A brief history of all-gender toilets in UK universities

To celebrate this year’s umpteenth hit-piece on trans equality, I thought I might tell a little story about toilets.

On Friday, The Times reported that the University of Warwick has been “criticised for its ‘capture’ by Stonewall”, as evidenced by guidance asking people to challenge their biases, plus a proliferation of gender-neutral pronouns and toilets.

This coverage struck me as both unsurprising and bizarre. Unsurprising, as Stonewall have recently been subject to a barrage of homophobic and transphobic coverage from the likes of The Times, the BBC, The Guardian, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail etc etc. But also bizarre, as this is simply not news – all of the initiatives described have been underway for many years now, and they were hardly introduced by Stonewall.

As such, this feels like a good opportunity to explore the forgotten history of one of these initiatives: the introduction of all-gender toilets at Warwick, and in UK universities more widely.

I first became involved in campaigning for all-gender toilets in 2007. Using public toilets was a huge fear for me when I first transitioned. Fortunately, it turned out I was able to use women’s toilets without any trouble, but many of my queer siblings were not so lucky. I met and read about many trans people and other gender-nonconforming individuals, especially butch lesbians, who faced abuse and harassment in toilets due to their appearance. All-gender toilets offer a level of safety and access for people who don’t necessarily tick binary gendered boxes.

I was inspired therefore to learn about campaigns for all-gender bathrooms in US universities, through blogs, forums, and the 2004-05 TV documentary TransGeneration. I teamed up with some friends to write a motion for the 2007 National Union of Students (NUS) LGBT conference, calling on the NUS LGBT to campaign for equal toilet access. The motion passed with a near-unanimous vote, and you can see the text of the resulting policy below:

Conference believed:
1. Gender is self-defined according to an individual's gender identity.
2. That a large number of people who may be identified as trans have a gender identity or gender presentation that is
ambiguous or confusing to others.
3. That gender presentation and gender identity do not necessary fit within a simple male/female binary.
4. A lack of awareness regarding such issues means that trans people have difficulties in areas of life others would take for
granted.
5. That trans people are often inappropriately forced to use disabled toilets or (more often) gender-specific facilities in which
they may face serious discrimination.
Conference further believed:
1. That trans people should have the right to use facilities that they feel most comfortable with, free of discrimination and
harassment.
2. Many trans students would benefit from the availability of gender-neutral toilets, which may exist alongside the genderspecific
amenities currently available.
3. That educational institutions are environments in which trans students should be able to feel as comfortable in themselves
as anyone else.
4. That motions in favour of gender-neutral toilets in universities such as the University of Bradford provide a positive
precedent.
Conference resolved:
1. To mandate a national drive by the NUS LGBT liberation campaign for the establishment of gender-neutral toilet facilities
2. To encourage student LGBT groups and student unions to fight for gender-neutral toilet facilities in their educational
establishments and student union buildings by producing a briefing pack offering support, advice, and educational
literature to these organizations.
3. To mandate the LGBT Officers and committee to produce an online briefing for constituent members on the issue of
gender neutral toilets, including best practice policy, examples of constituent members who have successfully passed
policy in favour of gender neutral facilities and strategies for winning the arguments.
4. To encourage student LGBT groups and student unions to fight for gender-neutral toilet facilities in their educational
establishments and student union buildings, and to offer support, advice, and educational literature to these
organisations.
5. To offer support for trans students so that they can use the facilities that they feel most comfortable with - whether
gender-neutral or gender specific -free of discrimination and harassment.

Of course, we were hardly the first people to undertake such campaigns in the UK. In 2002, Benjamin Cohen wrote an (unsuccessful) motion in favour of gender-neutral toilets for the King’s College London Student Representative Council. In 2005, an NUS LGBT briefing stated that ‘ideally a unisex toilet would […] be provided for those who feel uncomfortable defining into male or female’. Plus, throughout the 2000s “unisex” toilets were introduced in many UK nightclubs, although their owners were generally not so interested in the welfare of clubbers.

Buoyed by the success of our NUS LGBT motion, I took a similar proposal to the Students’ Union (SU) Council at the University of Warwick later in 2007. The motion was passed, albeit with an amendment to say that we would “investigate the possibility” of providing accessible toilet facilities for trans people, instead of committing to actually providing them. I invited Riley Coles, a student campaigner from the University of Bradford, down to Coventry to speak in support of the motion as they had recently introduced all-gender toilets at Bradford SU (you can hear Riley’s side of the story here). In turn, I was invited to speak in support of all-gender toilet policies at various Student Unions, including at Manchester and Sheffield as well as Bradford.

