwell 22 December 2016

A few weeks ago I was thrown out of Cambridge’s club Life for being in the men’s bathroom. The women’s line had been long, and I had simply been trying to pee. While I couldn’t really complain because I do identify as female, it did make me think. The obsession with making bathrooms gender specific is something I do not really understand.

Today at university, all genders are expected to work together, sit in adjacent seats in lectures, eat with one another, study in libraries, and share staircases with each other in college. So why should bathrooms continue to reinforce old-fashioned gendered separation? CUSU LGBT+ is campaigning to de-gender all single toilet cubicles across the university, and enforce gender-neutral facilities in new buildings.

Having overheard students discussing this at college, I’m aware of the controversy surrounding the topic. It seems that some people don’t understand that gender assignment at birth is a cultural act, and that, in simple terms, gender is distinct from biological sex which is purely physical. The argument I hear most frequently against gender neutral bathrooms is that they are an invasion of a female safe-space by men. While I do agree that we all deserve to go to the bathroom in peace, I’m not aware of any reliable facts indicating that public bathrooms are more dangerous for cis-women than anywhere else – or would be, were they to be gender-neutral.

Some girls claim not to feel comfortable doing their make-up in a gender-inclusive bathroom. Cambridge colleges often use the argument of ‘practicality’. The college I attend originally agreed to have inclusive bathrooms, using the signs ‘toilets with urinals’ and ‘toilets without urinals’. However, apparently this embarrassed and confused visitors, and the signs were recategorised as ‘male and non-binary’ and ‘female and non-binary’. College gave the reasoning that they would serve a public education purpose for those who have not thought about gender before, but also enable people to determine quickly which toilet they would be most comfortable using. These signs, however, seem to me to miss the point of gender neutrality. Transgender people should be allowed to use whichever bathroom corresponds to their identity and considering that there are a number of gender identities other than ‘male’, ‘female’, and ‘non-binary’, it seems to me that we need gender-neutral toilets to make the lives of transgender people liveable. Are the lives of the students at college not more important than those of the visitors?

Another obstacle is the collegiate structure of Cambridge. Making toilets gender neutral is generally done on a college level by JCR and MCR reps, and change within college is often a slow and difficult process. Currently, only a very small number of Cambridge colleges have unsegregated bathrooms. Educating the public is a long process, and repressing societal stereotypes can be hard, but when you think about marriage equality twenty years ago it probably seemed inconceivable that we’d ever have same-sex marriages. We can’t ignore the work ahead, but hopefully the arguments against gender-neutral toilets will soon be a thing of the past.