Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Gender Neutral Toilets in Brighton and Hove

Gender Neutral Toilets
I was's invited to participate in Peter Levy's lunch time show on Radio Humbersidte this afternoon to discuss a vexing problem.  Was it appropriate for Brighton and Hove City Council to be replacing their male and female toilets with Gender Neutral Toilets?

I have been delivering transgender awareness training now since 2006 and I still fail to understand why toilets are such a vexatious issue. I changed my gender from male to female which means that I present myself as a woman and therefore I use female toilets. Of course like many trans women I don't always pass and people can deduce from my appearance that I may not have been born a woman; my voice certainly does not sound particularly feminine. So for me gender neutral toilets are a good idea.

My concern however is that the row that has been stirred up over Brighton's gender neutral tiolets has focused entirely on the fact that this decuision has been at the recommendation of the Trans Equality Scrutiny Committee.  In Brighton and Hove because the city has a large and well supported LGBT community it has attracted a higher number of trans residents than other cities. But surely that is not the only reason for a sensible policy of gender neutral toilets.

Most disabled toilets are gender neutral, as are toilets on planes, buses and trains.  Many towns and cities have free standing gender neutral toilet units. Many public buildings like hospitals and art galleries have them as do cafes, shops, service stations and many offices. I am sure men taking care of babies and parents wth young children have often wished for gender neutral toilets. And of course anyone travelling in Europe will have often come across them there.

So this is not just a trans issue, it is a practical issue. Brighton and Hove boasts Britains largest LGBT community and there are huge numbers of tourists from Europe every year who will be used to gender neutral toilets.  I was actually visiting a friend in Brighton last weekend and I noticed many people who were  not trans but whose appearance breaks with gender stereotypes for whom I suspect gender neutral toilets will also be welcome.

I am concerned that the tone of the press comment has been designed to prompt transphobic and homophobic comment implying that this is a safety issue.  When new legislation was proposed in the USA to protect the rights of transgender people, the primery campaign against the proposals by religious fundamentalists was on safety suggesting that trans women (men dressed in female clothing) were all sex offenders dressing as women in order to attack young girls. In all the articles I have read about this proposal in Brighton and Hove the safetly issues has been highlighted
    Local residents, particularly women with children, would much prefer to use separate facilities as apart from anything else, it is safer. Daily Telegraph
Why is is safer?  Is it safe for a mother to send her young son alone into the male toilets or for a father to send his young daughter alone into the female toilets - both of which I have often seen happen. Interestingly I was using the female toilets today in Morrisons supermarket and there is a notice advising parents not to allow children to use toilets unaccompanied.

The other issue this proposal has highlighted is the use of the term Gender Neutral rather than Unisex. Brighton and Hove have decided on Gender Neutral and there are plenty of precedents for that. We tend always to talk about gender neutral language where copy is wrtten in a gender neutral style rather than the often used male style eg firefighter or police officer rather than fireman and policeman.

Also the term Unisex implies a gender binary where increasingly many people argue that there are more than two genders which favours the use of gender neutral. I suspect that people who are androgynous in appearance, masculine women and feminane men will all benefit. Of course the big downside to this is the smell often associated with male toilets. Perhaps the presence of women and children in the same toilets will will encourage men to improve their toilet hygene.

I will watch with interest to see if this story it anthing more than a storm in s teacup - however I suspect that with the Gay Marriage Bill presently making its way though parliament we will see the conservative press taking every opportunity it can to stir up homophobic and transphobic comment to try to undermine the passsage of that bill which significantly benefits trans people.

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