All Gender Toilets – We just want to go to the toilet!

Ms. Joe Manton, Director Access Institute, ACAA & Williamson Fellow

In an ABC Opinion piece by Rory Blundell posted on Tuesday 4 April 2017, Rory states:

‘Like most people who consume almost a litre of soft drink while seeing a movie at the cinema, I really need to pee.

A familiar, prickly feeling of anxiety grows as I try to decide which bathroom I’ll fit in to most. In a moment of panic, I rush into the women’s and beeline for the nearest stall.

Now I just have to make my exit without encountering anyone else.

After 10 minutes waiting in the stall, listening for other people, I decide the coast is clear. Predictably, however, as I’m at the sink, someone enters and stares at me, clearly puzzled.

A part of me is happy that I look masculine enough to confuse people, but mostly I feel deeply uncomfortable, and humiliated by how much attention I’m drawing to myself.

I feel like I’ve betrayed myself, once again, by not feeling able to do something so simple as use the men’s toilet.

I identify as non-binary (or more specifically, trans-masculine), meaning that although I was assigned female at birth, I have never identified as a girl.

Whilst I dress in typically ‘masculine’ clothing and wear a chest binder, I haven’t undergone hormone replacement therapy and often get mis-gendered or mistaken for a girl.

This can make using a public bathroom extremely difficult, as I’m faced with a choice: mis-gender myself and fell like I’m betraying my identify or feel like I don’t quite belong and feel physically unsafe’.

You only need to undertake a Google search look to identify the vast range of research that has been undertaken relating to the issue of ‘bathroom anxiety’. This impacts on the use of public toilets by many people.

One study, conducted by researchers at UCLA’s Williams Institute, found that 70% of trans participants had experienced some form of verbal harassment or physical assault when accessing gender-segregated public toilets.

Cambridge University Press in July 2020, identifies that: ‘According to the largest survey of the experiences of trans people in the USA to date:

  • 59% of respondents sometimes refrained from using a bathroom outside of their home in the previous year. The main rationale was fear of confrontation.
  • 24% were asked at least once in the previous year whether they were in the right bathroom and 9% were denied or stopped from using one.
  • 12% of respondents were “verbally harassed, physically attacked, and/or sexual assaulted when accessing or while using a bathroom in the past year
  • 32% refrained from drinking or eating to avoid bathroom use
  • 8% developed a urinary tract infection or other kidney-related problems due to refraining from using the bathroom.

The situation is even worse for some subgroups’.

If communities are committed to supporting access and inclusion for everybody, then the provision of All Gender toilets must be an important part of achieving this.

Myths regarding the abuse of All Gender toilets for activities that may be seen as unacceptable to the broader community abound, and are more often unsubstantiated, compared to similar activities in any other toilet facility. Often a bias against provision of All Gender toilets can be found in historical, discriminatory attitudes towards gender diverse people.

What are All Gender Toilets?

All Gender toilets are facilities that can be used by everyone. They do not have gendered signage, and do not require the person using them to define into a gender. Some All Gender toilets incorporate additional facilities e.g. accessible toilets, baby changing facilities, or showers.

Installation of All Gender toilets, along with other types of toilets e.g., single gender, unisex accessible, ambulant, Accessible Adult Change Facilities (AACF) and Assistance Animal Relief Areas support the principles of access and inclusion. They provide the opportunity for people to make choices about which toilet they may need or prefer to use based on their individual requirements.

According to Melbourne University, research indicates that ‘Bathroom Anxiety’ is a phenomenon experienced by gender diverse people when an appropriate toilet facility is not provided. This leads to increased levels of anxiety and depression and lower levels of class attendance at the University. Extensive consultation found that the term ‘All Gender’ is preferred to ‘Gender- Neutral’ or ‘Unisex’ and is the most inclusive of the broad spectrum of gender. Everyone needs to feel comfortable and safe when using a toilet.

Aren’t Unisex Accessible Toilets the same as All Gender toilets?

A Unisex Accessible toilet can be used by anyone. However, there are a few reasons why some people do not feel comfortable using these facilities.

Firstly, the attitudes of others can have an impact on whether a person will use an accessible toilet. There is a perception in the community that a unisex accessible toilet should only be used by a person with a disability. There may be a good argument for this as there are often not enough of these facilities to cater for the needs of the target group. This is usually because these facilities are only installed to meet minimum compliance requirements, when from a functional perspective it would make more sense to provide increased numbers of accessible toilets so that people who do not have a disability can also feel comfortable in using them for a variety of reasons that do not relate to disability.

 Self-appointed ‘toilet police’ will often judge and sometimes abuse users of accessible toilets if they think that the user does not have a disability.

This ill-informed and judgmental behavior sends a clear message to users that they have some responsibility to prove they are ‘eligible’ to use the toilet. People using wheelchairs are not the only people who need to use accessible toilets. For example, a person using toileting equipment, a person with an assistance animal who needs more room or a person using a pram that that requires a larger space circulation space and other supports to meet their needs. In addition, a neurodiverse person may need support in understanding and using a toilet, so more room in necessary for two people to be in the same space.

