This is an article I wrote a few months ago as part of my university coursework, when we were asked to write about something related to care and current events. The article, along with others written by people in my module, is published on a blog, but I had to cut it down quite a bit to fit into the 900 word limit. I saved my first version, to post here.

On the 25th April this year, I joined a group of 120 LGBTQ+ people and allies to protest a discussion called A Woman’s Place is Ours to Define that was held by the transphobic group Woman’s Place UK. Woman’s Place UK believe that they should define what womanhood means, that transgender women should be excluded from that definition, and that the UK government should enforce gender segregation and separation of transgender and cisgender people in some spaces, whether or not other women agree. In fact, they appear adamant that “women’s voices” are universally united in support for their views, and that tolerance of transgender people is essentially anti-feminist. As acceptance of trans people increases in the Western world, what that means for gender segregation has attracted a lot of attention in the media. The debate in the UK and US about gender-segregated toilets, particularly women’s toilets, is interesting because it affects everyone who spends time in public spaces and may need to use a toilet – in short, most people. Trans-exclusionary radical “feminists” (TERFs) and other transphobic groups argue that transgender people must use the toilet of the gender they were assigned at birth, for the safety of cisgender people.

If we take an anthropological perspective, imagining that we know nothing about “public toilet culture”, we can look at women’s public toilets objectively to try and figure out what the fuss is about. Whether the toilet itself is in a stall within a communal space or in a room of its own, the act of using it takes place alone behind a closed door, so the anatomy of the user should be irrelevant. But what about the communal spaces? Women use them to wash and dry their hands, and maybe chat or apply makeup. We frequently see women doing those things in mixed-gender company, so again, the anatomy of other women present should be irrelevant. Possibly it’s related to the risks of sharing an enclosed space with strangers, but enclosed public spaces may also be mixed-gender, like elevators. And why are arguments only focused against trans women visiting women’s toilets? Many transphobic groups pay little attention to trans men, and do not seem concerned that requiring trans people to use a toilet that does not match their gender identity will result in transgender men (who may be indistinguishable from cis men) visiting women’s toilets.

Why do we have gendered toilets in the UK and US?

I think we can find the answers to some of the questions about public toilet culture in the history of our public loos, which have gone from a liberating necessity to a relic of Victorian sexism. In the early 19th century, cultural norms were that men could discreetly urinate outdoors but women could not (despite wearing long skirts ideal for concealing a sneaky pee). This was due to a belief that women were the “weaker sex”, and that they should be confined to the privacy and protection of the home to produce healthy children. However, the industrial revolution bought more women into the public sphere, and policymakers attempted to ease the transition by creating “home-like” spaces for women in public. Toilets were gender-segregated, but so were libraries, public transport, hotels, and department stores. Over time, gender segregation decreased as society became accustomed to women living in the public sphere, but people with conservative views on gender remain vocal about segregated toilets. The US nearly passed the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, an amendment to the US Constitution which would ensure that no one would be denied equal rights on account of their gender. Conservative opponents defeated the ERA with a fear campaign claiming that gender equality would lead to catastrophic consequences, like unisex toilets full of criminals waiting to prey on women. Public toilets have long been the site of society’s anxieties about women and morality.


Ladies’ public comfort station in Pennsylvania, 1921, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Can all women use the women’s toilet?

Gender segregation in public toilets has historically been about protecting women from men. Woman’s Place UK believe they are upholding this tradition, as they classify trans women as men despite evidence to the contrary. According to the Endocrine Society, an international group of medical experts and researchers who study hormones, there is considerable evidence proving that being transgender is a real thing with biological causes. It’s important to note that there’s no such thing as a completely male or completely female brain, but trans women‘s brains seem to share many characteristics with cis women. There’s no evidence that gender dysphoria – the distress caused by having to live as the wrong gender – is caused by mental illness, and the only proven solution is to transition to living as the correct gender. I’d argue that this makes genitalia irrelevant, especially since when a woman uses a public toilet, she sits on the throne alone.

Is there any danger in transgender women using women’s toilets?

It should be clear that the answer is no, no more danger than cisgender women using women’s toilets. People who want more laws regulating public toilet use have failed to come up with evidence that trans women, or men pretending to be trans women, will make going to the toilet unsafe. Some people, including Zinnia Jones on Gender Analysis, argue that proving that it doesn’t ever happen is irrelevant anyway. There will always be a few people who will commit crimes and criminals, by definition, won’t obey laws. What we do know for sure is that trans people, as a whole, are at risk whenever they enter public space. The charity Stonewall found that 41% of trans people surveyed had experienced a hate crime during the previous year, and 48% didn’t feel comfortable using public toilets. Jones writes that toilet laws are meant to make trans women targets of transphobia by forcing them to walk into rooms labelled “men”, and I couldn’t agree more. Woman’s Place UK claim to be feminist, but by demanding that trans women be excluded from women-only spaces, they are surrendering to the sexist, transphobic, and homophobic status quo that has caused so much inequality in Western society. That’s dangerous.

How can we achieve “potty parity”?

The practice of gender segregation in toilets is built on a foundation of sexism. We no longer believe that, as stated in the US Supreme Court in 1873, a woman’s “natural and proper timidity and delicacy” makes her unfit for “the occupations of civil life”. We acknowledge that misogynistic violence exists, but realise that it would be unreasonable and patronising, not to mention ineffective, to ban mixed-gender strangers from sharing public spaces. Gender-segregated toilets have caused problems as well as being a symptom of them. Many older buildings were designed for primarily male guests, and women’s toilets are occupied for longer as women’s clothing can take longer to get out of the way and some women need to take care of menstrual hygiene or small children. The result is that queues for the ladies are often longer than queues for the gents. Some “potty parity” activists suggest that providing more gender neutral toilets is the answer. Getting rid of the little people in trousers and skirts on the doors and swapping out the urinals for a few more stalls could make the queue a tiny bit longer for the gents, but considerably shorter for the ladies. A Guardian article estimated less than a minute’s wait if an hour-long event with 300 people provided 12 gender-neutral toilet stalls. Continuing to promote gender segregation in public toilets due to irrational fears stemming from the belief that a woman’s place is in the home makes life harder for all women.


Gender neutral toilet in San Diego airport, Checkingfax via Wikimedia Commons.

Sources and Related Links

I have purposely not included a link to Women’s Place UK. They don’t deserve the traffic. However, Cherwell and PinkNews wrote about our protest.

Featured Image: Women Only sign in London, Andy Roberts via Wikimedia Commons.

Museum of London: Women’s Right to Sit Comfortably
Vox: The Bizarre History Of Bathrooms Getting In The Way Of Equal Rights
The New Yorker: Who’s Afraid Of Gender-Neutral Bathrooms?
Williams Institute: Gendered Restrooms And Minority Stress
Gender Analysis: Bathroom Bills
The Guardian: To Those Who Oppose Gender-Neutral Toilets
Time: Why Do We Have Men’s and Women’s Bathrooms Anyway?
Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing (Book)

Trans Rights
Stonewall: Trans Report 2018
ThinkProgress: Experts Confirm Gender Identity Is Biological
National LGBTQ Task Force: Injustice and Every Turn
The Scientist: Are The Brains Of Transgender People Different From Those Of Cisgender People?

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Anthropology, History


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