Gender-Neutral Toilets in Schools: Some Research and Conclusions

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback).

Last week I wrote a short blog post about the issue of gender-neutral toilets, and how some schools in Australia and the UK are now forcing all students to use them. The reasoning that most schools give as to why these toilets need to be installed is that they are ‘inclusive’, and that they make transgender students feel more comfortable.

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Tremendous opposition to the introduction of gender-neutral toilets in schools has already been voiced by parents, students, local MPs and members of local communities. At Deanesfield Primary School in the UK, for example, parents launched a petition to remove the unisex toilets that were covertly installed over the summer vacation; with one main concern being that menstruating girls felt as though their privacy was being invaded. Many girls were refusing to go the toilet during the day and were at risk of picking up urinary-tract infections as a result. 

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“An AMAZING book!”

I made my opinions clear last week, and I still stand by them. I made the point that no school should impose new restrictions or radical changes on their students without first consulting with parents. This was a classic mistake made at Deanesfield, and it backfired dramatically (consequently, I did actually e-mail the school asking for an update on the situation but I have thus far received no response). I also questioned the underlying concept of a child being able consent to being ‘transgender’ (along with the surgery and puberty-blocking chemicals that go along with that), when that same child cannot consent to sexual activity, cannot drink alcohol, is not considered to be mature enough to vote and cannot legally drive.

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That blog post earned me some haters, with one transgender individual commenting on my Facebook posts with expletives, profanities and explicit prose. It didn’t go well for ‘them’, and that person was subsequently banned from the Teachers in Thailand Facebook group by the admin (and rightly so):

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Another happy customer!

So this is a very triggering topic, and rather than briefly summarize some of the more ‘popular’ stories by citing news articles,  I’d like to perform a brief investigation of some of the research that feeds into this topic. I won’t have time to cover absolutely everything, but I will provide a synopsis of some of the main findings.

The architectural approach

With privacy being cited as an issue for menstruating girls who are forced to use gender-neutral washrooms, one solution could be a functional one: change the architecture so that privacy is no longer invaded. 

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This is exactly the point that Sanders and Stryker make in Stalled – Gender Neutral Public Bathrooms [South Atlantic Quarterly (2016) 115 (4): 779–788. Duke University Press]. As a combined effort between a world-renowned architect (Sanders) and an LGBT professor of Gender and Women’s Studies (Stryker), this paper stands-out for it’s unique take on unisex bathrooms, with a suggested floor-plan included in the content (given below):

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Which areas would be on CCTV?

My conclusion: I have a number of issues with the architectural approach proposed by Sanders and Stryker:

  • The design still includes an area outside the cubicles where boys and girls have to mix and mingle. I think this removes the ‘communal’ factor of bathrooms, as girls and boys do like to use toilet areas for chatting and socializing with their own gender. I’m still not sure if menstruating girls would be happy mingling with boys outside the cubicle areas. 
  • Massive investment would be needed to change current girls’/boys’ washrooms in schools to the communal format shown above (for most schools). This investment seems superfluous to needs when one considers that less than 2% of American children identify as being transgender. In addition to this, it seems illogical that transgender students cannot use current boys/girls washrooms. If you are biologically a boy, but you officially identify as a girl, then you could use the girls’ bathrooms. Vica-versa if you are biologically a female [more on this later].

Public space is not a neutral space(?)

According to Kyla Bender-Baird, gender-segregated bathrooms are the result of “technologies of disciplinary power, upholding the gender binary by forcing people to choose between men’s and women’s rooms”

That’s some profound statement! I had no idea that I was being powerfully controlled by being forced to choose which washroom to enter. I thought I was consciously making a choice to enter the men’s! 

Kyla is a sociologist at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. Writing in Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography (Volume 23 2016, Issue 7) she states:

The resulting lack of safe access to public restrooms is an everyday reality for those who fall outside of gender binary norms. Faced with a built environment that denies their existence and facilitates gender policing, I argue that trans and gender non-conforming people sometimes engage in situational docility. Bodies are adjusted to comply with the cardinal rule of gender – to be readable at a glance – which is often due to safety concerns. Changing the structure of bathrooms to be gender inclusive and/or neutral may decrease gender policing in bathrooms and the need for this situational docility, allowing trans and gender non-conforming people to pee in peace”

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It seems as though Kyla supports the functional/architectural approach then – advocating for the creation of washrooms that are built in such a way that anyone can use them.

My conclusion: I don’t agree with Kyla on her point that gender-segregated washrooms were invented as a human-control system (the official history certainly doesn’t support this).

