I recently went to see a play called ‘The Convert’ at the Young Vic in Waterloo. For reasons which will remain known only to me and the person who accompanied me, I was not really able to focus on the play and did in fact sleep without shame at points. This will therefore not be a review of ‘The Convert’. I’m sure the play was great. The reviews tell me so. However, the thing that really grabbed my attention were the gender-neutral toilets.
Gender-neutral toilets are a tokenistic concept
In reality, there was nothing new or neutral about the toilets. What was formerly the women’s toilets was now designated as ‘gender-neutral: cubicles’ and what was formerly the men’s toilets were now, ‘gender-neutral: urinals and cubicles’.
The reality of gender-neutral toilets
Before the play began, I made the following observations. I saw 3 men come out of what were essentially the women’s toilet but saw no woman leave what were essentially the men’s loo.
In the first interval, I heard a woman in the women’s loo exclaim how wonderful it was to have gender neutral toilets and how much she loved it. I then wondered why she still made the decision to use the women’s loo if it was all so wonderful.
In the second interval, I saw a long queue outside the women’s loo. I saw all the men enter the men’s loo and I saw only one woman use the men’s loo. Good for her given that both loos were available for all to use. Personally, I have no desire to visit a men’s loo. I don’t care how long the women’s loo queue is. More fool me you may say. That’s just fine is what I’ll say.
So the question is, why are most women still choosing to use the women’s loo and why are most men still choosing to use the men’s loo? I think it is because we do what we are most comfortable with. For the 3 men who decided to use the women’s loo, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. But, in this new world, I have the feeling that the people that will benefit most from this change, will be men, not women.
Why do I care so much?
I made another observation as I queued outside the women’s loo in the second interval. I saw at least 3 men leave the loo and then do up the zips on their trousers. I am not sure if this is normal or a guy thing but it is certainly not something I wish to be exposed to which may have been the case if I had chosen to use the men’s loo.
As a woman, there are times when I want to change outfit or do something which exposes a part of my body that I will only be comfortable doing in front of other women who have breasts and a vagina just as I do. That is my prerogative and my business. I should not have to worry about whether a man who has the right to enter this ‘gender-neutral: cubicles’ loo will enter just as I am about to take my top off or put it back on. Of course, this would not be an everyday occurence anyway but what is wrong with men and women having safe spaces?
I think that what this trend to neutralise the distinction between men and women does is that it risks us no longer being able to acknowledge and celebrate our womanhood and manhood.
I remember a talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in which I asked her what it means to be a woman. Unfortunately, I cannot remember her answer. But when I posed the question to many of my other friends, what I realised is the following. It is definitely about biology but it is also about who we are on the sliding scale of ‘womanness’.
I know some may say I am confusing gender with sex and that is just fine for me. I don’t mind putting the two together because I am a woman who hates clothes shopping but loves book shopping. I love football and UFC but I hate violence. I hate cooking but love to cook for others. I am also a woman who believes being a woman does not mean an iron is an extension of my arm nor does it mean that a hoover is my best friend or any other stereotypes that may exist of how I should be because I am a woman. My hair is short which means sometimes I am mistaken for a guy. I am not offended since I am secure in my womanhood.
Being a woman is like being on a sliding scale. I hate make-up but will go nowhere without earrings. My body is curvy but I am athletic.
So how does all this relate to gender-neutral toilets?
Womanhood is not one thing. But in my opinion, being a woman is first and foremost about our biological difference.
There are biological differences which mean that one person is a woman and another a man. This is irrespective of our opinion about who we are. Surely in the place where we we need to use those biological tools, we should be able to have loos which are for those with penises and loos for those with vaginas. Surely we should have spaces where we can feel comfortable dealing with needs related to menstruation or milk-filled breasts or anything else that affects us because of our female biology.
Surely we can have a gender-neutral loo without disposing of men’s and women’s loos.