I Need To Pee: Accessibility, Disability and Gender Neutral Bathrooms

Contributor Izzy Caldwell is a third year English Literature at KCL with an interest in human rights literature, disability representation, and a good bit of jazz.

From a young age, my reluctance to queue resulted in me following my two brothers into male toilets of theme parks and theatres. My poor eye sight probably contributed to my obliviousness to any of the odd looks my elder brother assured me I was getting.

As I’ve gotten older, this scepticism of the need to queue extended to a questioning of why there are gender specific bathrooms at all. It seems inane that rooms with the same equipment are partitioned on the outdated construct of gender. Furthermore, in our moment of trans rights and visibility, the presence of gender neutral bathrooms is more important than ever. I am in the extremely privileged position to have never felt threatened or vulnerable in using public bathrooms, but I am well aware this is not a universal luxury. There are disgustingly large numbers of incidents of the harassment of trans and nonbianry people faced across the globe when using the bathroom – take the May 2018 example of a Republican congressional candidate videoing herself harassing and chasing a trans woman for using the female bathroom.

The need for these bathrooms is evident. The only situation I’ve been in where there was a form of uprising against gender specific toilets was at a recording of The Guilty Feminist podcast at The Young Vic; there was a comical air of anarchy as five of us decided against the queue for the female toilets and headed to the men’s, the consensus being there wouldn’t be many men in the theatre anyway. With later reflection, this move highlighted how constructed and blinded we can be by signs and directions. Women are told not the use the toilets with the figure without the skirt, so we don’t. When the five of us chose to ignore those signs, the toilets became a free space, an open space that was accessible for us to use.

This was a unique environment, and, more importantly, safe environment. I am well aware of my position as a cis, straight white woman, and how I was only able to feel comfortable using the male toilets in this context as I was in an environment I knew was supportive and in a group of people I knew would support each other. I am not suggesting that in order to enact the change of making all toilets accessible to all genders we need to barrage all bathrooms regardless of their gendered specification in large numbers. Here, I emphasise the fatuousness of gender specific toilets: how a collective mind set, and more importantly mind change, can shift our gaze to highlight not only the importance of having gender neutral spaces, but also the potential redundancy of gendered spaces too.

It has been so encouraging to see gender neutral toilets incorporated in the King’s developments of Bush House and Macadam this past year. I’d argue, though, the execution of their incorporation is inconsistent and potentially harmful. In the Bush House development (I’m referring specifically to the KCLSU spaces here), there are separate male and female toilets, and then what can be scathingly referred to as ‘generic other’ toilets, where the disabled toilets have had a gender neutral sticker slapped on the front of the door.

Though it is obviously brilliant that the development acknowledges the need for gender neutral toilets, I think it is insulting to lump these two accessibility requirements together. If someone did not want to use – not did not feel safe – using the facilities in the gender specific space, they then would have to use the disabled toilet.

This would mean a disabled person would not be able to use the only space adequately adapted for their physical accessibility requirements. Forcing disabled accessibility together with gender accessibility limits the resources; there is often only one disabled toilet on any floor – if there are any. It is not the equipment that limits the use of gendered toilets for people who need to use them, it is the ability to feel safe and comfortable – not an unreasonable want by any stretch of the imagination.

Frankly, I find grouping disabled toilets with gender neutral requirements lazy and insulting. Having a physical impairment and not feeling safe in a gendered bathroom space are two very different yet equally important issues.

The people who plan and make these toilets and facilities need to acknowledge the difference in these requirements, and realise that the the male and female toilets located next to their ‘generic other’ space are merely differentiated from each other by the addition of some urinals (unless there is some party in the men’s that no one has told me about). In the Macadam building development, they have a gender neutral bathroom with multiple cubicles and a separate disabled toilet. Clearly, acknowledging the difference in the accessibility requirements is possible, and this needs to be consistently done.

This execution, however, is also problematic. Some Hindu, Islamic and Orthodox Jewish women have argued for gender specific bathrooms as they are forbidden to share public toilet buildings with men. Furthermore, in some environments, gendered toilets offer safe spaces. The ‘Asking for x’ posters found in the toilets of bars if you’re on a date which is going wrong offer safety for women. There is no one size fits all solution, and ultimately, accessibility is about choice. Giving people the choice of where to go and where they can feel safe whilst recognising differences in accessibility needs. If we are going to adopt gender neutral toilets in the future – as I firmly believe we should do – we need to consider how this is going to be done, and offer environments where everyone can feel safe and included. 

Gender neutral toilets are an accessibility measure; they make toilets accessible to people who feel vulnerable or threatened in the alternative environments. It is vital to not push together different access requirements – whether they be physical impairments or safety concerns – and consider them as one. The inclusion of gender neutral toilets in the recent King’s developments is positive, but a lot still needs to be done to ensure demographics of our student population are neither ostracised or othered. As ever, we’re taking steps in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go.

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