Being trans or non-binary is not a disability and therefore some people feel uncomfortable about using an accessible toilet as this is signed for use by people with disabilities. Having to use the accessible toilet on an ongoing basis if there is no All Gender facility can incline an individual and society to perceive that a person’s trans or non-binary self-identification is in some way a disabling condition which can impact negatively on an individual’s self-image and reinforce societal stereotypes.

How a person is perceived by others can have significant influence on their feelings of self-worth and should not be underestimated in terms of the impact on their mental health.

Are All Gender toilets safe?

Safety of girls and women is often cited as a reason not to install All Gender toilets. The Cambridge University Press identifies that a recent study found one instance of a transgender person who allegedly committed a sex crime in a changing room; one case where a cisgender man claimed to identify as a woman and allegedly committed a sex crime in a women’s locker room and13 cases in the USA since 2004 and five overseas cases where cisgender men dressed up as women and entered bathrooms or changing rooms to commit crimes. This is a relatively small number of cases over 15 years, which appears to vindicate the view of some who construe the panic around access to bathrooms as being a moral panic – a panic about morality being under siege – rather than a real concern over safety.

Do All Gender toilets make users uncomfortable?

Discomfort can occur for a range reasons.

General queasiness, the presence of a medical condition, modesty and privacy are considerations that are often the basis for objection to the provision of All Gender toilets. This discomfort can often be overcome by ensuring there are enough other alternative toilets and that All Gender toilets are not the only option for users. Choice supports inclusion. The design and location of the facility will also play an important role in the level of discomfort a person may feel when using any toilet in a public place or work environment.

Will All Gender toilets meet everyone’s needs?

The short answer is no. Not everyone will wish to or be able to use All Gender toilets. It is therefore not appropriate to consider replacing other facilities with All Gender toilets but instead providing additional facilities. There will always be a need to provide single gender facilities, accessible toilets, ambulant toilets, accessible adult change facilities etc to meet the needs of the wide variety of people. For example, Kate Luckins article in the Australian Design Review, considers how other cultural groups feel about all gender bathrooms. Muslim communities have beliefs about modesty, gender, and gender segregation.

‘As a Muslim in North America, there are few spaces where I can comfortably wash-up before each of the five daily prayers,’ explains blogger Miss Muslim NYC. When working with a leading Australian University, there were nine students surveyed who identified as non-binary and thousands of Muslim students.

By focusing on gender inclusion and promoting All Gender bathrooms, we potentially exclude another cultural group, therefore shift the problem’.

Organisations must consider the broader implications and needs of everyone if they are to demonstrate and act on inclusion.

What are the benefits of installing All Gender Toilets?

Research indicates that there are many advantages and benefits to installing All Gender toilets.

  • People of all gender identities and expressions can use All Gender toilets They provide a space for people who may not feel comfortable or safe using the binary gendered female or male toilets, and work towards making the community more inclusive. All Gender toilets reduce ‘bathroom anxiety’ experienced by many users.
  • All Gender toilets benefit parents and guardians accompanying children and people requiring the assistance of a carer, regardless of gender
  • In low usage and small occupancy time differential environments expected waiting time for both men and women decease
  • In high use or large occupancy time differential environments expected waiting times for women substantially decrease while for men they slightly increase

What are the benefits of installing All Gender toilets in workplaces?

In an age where people place a significant amount of importance on office culture, organisations that are known as a people-friendly, are seen in a very positive light by potential employees.

Workplaces that provide All Gender toilets support an inclusive environment that demonstrates that the organisation values diversity and affirms differences.

It sends a clear message that the organisation does not just talk about diversity and inclusion; it acts.

It sends a message that the organisation respects and values every person for who they are and what they contribute, not by what sex they were assigned at birth or their gender identity.

Research indicates that the majority of Millennial and Generation Z employees believe that All Gender toilets should be the norm, so if an organisation values its younger employees’ opinions, it will install appropriate facilities.

Provision of All Gender toilets positively impacts users who may feel at risk of exclusion.

What organisations are leading the way?

Across Australia there are a range of organisations that are taking a leadership role in recognising the importance of installing All Gender toilets. These organisations in most part take an inclusive approach to bathroom use. They do not provide All Gender toilets only, but provide a range of toilets so people can choose what suits their needs.

Universities including Melbourne, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, University of Technology Sydney, Curtin University in Western Australia, Sunshine Coast University in Queensland, all provide All Gender toilets as part of their toilet offerings.

All gender toilets have been installed at Rod Laver Arena. “Please use the toilet that’s most comfortable for you. Anyone can use these toilets, regardless of gender identity or expression,” the sign reads. There are also a range of other toilets available for use.

Marvel Stadium in Melbourne and the Commonwealth public service in Canberra are all prioritising All Gender toilets to foster greater inclusivity.