Trans Access Needs

Proposer: Ruth Pearce
Seconder: [name redacted]

This Union Notes

1)	Its own equal opportunities policy.
2)	The Sex Discrimination Act 1976, that makes its unlawful to discriminate against gender, and the Sex Discrimination Regulations 1999, that make it unlawful to discriminate against people intending or undergoing gender reassignment.
3)	Sex, biologically, is not a straightforward issue as many are born with an ambiguous sex and gender is not binary.
4)	That gender is self-defined, as recognised by Union institutions.
5)	That trans people are widely discriminated against, facing ignorance, harassment and sometimes violence.
6)	Warwick has a hidden population of trans students, including those who are transsexed and those who identify as genderqueer, and there are no doubt also intersex students.
7)	Trans students at Warwick are currently forced to use gender specific facilities when some have an ambiguous appearance that invites discrimination, whilst others do not identify within the gender binary.
8)	That the NUS LGBT liberation campaign recently passed a motion to campaign for gender-neutral toilets in all educational institutions and student unions.

This Union Believes

1)	Trans people should have the right to use the facilities they are most comfortable with, free of discrimination and harassment.
2)	Confining gender to a binary distinction discriminates against students unable to define as only either male or female.
3)	The availability of gender-appropriate facilities is an access issue, as trans students may be reluctant to make use of the Student Union buildings due to a lack of facilities that they would feel safe and comfortable using.
4)	Both those trans students who identify as neither male nor female and those transsexed students who are transitioning in their social role from one apparent gender to another would benefit greatly from the existence of gender-neutral toilets.
5)	That gender-neutral toilets may also be made use of by cisgender (non-trans) students.
6)	That moves towards making gender-neutral toilets available by student bodies in USA institutions and UK universities such as Bradford and Sussex provide a positive precedent that deserves following.
7)	That the redevelopment of Union South provides an unapparelled opportunity for the provision of gender-neutral toilets in the Students’ Union, given the extortionate cost of creating them under normal circumstances.

This Union Resolves

1)	To provide accessible toilet facilities for trans people as well as exploring the possibility of gender-neutral toilet facilities.
2)	To publicise the existence of these provisions, their locations, and the reasons for them at the beginning of every year.
3)	To make feminine hygiene services available in these facilities in a similar manner to in the female toilets, for those trans students with particular needs associated with the female sex, and female students who choose to use  them.
4)	To mandate the Students’ Union to campaign for the provision of gender-neutral toilet facilities in the University.
5)	To support all trans students who wish to use the facilities appropriate to their gender, whether these facilities are gender-neutral or gender-specific.

What we rapidly realised was that having a policy isn’t the same as achieving an outcome. NUS LGBT introduced numerous policies at its conference every year, and student officers simply didn’t have time to campaign on all of them. Moreover, at the time the campaign was dominated primarily by cis gay men and lesbians. Consequently, all-gender toilets were not to become an NUS LGBT campaign priority until the 2010s.

Similarly, having a policy at Warwick SU did not translate into the immediate introduction of all-gender toilets in the SU building, let alone across the university campus. It took a concerted campaign across many years to make that happen, involving innumerable staff and students. All-gender toilets were first introduced in odd corners of the SU building, then occasionally elsewhere on campus, and then gradually in new buildings before being more widely rolled out. This process took well over a decade.

In opening up new conversations about toilets, we rapidly realised that all-gender toilets were not just beneficial to trans and gender non-conforming people. For example, single parents benefited from being able to accompany young children of a different gender into facilities, and carers could do the same with people they cared for.

Equally, we knew that all-gender toilets were not appropriate for all people. Some women and men do not share gendered spaces for religious reasons. Women and girls who have experienced male harassment and violence may also not wish to share spaces with men. We therefore campaigned for an “additive” approach, with all-gender toilets available alongside women’s and men’s facilities: the approach eventually adopted by the University of Warwick.

Additionally, some service providers sought to introduce all-gender toilets at the expense of disabled people, much to our frustration. If single-cubicle “accessible” toilets are the only all-gender toilets available, it can increase the number of people using these facilities, to the detriment of disabled people who require them. We therefore urged university bodies that this was not an adequate solution.

