A Triple Take on Toilets

Imagine needing to go to the toilet, and not being able to get in. Or being afraid to go because you may meet ridicule or hostility. Or having to cover a far greater distance than others around you to find one you can use. Imagine feeling unsafe to use a washroom because another person who is in there feels like a threat. Unsettling?

These are the real-life challenges faced by many disabled & trans people & women because of unsatisfactory responses to different, and sometimes apparently competing, needs for suitable ‘washroom facilities’.

Here’s an example for you to ponder:

Anyplace plc is a company occupying a two-floor building has 300 hundred staff, 25 of whom are physically disabled. It has 16 non-accessible toilets (4 x 2 in washrooms marked ‘male’ and 4 x 2 in washrooms marked ‘female’). These 8 rooms are evenly spread around the building. Anyplace also has 2 ‘disabled’, i.e. accessible, unisex toilets – one on the ground floor and one on the first floor. Any disabled members of staff and visitors in need of a toilet therefore have to travel on average many times further than their non-disabled counterparts. Furthermore, they are expected to accept unisex toilets without consideration as to whether this is their preference.

Now, let’s add in a second factor. Two non-disabled members of staff, Fran and Peter, have recently ‘come out’ as trans, and are undergoing Real Life Experience: a 2-year period in which most people hoping to undergo gender reassignment in the UK are required to live 24/7 in the gender they identify with, to be completed before they can undergo surgery and hormone treatment. They both want to use the facilities provided for their gender: Fran (who was known as Mark) wants to use the female toilets, Peter (who was known as Sally) wants to use the male toilets. The main sticking point is that three cis gender female staff have objected to Fran (who was until recently known as Mark) using the women’s toilets. They protest that it makes them feel deeply uncomfortable, and when pressed they point out that there is something ‘unnatural’ about a ‘man claiming to be a woman hanging out’ at women’s toilets. One of them, Patricia, talks about a traumatic experience she once had in a public convenience involving a man. Another two, Shakila (Muslim) and Rachel (Christian), say that they object ‘on cultural and religious grounds’. There have been no objections to Mark using the men’s loos, but the development has been seen as a cause of hilarity by some of the male staff, who crack ‘jokes’ like “Lucky for her we don’t have urinals!”

In response to the appeals and protests, Anyplace’s facilities manager, Toby, has a word with the Director of Resources, Jane, and between them they decide to make one of the accessible toilets into a unisex toilet which is officially available to anyone (disabled or non-disabled) of any gender.

Now take a look at the calculus:  Both ‘out’ transgender staff have one ‘safe’ toilet to go to, which on average means a much longer distance to travel than their cis colleagues, and exposure to greater attention for their toilet breaks. 25 disabled staff now have to share one toilet between them instead of two. 273 non-disabled, apparently cis staff (we don’t know the true number of trans people) now have 17 toilets available to them – one more than before (although Patricia, Shakila, and Rachel do not avail themselves of this extra resource).

How would you score this organisation’s approach to inclusion in this instance?

What would be a better way of going about solving this wicked problem? Answers ‘on a postcard’ to…


Razia Aziz

20th June 2017