Northern Advocate Column

The toilet, can we move on from him and hers?

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I’m writing this next to a toilet. Well, it’s on the other side of the wall to the booth seat I usually take up in my favourite café. The wall is solid, and there’s enough conversation hum and kitchen clunking to drown out any embarrassing noises. I don’t even hear the toilet flush.

It’s a single toilet. There’s no separate mens and womens. There’s no area to wait around in, you exit the café through the mandatory two doors and you’re in the bathroom. People come and go, without any fuss. It’s the most normal of things.

Toilets, however, have gotten political in New Zealand of late, thanks to proposed amendments to the rather dull sounding Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Relationships Registration Act. The changes being considered by Parliament would see adults over 18 able to “self identify” their gender, such that a transgender woman would be a woman before the law and have legal entitlement to spaces regarded as women only. These include Women’s Refuge, pool changing rooms, prisons, and of course toilets.

One of the issues for transgender people is the situation arising when there’s only mens and womens toilets available, which should they use? Both choices can lead to difficult, embarrassing or confrontational situations. Transgender people would like legal recognition that it is their right to use the toilet of the gender they identify as. Understandable.

There has, though, been opposition to “self-identification” on social media and in opinion columns, most notably Rachel Stewart in the NZ Herald (28 Nov 2018). They’ve been criticised by transgender people and other supporters of the law change. The debate has got ugly on social media in particular. 

Opponents of the bill, have expressed concern that spaces currently restricted to biological women could be compromised by a still biological man who identifies as a woman. They cite Women’s Refuge as an example of space that should remain the preserve of biological women only.

Women’s changing rooms at a pool or a gym have also been much discussed as spaces which should not be available to transgender woman who are still biologically male (not having had a sex change operation).

How widespread these concerns are is hard to judge. Many people probably aren’t aware of the debate. But if “self-identification” is accepted by Parliament — which on balance I support — then there’s going to be situations arising that will need to be talked through and negotiated publicly, with understanding required from both sides.

As for toilets, might it be time to continue a quiet revolution in public toileting and make them all unisex anyway? Unisex toilets have become much more common in public spaces, as well as in many cafes, restaurants and bars. Changes to local bylaws have made this possible. This means no urinals (which nobody misses) and visible waiting areas outside cubicles or simply a direct through-door access to the toilet. Designed well, no one is made to feel unsafe in a concealed space. 

Whatever your thoughts on gender self-identification, let’s at least agree that toilets should be a human-centric public facility, used by women, men, children, nappy changing mothers and fathers, gay, straight, transgender and non-gendered. The toilet in my favourite café caters for everyone, and there’s not a problem.

Perhaps, for toilets at least, we can forget the labelling and all go about our business quietly reflecting on the universalism of our most basic bodily functions.

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