These issues were explored in detail in a briefing published by West Midlands Area NUS (WMANUS) in 2007. This document also included a series of sample arguments in favour of all-gender toilets, case study examples of their implementation, and model motions for Students’ Unions. I also included a section on toilets in the Under Construction: Trans Students guide I wrote for the NUS in 2008.

By 2009 I started my postgraduate studies and took a step back from toilet campaigns. However, there was no shortage of new activists to step into the breach. There are too many to name them all, but one of the key figures has been Sam Parr, who continues to push for more accessible toilets for all on the University of Warwick campus through endless meetings and consultation exercises.

By the mid-2010s, all-gender toilets could be found on many university campuses and other public buildings, including at Warwick. In 2017, when I organised a conference about the gender equality scheme Athena SWAN, I was delighted hear a conversation among a group of cis equality and diversity workers about how best to make the case for all-gender toilet provision at their institution.

Meanwhile, when I spoke to a new generation of student activists, I began to hear complaints around how some campaigners focused too much on toilets as an “easy” campaign priority, rather than tackling issues such as trans healthcare, employment, and housing. Certainly, an all-gender toilet will not put food on your plate or a roof above your head. They must be part of a wider struggle for liberation.

Still, that struggle continues. So I was delighted to hear from colleagues this week that sanitary bins will soon be available in all toilets across campus at the University of Warwick, especially for the benefit of trans and/or disabled men who might require them in men’s facilities. You can see a reference to this idea in our original 2007 policy, albeit with some pretty awkward phrasing!

Trans histories tend to be forgotten. They are frequently not written down, and are often lost due to a lack of intergenerational contact. The only way we can change that is through sharing our stories and building back our history. I hope this post can help with that a little.

I have not named numerous individuals involved in the campaigns I describe in this post as I am aware that doing so could result in harassment. However, if you see yourself in this story and would like to be named, please let me know and I will gladly edit this post to credit your work!

Forthcoming talk: The Transgender Moral Panic

I’ve been invited to give a guest lecture at the University of Warwick next week, on Thursday 8th February.

This will be part of the “Hidden Histories” alternative lecture series, organised by Warwick Students’ Union with support from a number of academic departments.

The talk will take place from 7pm in S0.21 (Social Science Building), and is open to all. I will speak for around an hour and there will be time for questions and discussions.

Here’s the blurb from the Facebook event page:

The Transgender Moral Panic: A Brief Social History

Over the last few months, there has been an enormous upsurge in media commentary that expresses concern about the role of trans people in public life. Gendered changing rooms, non-binary people, trans children and notions of self-definition have all come under intense scrutiny, with psychologist Meg-John Barker describing 2017 as “the year of the transgender moral panic”.

For the 2nd lecture in our Hidden Histories series, Ruth Pearce will explore the background to the recent wave of media interest, taking in radical feminist theories, scientific racism and proposed changes to UK law. She will show how the transgender moral panic has been shaped by deep-seated cultural anxieties around sex and gender, brought to the fore by the precarious successes of the trans liberation movement.

Ruth Pearce is a trans feminist scholar. Her research primarily examines discourses, practices and experiences of trans health. Her PhD was awarded by the University of Warwick in 2016. Her thesis looked at how trans health is differently understood within trans communities, activist groups and professional literatures, with a range of meanings and practices contested within and between these spaces.

Come along for what is set to be a fascinating event exploring a topic which is generally erased from mainstream curricula. Refreshments will be provided!

Hidden Histories banner

CPATH: diversity, inclusion and decolonisation in trans health

I’m currently attending the CPATH (Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health) conference in Vancouver. It’s a fascinating event which I’m hoping to write about more in the coming days. I’ll also be livetweeting whenever possible.

The first two days of the event are a “pre-conference” training session aimed largely at healthcare professionals, followed by a more standard three-day conference over the weekend. I’m fortunate enough to be attending the whole thing, funded through the ESRC-sponsored Trans Pregnancy project. I’m here to learn about how gender-affirming care is being practiced in North America, and to connect with people working in reproductive health and in supporting transition.

What’s really struck me so far is how much more intersectional and inclusive of actual trans people this event is when compared to professional events in Western Europe, particularly last year’s WPATH conference.

