Thoughts on the London Student ‘Great Debate’ on “Unisex Toilets”

As the lead officer at ULU, I have felt compelled to write something publically on “The Great Debate – Should Unisex toilets exist on university campuses” in the first edition of the London Student, in particular the “No” side, put forward by LSE Government student, Jason Wong.

In the article Wong implies that he is part of the “sane, silent majority” who are “too afraid to speak up against the PC mob and those who do are characterised as “racist, “sexist” or “homophobic”. Wong characterises himself as rational, and others as wild, in an attempt to deflect criticism of his offensive views. Amongst a number of insults, he repeatedly uses transphobic language, such as; “gender confusion”, “neurotic hippy parents raising their children genderless worldwide; forcing their sons to dress up as angels and play with Barbie dolls. Surely, denying a child the right to his gender identity is no more than child abuse.” and comparing the provision of gender neutral facilities to “some cheap strip club in the alleys of Bangkok “, all of which are odious. 

As a socialist, I think we have a profound interest in free speech. Intolerant ideas are ubiquitous in our society, and in my opinion the way to defeat those ideas is not to ban or shut them down, but to take them to task, and convince people of why they are wrong. For this, we need public debate and discussion.

But Transphobia is not a conventional difference of opinion. It’s not, for instance, like agreeing with immigration controls, which while in some sense are racist, is a very widespread ‘soft’ view that has to be argued with and challenged constantly. Gender neutral toilets, which give the opportunity for people to use the bathroom safely, and without fear, aren’t a fitting subject for a “controversial”, “debate” piece. I worry that presenting the issue in such a context where one view is either “right” or “wrong” elevates the transphobic argument against gender neutral toilets to the level of being merely one amongst many potentially reasonable positions.

Upholding a plurality of views doesn’t mean publishing an article like Wong’s. One could envisage a wrong-headed article against “unisex toilets” that didn’t set out to be deliberately provocative and nasty. As I’ve mentioned, I don’t believe we should rule out ‘evil views’ in advance. However, with this article there was as line crossed between wrong-headed and downright abusive. The issue is not one of free speech – no one on our side of the debate is trying to suppress anyone  – the question is whether such views should have been printed in the ULU newspaper. I don’t think it should have been printed. The point is that there is a difference between something you don’t agree with, or find upsetting, and something which is plain racist, anti-semitic, or sexist. This is especially pressing as Wong is a known bigot, with a track record: he has produced sexist materials for his LSE Students’ Union election campaign, claimed that cleaners are paid too much, and trivialised the Holocaust. This isn’t new behaviour. It’s part of the editor’s job to find the balance, and the Editor has a responsibility to London students.

Before my role here at ULU, I was President of the Students’ Union at Royal Holloway. During my year in office, we introduced gender neutral toilets (GNTs), which is the same things LSE SU are now trying to do, and the main subject of discussion. Trans*-focused activism was a big part of the work I did. We ran public meetings, sought to educate fellow students and staff(there is still a lot to do and we could have done more), and built campaigns around trans issues.

The ‘No’ side of the debate itself is full of inaccuracies and the habitual ignorance that many hold around gender issues. The accusation against LSE SU is of “social experiment”, and the suggestion that GNTs will endanger women who will have to share a bathroom with males, or cause embarrassment, and many others stick out. I’d like to address some of these points, and explain why gender neutral toilets are extremely important for a civilised society.

Firstly, Students’ Unions are organisations which strive to represent and cater for the needs of all of their members. Providing the toilets, even if they only benefit a few students, is well worth the effort to make our unions a more inclusive space.

A question to answer in this debate, and one J Wong seems unaware of – what are gender neutral toilets? Gender Neutral toilets are simply a designated toilet which is not specified by gender, and is open to all students.

Anyone is able to use a gender neutral toilet; that is the whole point of ‘neutralising’ the gendered signage on the doors of the toilets. They can be used by anyone, regardless of gender, without fear of incident, discrimination or harassment. Gender-neutral toilets are not ‘trans*’ toilets. They are not specifically for trans* people only, and many trans* people may wish to use a gendered toilet. They are for anyone to use and there is no reason why people using them would be identified as trans*.

Many people do not identify as either ‘male’ or ‘female’, and often feel threatened or uncomfortable using gendered toilets, therefore a gender-neutral toilet can provide a safer alternative to traditional male and female toilets. Having gender-neutral toilets ensures that these people will not be forced to choose the ‘best option’ toilet instead of one they actually feel comfortable with.

Additionally, parents with children of the opposite sex can use these toilets as they are too young to go to the toilet on their own but too old to go into gendered toilets e.g. 7-10 year olds. It is also of great benefit to disabled individuals who don’t need to use an accessible toilet but may have careers of the opposite sex.

Wong suggests that the safety and privacy of students, especially female students, will be risked. I think it’s worth noting that LSE SU, and we at RHUL last year, didn’t scrap the gendered toilets, and they remained in the same building. Therefore, if any women feel uncomfortable using a gender-neutral toilet, alternatives are available.

Now, Wong may say: ‘we don’t have any trans* students in LSE SU or London more generally, so there’s not point in having them!’, and that this is in fact part of a plot by a milieu of “neurotic hippy parents” or the “politically correct mob” to get their own way. It’s near impossible to suggest that the students’ unions or London has no trans* members whatsoever but it is extremely likely we do. But as has been already said, gender-neutral toilets are not just for trans* students, so the numbers at LSE SU is irrelevant.

Wong’s arguments sit in a wider context of sexism and gender inequality in our Students’ Unions. It must be fought vigorously! An effect of the introduction of gender-neutral toilets is to show our commitment as students to dealing with gender issues and making our buildings accessible to all, and, most importantly, this may make trans* students feel more comfortable about being out.

The GNT facilities are a safe space, and its important that we respect their purpose, and make yourself aware that people of many different genders may be using the facilities.

One of my central areas of work this year, and a big point on my election manifesto, was to support the establishment of a London Student Liberation Network. The network would run skill sharing events, conferences, training, support activists on different campuses (e.g a battle for the introduction of liberation officers or a pro choice demonstration) and run joint campaigns. We have had our first network meeting of the year; it was encouraging; with materials, and a further bigger meeting planned.

I think the crucial thing amongst all of this is the absolute importance of building a movement to educate people about trans issues, and build autonomous trans* organisation (which already exists of course). Students’ unions have constantly been at the forefront of movements for self liberation. I think we should be leading the way for Trans* inclusion – to take people to task on their ignorance, and go out into society and inform.



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