One thing I will say in Kyla’s defense is that if an architectural solution is found that is cost-effective and satisfies the needs of the majority (men and women – that’s binary men and women who do not wish to change their gender), whilst also meeting the needs of the tiny minority (transgender individuals), then that could be a way forward. 

Potty Politics and the Ladies’ Sanitary Association

An interesting paper from the University of Massachusetts, Amhurst [The Restroom Revolution: Unisex toilets and campus politics] gave the timeline leading up to the gender-segregated toilets we have today. Here’s a brief summary:

  • 1905: First women’s bathroom installed in London after a tremendous effort and fight by the Ladies’ Sanitary Association and similar organisations, along with support from the famous George Bernard Shaw [This really surprised me, I have to say. I thought that women’s restrooms were a thing long before 1905]. 
  • 1970s America: Court cases were still being fought over the segregation of black and white toilet facilities. Prior to this early ‘toilet-integration’ period, blacks and whites couldn’t drink from the same fountains or use the same toilet facilities. [Note from me: I think this was a humiliating and disgraceful period in human history. The fact that fully conscious adults penned policy to the effect of segregating toilets on basis of race is frightening and baffling to me]. 
  • In the Autumn of 2001, several students gathered at the Stonewall Center (an LGBT educational resource center at the University of Massachusetts). They formed a special group to work on transgender issues on campus. Their efforts eventually resulted in gender-neutral restrooms being installed on campus through their ‘Restroom Revolution’, and they also succeeded in bringing transgender, ‘gender-queer ‘and ‘gender non-conforming’ issues into the limelight on campus. 

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Key takeaways from this paper are the very revealing opinions of both the Restroom Revolution advocates (a mix of gender non-conformists and ‘allies’ – straight people sympathetic to their cause) and their opposition.

In December 2001, the Stonewall students wrote a proposal to university administrators in which they stated: 

“As gender variant people, we encounter discrimination in our daily lives. The most pressing matter, however, is our use of the bathrooms in the residence halls in which we live. . . . We are often subjecting ourselves to severe discomfort, verbal and physical harassment, and a general fear of who we will encounter and what they will say or do based on their assumption of our identities.”

Olaf Aprans, a writer for the Minuteman (an on-campus student publication), expressed his strong opposition by questioning the foundational motives behind the Restroom Revolution: 

“The most probable motive for the Restroom Revolution is not the
need or want of transgender bathrooms, it is the desire for attention. Transgender students have been using gender-specific bathrooms for years without any complaints. Why the sudden outcry for transgender bathrooms? The answer is easy, the activists behind this movement are using a petty issue like bathrooms as a medium to throw their lifestyles in the face of every-day students”

Biological identity, supported by irrefutable genetic evidence, is also cited by the paper as one of the modes of opposition: 

“There are only two things that make me a man and they are my X chromosome and my Y chromosome. . . . People have the right to feel that they should not be the gender that God gave them. . . . However, the fact that some people do not live in reality or that some wish reality were not true, does not entitle them to a special
bathroom in a public university”

My overall conclusions

  • The concerns that transgender individuals have about their personal security and comfort when using restrooms seem legitimate. However, the concerns of women who do not wish to share washrooms with men are equally legitimate [and as we saw from the UMass article, women fought very hard for the right to have their own restrooms in the first place]. The issue of ‘washrooms for all’ seems to me to be a classic example of an old conundrum – that you can’t please everyone. We can, however, aim to please the majority. The minority will have to adapt. 
  • An architectural solution may be viable, but its application needs to be consistent (and this will require excellent international collaboration). It also needs to be cost-effective, and provide suitable privacy for everyone. I can’t see how this can be done, even when one applies Sanders’ and Stryker’s design, without invasive CCTV systems in place. 
  • An architectural solution may work in a shopping mall or other public place, but I’m not sure if it’s a feasible solution for a school. Children are not as mature as adults, and issues such as bullying, up-skirting, inappropriate use of smartphones, silly and disruptive behaviour, etc. are difficult to police in a gender-neutral facility without invasive CCTV systems, some form of staffed duty or an open communal space that removes comfort, rather than adds to it. 

I will end by saying that schools would be well-advised to avoid forcing all of their students to use gender-neutral toilets. The variables one has to deal with in such scenarios are immense and difficult to police/control. If needs be, provide adequate male, female and gender-neutral toilets so that students can at least make choices that feel right for them.

 

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Author:

High School Science and Mathematics Teacher, Author and Blogger. Graduated from Bangor University with a BSc (Hons) degree in Molecular Biology and a PGCE in Secondary Science Education. Richard also holds the coveted Certificate in Mathematics from the Open University (UK).

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