Taking the Piss: Toilet Troubles in the UK

I was 13 years old when I was first attacked in a public toilet. It has been obvious that it was going to happen for months. Every time I went into the toilet that was designated ‘female’ a gang of girls followed me, shouting abuse and climbing on toilets to spy on me. I didn’t identify as trans at the time. I was simply perceived as different. I kept asking my guidance teacher if I could have a key for the accessible toilet, but she said it would be unfair for the one wheelchair user in the school if I ‘monopolised’ her toilet. One lunchtime – the most frightening part of the day for self-professed geeks and freaks everywhere – it all came to a head. I was sitting on the toilet, trying to pee, when something landed square in my underwear, followed by the sound of giggles from above. I looked up into the face of a sneering fifth-year, who exclaimed, ‘Looks like your packing meat, wierdo’. I looked down and, to my horror, saw a raw chicken breast in my underwear. In revulsion and panic I slid my legs out of my clothes and hunched up into a ball on the toilet seat, my fingers in my ears until I thought they had gone. When I finally exited the stall, I was pelted with more raw meat. I ran straight out of school and sat in the local park for the rest of the afternoon, trying to calm down. Of course, to add insult to injury, I got a detention for skiving.

I now know that I am not alone in these experiences. In 2010, research found that 40% of girls avoided school toilets. By 2015, both media and school governors were discovering that non-gendered, open plan toilets, with floor to ceiling privacy, unsurprisingly reduced bullying and improved levels of school attendance. I was relieved to find that difficulties like those I had experienced were being taken seriously. It seemed as though gendered toilets were gradually becoming a thing of the past. I was glad. Not because I am trans, but because I know from experience, conversations, and research that multi-stall gendered toilet blocks are not safe. Back when I was at school, the answer was “wait until you get home, or go use the public loos”. I was so pleased that things were changing.

Fast-forward to 2021 and, following the American ‘toilet wars’ – in which cis women were pitted against trans people, forced into tired roles of victim and assailant respectively, the United Kingdom has taken a massive step backwards for the safety of all. Less than two months after the latest school to introduce safe school toilets cited gendered toilets as a cause of ‘bullying, fear, and mental anguish’, sources have leaked news that the latest inquiry, sorry consultation, into whether or not the U.K. should treat trans people with dignity, respect and care, could lead to a legal requirement for gendered toilets in public buildings.

In a continuation of an emerging toxic pattern which pits oppressed groups against each-other, this consultation rested on the assumption that ‘most women want’ gender (or sex) segregated toilets. There is little unbiased evidence, however, that this is the case. There is also a clear question here as to which women’s voices are being heard. Many women have experienced bullying and harassment in gendered toilets, including Eloise Stonborough, whose story you can read here. Like Eloise, my experiences of harassment and abuse in female toilets increased the more that I presented in an authentic way. By the time I began my transition, I had lost count of the amount of times that I had been attacked in – both verbally and physically – and forcibly removed from female toilets. Notably, these incidents often culminated in women finding a male security guard, and asking them to enter the ‘female’ toilets in order to physically remove me. Once, in a toilet with no locking stall doors, women encouraged said male security guard to enter the stall to remove me whilst I was peeing.

What’s my point? My point is that the politicised fearmongering of the anti-trans groups arguing for segregated toilets is not based on safety, it’s based on transphobia. Gendered, multi-stall toilets with flimsy half-height doors and oft-broken locks do not keep anyone safe. In fact, they endanger the lives of all people, including women, both trans and cis. They are particularly dangerous for young girls, the very people that the instigators of so-called toilet wars claim to protect.

If you would like to protect both the young people who are experiencing bullying in gendered school toilets at this very moment and the trans, non-binary and gender-nonconforming people who experience daily harassment and abuse, have a think about how you can make a difference. Does your workplace have safe toilets? If not, how can you influence change? Whilst the consultation on public toilets is now over, you can still make a difference. You can write to communities secretary Robert Jenrick, as well as your own MP, to make sure that your views are considered.

My personal opinion is that safe, private, single-stall non-gendered toilets for all is the best way forward. If that is a step too far for you, however, you could consider advocating for mandated non-gendered toilets as well as gendered toilets. It doesn’t need to be either/or. We don’t need to be divided. Let’s work together to create a better, safer world for all people.

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