I was struck at the how the first pre-conference session I attended – billed as an introduction to gender-affirming care – had questions of diversity, power, and consent absolutely embedded into the presentations. Attendees were encouraged to reflect critically on their own privilege and social position, and that of key writers and trend-setters in the field. We discussed how social determinants of health (such as wealth, education, citizenship etc) play a huge role in determining inequalities within trans populations as well as between trans people and the cis majority.

These are pretty standard topics within sociology, but even so I felt the session was very well-presented and I learned a lot from the informative but open and deeply self-aware approach taken by the two presenters, Gwen Haworth and Jenn Matsui De Roo. It was immensely refreshing to see this kind of conversation take place in an event attended largely by healthcare providers. Too often, I feel clinical providers and researchers in the UK find themselves at loggerheads with trans patients. Often this may be because they haven’t thought to take a step back and consider the cultural context of their patient’s life and the systemic issues that this person might have encountered, let alone the deeply unequal power dynamic of the clinical encounter.

It was also really important for me as a non-clinician to take the time to listen to the stories and experiences of healthcare professionals, and learn more about the energy and care they put into the vital work that they do. I fear too many sociologists looking into issues around healthcare don’t actually attend medical conferences, and as such miss out from directly hearing about professional views and experiences.

I was also delighted to see that the space is pretty trans-friendly. People are generally sensitive around language, there are gender-neutral toilet blocks, pronoun stickers, and there’s also a “safer space” quiet room. At the WPATH conference last year, a number of trans attendees were attempting to make all of these things happen through forms of quiet guerilla disruption, for instance through putting holographic stickers on the toilets that switched between “male” and “female” images. At CPATH, trans language, trans culture and trans needs feel like part of the fabric of the event.

IMAG0167

My CPATH 2017 Conference name badge.
Under my name is a sticker reading “preferred pronoun: she/her”.

Finally, it’s good to see that there’s a serious decolonial agenda at CPATH. The conference booklet acknowledges that Vancouver is built on unceded lands; there are numerous sessions led by indigenous practitioners, researchers and activists; indigenous perspectives and issues are regularly discussed by non-indigenous attendees; and the introductory plenary for the conference proper on Friday will feature an opening speech and talks from indigenous activists and healthcare providers.

Of course, while all of this looks good for CPATH, the progressive appearance of the conference can hide the struggles that make real inclusion and recognition possible. I’ve heard that the opening plenary was the outcome of a struggle over indigenous representation after a number of papers were rejected. So, however good CPATH looks to me as a (white, British) outsider, it’s important to acknowledge the ongoing, silent (silenced) work that so often takes place behind the scenes to make this happen.

I have seen the future of feminism, and it is beautiful

Yesterday’s social media furore over a dodgy letter to the Observer left me questioning my place within the women’s movement for the umpteenth time. However, within hours I was powerfully reminded that those who advocate an exclusive feminism are less influential and important than they might like to think.

Last night I joined a room of people committed to building a feminism that is compassionate, reflexive, inclusive of all women and sensitive to our different experiences.

Last night I found myself in a room of brown, black and white faces; gay, bi and straight; cis and trans; working class and middle class; disabled and abled. Last night I heard a teenage Muslim woman speak out about the importance of representing all faiths in activism after a question from a Jewish woman in the audience. Last night I heard from a white middle-class straight woman who has turned up to learn with an open mind. Last night I heard cis women talk about about trans rights, and felt that my identity and experience as a woman was simply not in question.

I had been invited to contribute to a panel discussion at the University of Bristol Students’ Union (UBU). Entitled How do we make the Women’s Movement intersectional?, the panel was was of UBU’s “Festival of Liberation“, which also includes events looking at the challenges faced by LGBT people, disabled people, and people of colour. I was honoured to share a panel with three truly awesome women: Susuana Antubam and Sammi Whitaker of the NUS Women’s Campaign, and Fahma Mohamed of Integrate Bristol.

Panellists at UBU's intersectional feminist event
Last night was promising and encouraging and heartwarming, and was not unusual in being so. I have seen similar scenes repeated across the country over the last few years at talks, workshops, protests and riot grrrl gigs.

This is the new feminism. A feminism that is discarding the model of monolithic female oppression and in its place building a movement around diversity and inclusion. A feminism that seeks to base both theory and action upon what different groups of women have to say about their lives and experiences, rather than imposing a top-down model of liberation drawn from academic theory. A feminism that sees cis and straight women take responsibility for supporting the work of their trans and queer sisters, white women take responsibility for supporting the work of their sisters of colour, abled women take responsibiity for supporting the work of their disabled sisters and so on.