What is happening internationally? – A snapshot

USA

The “Potty Parity’ debate has raged in the USA for many years. Historically women have been discriminated against in relation to equal access to toilets both in terms of toilet numbers and toilet waiting times. This which forms part of a broader debate regarding equal rights. The provision of All Gender toilets has been an extension of this debate and continues to create a divide amongst American States. More conservative states such as North Carolina, in recent years enacted a law which meant people were required to use the toilet that matched the gender on their birth certificates. Legislators pushed for the so-called Bathroom Bill after the City of Charlotte passed an ordinance allowing transgender people to use restrooms according to gender identity.

The law prompted a huge backlash from campaigners, businesses and artists, with stars such as Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr cancelling concerts in the state.

In response the then Obama administration hit back, issuing a directive ordering public schools to allow transgender students to use the toilet that corresponds to their gender identity.

Since then, 12 states have announced they will sue the federal government over that directive, including Texas, Alabama and Wisconsin.

It should be noted that All Gender toilets have been increasingly introduced across many other states in the USA over recent years.

Europe

In Europe a more enlightened and inclusive understanding of the need for everyone to use a toilet that meets their needs, has led to the installation of All Gender toilets across many precincts, public spaces and organisations for many years. It is not uncommon for the only standard toilet facilities to be All Gender along with accessible and ambulant toilets. Most public bathrooms in Denmark and Sweden are All Gender.

China

According to China Daily in 2017, both domestic and foreign tourists usually have unpleasant experiences or impressions with China’s public toilets- ‘inadequate, dirty and chaotic’.

In 2015, the China National Tourism Administration (NTA) launched a three-year ‘Tourism Toilet Revolution’ across the country. The NTA announced that all 5A scenic spots will build All Gender toilets and plans to build 604 All Gender toilets across the country.

While the provision of All Gender toilets has been primarily raised as a gender equity and human rights issue in the West, China has a different focus largely from the infrastructure perspective. According to the NTA, an All Gender public toilet can simply be viewed as a ‘family toilet’, which specifically targets children, the elderly, people with disabilities and anyone else who may require the assistance from other family members.

Canada

Canada has been a pioneer in advocating All Gender toilets. In April 2014, Vancouver became the first municipality to impose compulsory requirements on public buildings to install All Gender toilets.

United Kingdom

According to wired.co.uk, All Gender toilets have ‘really taken off’ in recent years. Google and Facebook were among the big tech companies in the UK to join employers like WeWork, the BBC, Channel 4, Lloyds of London, Barclays, RBS, Wagamama, HSBC and the British Army in offering All Gender toilets.

Awareness Raising

Given there is no debate about the fact that everyone needs to use a toilet, it appears that awareness raising regarding the need for All Gender toilets to be included in the provision of toilets, alongside the other options such as single gender, accessible, ambulant, children’s toilets and AACF is the key to ongoing change.

Debunking the perception that All Gender toilets are any more unsafe than single gender toilets is critical. Demonstrating inclusive practices, particularly by larger well-known organisations will assist and support the installation of All Gender toilets in the broader community. Normalising the installation of All Gender toilets underpins the basis for understanding and inclusion. Providing All Gender toilets in schools, alongside other options demonstrates that diversity and difference is valued and is an important part of a mature and inclusive society.

Design Considerations

Kate Luckins, in the Australian Design Review argues that ‘Rethinking Bathroom Design’ is an important consideration in the provision of All Gender toilets.

To achieve this, we need much more than just a new accessible, All Gender toilet sign. We need to rethink the whole public bathroom design. To be truly inclusive, we need to design accessible, All Gender bathrooms with wider, closed stalls with private wash basins. There are several examples that serve as a precedent for this approach including aeroplane bathrooms, domestic bathrooms and single-use cubicle bathrooms often found in cafes.

For new buildings, taking the All Gender approach means the bathroom layouts become more flexible’.

In addition, we need to consider the location of all toilets in public places to ensure that all toilet users feel safe, comfortable and at ease when using the facility. We also need to ensure that where toilets are installed appropriate cleaning and maintenance regimes that reflect the rate of usage are implemented, as this is more often the reason that many people do not like to use public toilets.

Moving forward it is important that legislation, standards and building codes respond to and reflect community needs in an inclusive manner. Recently the need for Accessible Adult Change Facilities in some larger buildings was recognised in legislation and incorporated into the National Construction Code (NCC) in 2019, in response to identified needs of the community, All Gender toilets are no different in this regard.

It is time that we addressed this issue in the same way as with any other discriminatory practice and remove the barriers to inclusive participation in community life.

‘I want to thank you for a fantastic course yesterday. I always love learning new things in different ways and yesterday, I learnt even more about Universal Design in playspaces and public places. Your educators were passionate and knowledgeable and really engaging. Thank you for making such a big difference in the way places are designed. I reckon every landscape architect should do your course at a minimum before they are qualified to design places! All the best.’ — Bec Ho (Executive Officer), Touched by Olivia Foundation