If ‘inclusivity’ is a priority, let men make their washrooms ‘gender-neutral’ and #savetheladies

Women have only just begun their fight for inclusion in public life; now we are expected to give up our washrooms?

In the liberal rush to make anything and everything “gender-inclusive,” who is getting the short end of the stick? I bet you know the answer to this one… We are only too aware, as feminists, that it is always women and girls whose interests seem to be considered non-urgent, unimportant, and irrelevant. It is always girls and women who are politely supposed to step aside for everyone else. With a smile, at that.

When journalist and BBC broadcaster Samira Ahmed attended a screening of I Am Not Your Negro at the Barbican Centre in London she found the women’s washroom had disappeared. Now, in place of the “women’s” sign was one that read, “gender-neutral with cubicles,” and in place of the “men’s” was a sign reading, “gender-neutral with urinals.” How convenient for men to have two different washrooms to choose from! How inclusive.

Ahmed wasn’t the only one who complained about this change. When she spoke to staff at the Centre, they told Ahmed they had already argued, internally, that the transformation was a mistake. On Twitter, one woman wrote, “Gender neutral toilets !!! Never seen so many confused and desperate people!! Whose bright idea?!!” Another tweeted: “Barbican now have gender neutral toilets. They just changed the signs, formerly male ones state they have urinals. Guess what happens?”

After Ahmed complained, the Centre explained that the decision was made in order to be “welcoming to all.” A spokeswoman also told the London Evening Standard, “The Barbican is committed to providing a supportive, inclusive, and flexible space for all our audiences and staff.” But how “welcoming” is a space to women when they no longer have a washroom to themselves? Why is it that women are always the ones expected to be “flexible” and “supportive” at the expense of their own comfort and safety?

Ahmed argued that the Centre should simply make the men’s washroom gender-neutral, and keep the women’s as is, seeing as the men’s never has a lineup anyway, and clearly men aren’t going to be threatened with an influx of women in their urinals. Women, on the other hand, will be forced to accept men in their already overcrowded washrooms.

Trans activists will often pretend that “gender-inclusive” bathrooms are simply about everyone having a place to pee. Sounds reasonable, right?! Others will go even further. Chase Strangio, an attorney at the ACLU, continually argues that without gender-inclusive washrooms, trans-identified people literally cannot leave their houses or attend school. “This is about the right for trans people to exist in public spaces. If you can’t use the restroom, you can’t go out,” Strangio says.

The irony of claiming that sex-segregated washrooms mean trans-identified people cannot “participate in public life” seems entirely lost on Strangio, who apparently has chosen to ignore the fact that women were literally kept out of public life until relatively recently.

We were not allowed to vote, attend university, open a bank account, participate in politics, breastfeed in public, or go to bars. Women were not “persons” under Canadian law until 1929. Even today, while many of us are legally permitted to do things like vote and go to bars, women remain under threat and unsafe in public spaces. Breastfeeding in public remains extremely controversial, and women are very often shamed for doing so. (The result of this is that, in many ways, new mothers are kept out of public spaces because we, as a society, insist breasts exist for men to look at and nothing more.) In Saudi Arabia, women are still not allowed to drive or use public swimming pools. Female politicians continue to experience sexist treatment from male colleagues and the media; and are subjected to violent, misogynist threats, harassment, and mockery from the public. In the workplace, sexual harassment is rampant, making participation in the police force or military, for example, so traumatic that women are forced out. Until recently, women didn’t even have separate showers and locker rooms in some Canadian fire halls, an issue that contributed to the sexual harassment they experienced, and made many female fire fighters feel “unwelcome, unsafe, and at times unable to go to work.” And do I need to explain to you the stress women face simply taking public transit, walking down the street, or going to a bar?

All this is to say that while technically many women are “allowed” to participate in public life, in practice, that freedom is extremely limited. Indeed, women around the world are still punished simply for leaving the house. And now, we are (once again) being denied access to something so basic as a women’s washroom — a private space in public life that allows us a marginal sense of safety.

People like Strangio, venues like the Barbican, and, increasingly, community centres and schools seem to believe girls’ and women’s need for safe spaces should take a back seat in the face of the “gender identity” fad that pretends sex and sex-based oppression no longer exist. But we still need private spaces in public. If only to be able to escape, for a few moments, the ever-present male gaze that exists everywhere else. This sense of safety is destroyed when gender-neutral change rooms and bathrooms replace those previously designated for women.

In 2015, reports of voyeurism temporarily disrupted imposed “inclusivity” at the University of Toronto. The University’s Washroom Inclusivity Project explains that gender-neutral washrooms in student residences “exist in order to give transgender people a place where they feel included, and where they won’t be misgendered.” It’s funny (but not really!) that no one considered how “included” women would feel sharing a washroom with men. Indeed, inclusivity sounds nice, but is not as rosy as it’s made out to be within the context of a male supremacy largely enforced through violence.

Yes, everyone deserves a place to pee. But men risk nothing by offering up their washrooms to “all genders,” while women risk a lot. Making women’s toilets “inclusive” imagines a world that does not exist and prioritizes politically correct appearances over real life consequences.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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