Last night we talked about the importance of intersectionality as feminist praxis: of putting ideas into action. We talked about the importance of education: of sharing the knowledge and tools necessary for women’s liberation with people of all genders. We talked about the importance of representation: of working to ensure that women of all backgrounds feel welcome and able to attend feminist events through the use of accessible venues, ensuring diversity within organising teams and (where relevant) speakers/acts, and thinking about the language we use. We talked about the benefits of building groups around intersectional identities (such as black womanhood); groups that can then work alongside other bodies of people with a broader remit, feeding in ideas and holding them to account.

We talked about calling people out and challenging oppressive behaviour both within wider society and within the feminist movement. We also talked about being kind and prepared to forgive, and allowing people space to learn and grow. We talked about how everyone will make mistakes, because intersectional feminism is a constant experience of doing and being, rather than a closed process where you jump through a series of hoops and then become a Good Feminist who is capable of always passing judgement upon others.

We talked about our experiences of activism. Fahma talked about giving a piece of her mind to a nervous Michael Gove, resulting in a letter to every school in the country about FGM. Sammi talked about productive conversations with working class male friends, and building liberation into the very fabric of Anglia Ruskin’s fledgling Students’ Union. Susuana talked about her work on addressing lad culture as a gendered, racialised and classist phenomenon. I talked about my contributions to trans and non-binary inclusion within the NUS Women’s Campaign, and how we seek a diverse range of performers for Revolt, Coventry’s feminist punk night. We heard stories and ideas and questions from the audience, and I reflected on how we were not “experts” with a monopoly on solutions, but just one part of a wider movement.

These are just some of the things that we talked about.

So why have I been led to question my place within the women’s movement?

Because I see Julie Bindel referring to other feminists as “stupid little bellends” whilst misgendering trans women, arguing that bisexuals do not experience oppression, and stating that Muslim women who wear religious dress are necessarily oppressed. Because I see Rupert Read suggesting that trans women should not be allowed to use public toilets. Because I see Beatrix Campbell repeating and defending these ideas.

When I read things like this, I am repelled by a feminism that is harsh, bitter and exclusionary.

When feminists gaslight me by claiming repeatedly that the individuals who wrote these articles are not transphobic I am saddened and confused.

When I hear about feminists disrupting conversations at events such as AFem in order to promote an agenda that excludes trans people and sex workers, I am disappointed and worried.

When I see exclusionary events like Radfem 2013 and Femifest 2014 promoted within feminist spaces and supported by organisations like Women’s Aid and Reclaim The Night London I am alarmed and concerned.

When I see feminist women and men – including both public figures as well as personal friends and acquaintances – sign a misleading letter that condemns attempts to debate and contest the above, I wonder how voices of those who work for an inclusive and diverse feminism can possibly stand against a “letter mob” representing the discursive might of the liberal Establishment.

The stakes are high. Too many of my friends have considered suicide. Too many of my friends have died. When I talk to my trans friends and fellow activists, I hear about fragile mental health, doctors and shopkeepers refusing to provide services, threats of violence and attacks in the street. All of these things are fuelled by the dehumanisation of trans people, the idea that we require intervention to save us from the misguided path of transition, the implication that we do not deserve to exist within public spaces. These discourses are perpetuated by feminists and defended by liberals in the name of “free speech”.

I don’t believe in historical inevitability and don’t buy into progression narratives. I had a debate about trans-exclusive feminisms with Jack Halberstam recently. Jack echoed my PhD supervisor in arguing that trans-exclusive feminisms are outdated and irrelevant, long-dismissed within the academic world. But the academic world is often divorced from the reality of the feminist movement on the ground. In this reality, exclusive feminisms continue to fester.

In spite of all of this, last night reminded me of the power and appeal of the new, intersectional feminism. It is this feminism that is popular amongst young people who are more interested in working together than apart, and veteran activists with the humility to share their ideas and wisdom with newcomers on an equal footing.

This feminism requires work and nurture, but – as I argued last night – this does not need to be an entirely arduous task. Working together across our differences and ensuring that more people feel welcome and included makes us stronger. Learning new things from others can be interesting and exciting. Having the strength to learn from our mistakes solidifies friendships and alliances. Discovering a more diverse range of feminist histories, activisms and performances can be fun and empowering.

The new feminism is beautiful. Let’s keep building.