Nov 20, 2018

It's always about toilets. It's never about toilets.

When I was in fifth grade, we had a debate during ‘social hour’ (a weekly lesson with our main teacher, usually dedicated to discussing topics that touched on life and interpersonal skills) about whether it is OK for the popular kids to have class parties and only invite the other popular kids. An unpopular kid myself, I was squarely in the camp that demanded inclusion of all as a condition of membership in the micro-society that was my class. It seemed not merely unfair but frankly monstrous to me that lack of possession of this elusive, indefinable and rare quality, ‘popularity’ could prevent a child (namely, me) from being accepted as a full member, and on that basis excluded from communal activities. I was a pretty formidable debater even at ten years old, and my classmates and teacher had quite a job refuting my passionately expressed (ahem) arguments. Nevertheless, needless to say I lost that particular battle. People get to be friends with whomever they choose to be friends with; even people with otherwise circumscribed civil rights, such as ten year olds, cannot be mandated into recognition of non-existent affective relationships. Where this does sometimes happen – for example where children are pressured to be more affectionate than they are comfortable being towards relatives or friends of the family – progressive social observers usually see this as coercive in a way that not only disrespects the dignity of the child but exposes them to potential harms.

We don’t get away from these issues as we age. One way or another, most of us at one time or another will have felt some resistance to what we perceived as ‘cliquishness’ in others, will have felt slighted by exclusion from an invitation we thought was our due, or will have resented not being asked to participate in activities or groups which we think our pre-existing social ties entitle us to inclusion in. it’s very hard to be made to feel like you’re not wanted. Harder still if you were an awkward child, one with limited social skills and few friends, a child who felt alienated and marginalised by more ‘successful’ children. Nevertheless, most of us grow up to understand the setting of one’s own and other people’s social boundaries as a fundamental entitlement. However much we might sneer at the shallowness and empty-headedness of ‘the popular girls’, and however we might privately agonise about our inability to penetrate ‘the clique’, few of us are ever actively moved to try and prescribe our own social inclusion through social sanction – much less, through the law.

In recent years, however, a new mega-clique has emerged, the contestation of whose right to exclude non-members has gone out of the realms of the interpersonal and into the national discourse of identity contestation. The ‘popular girls’ of the current political moment are not just any girls, or specific girls: they are all girls, or more specifically all female born people. I see my furious, righteously indignant ten year old self in much of the current debate about who does and does not get access to the spaces and categories designated ‘for women and girls’. The injury and the sense of injustice go hand in hand; one feels that one’s pain is exacerbated by an underlying fundamental act of discrimination, of deliberate and malicious erasing of how one sees one’s self. Faced with an open refusal to accept one’s own image as fact, the impulse to force the withheld acceptance is a powerful one. Most ten year olds – indeed, most of us in our everyday lives – do not have the material or discursive resources to force this shift in others' behaviour towards us. But some of us do, and some of us are currently trying to make the impossible demand that other people see us – genuinely, authentically see and perceive us – exactly as we see ourselves, into a legal mandate.

I took this photo in the shiny new Business School building of the University of the West of England. It designates the ‘all genders’ or ‘gender neutral’ or ‘unisex’ toilet, depending on who you ask: I think the administrators of the building simply gave up the looming linguistic battle and went for safer pictorial representation instead. The space thus designated is not, in fact, any single space at all: it is an area with no communal facilities, containing a series of identical doors which lead to identical cubicles, each containing a toilet, a basin and a hand dryer (I rather tipsily – I was there for an evening function – forgot to check for the presence or absence of sanitary bins).

Two things struck me about this arrangement. One was the way the pictorial designation of the space so perfectly mirrored everything I see as wrong with the concept of ‘equality’ as a progressive aim. In the name of ‘inclusivity’, here humanity is cleaved neatly into exactly two parts, each represented only by the most recognisable stereotype for one half of the mammalian order: the dress and the pair of trousers. Inclusion, this emblem implies, consists not in seeing and recognising each individual member of society for the unique set of capabilities, needs and ambitions they are, but in making proportional and sufficient space for the ambassadors of the generally recognised and rigidly delineated ‘types’. This is, in a single image, the ‘diversity problem’: the increasingly recognised fact that simply admixing members of under-represented groups such as The Disabled Person, The Woman of Colour, The Working Class Man etc. does not, in and of itself, ameliorate the underlying material challenges which underlie their under-representation in the first place. In fact this approach often risks either flattening the ‘representative’ into a stereotype or erasing their difference altogether, co-opting them into the norms and values dominant group while providing same dominant group with grounds for self-congratulation.

The other thing that struck me was the way in which the physical removal of a community space was presented as progress. This toilet block had no communal area at all; it offered privacy in isolation or nothing. No congress, no socially useful interaction can have been presumed to have taken place in the spaces which were once contained behind each of the two doors designated M and F. No space for solidarity can have been conceived of as necessary – only a private space for one’s private (and least socially shareable) functions. What such solidarity might have consisted in is either unknown to the designers of the new toilet block, or perceived by them as frivolous, unnecessary, or at the extreme of modern progressive thought, exclusionary (and therefore prejudicial or bigoted).

Solidarity that excludes those to whom it does not see itself as legitimately due is just as painful as friendship that is not extended those who see themselves as human beings worthy of it. Both wound the same fundamental part of our psyche which depends on the recognition and reflection of others to know and feel oneself as a fully realised subject. I am not tying the issue of toilets to my own ten year old outrage in order to belittle it: I am doing so in order to foreground the authenticity and depth of that pain.

There is a reason why feminists and trans activists at odds with each other always come back to ‘the toilet question’. And that reason is not, as is sometimes claimed, safeguarding. True, feminine males, non-passing trans men and trans women may be put at risk in male-only facilities. And true, the inclusion of males bodied people in hitherto female-only facilities represents a potential risk to women and girls. But if that were the only problem, the issue would be solved by gender ‘neutral’ toilets such as the one described above, or by the creation of what Holly Lawford-Smith & Emily Vicendese, in their recent response to earlier work by Lorna Finlayson, Katharine Jenkins, and Rosie Worsdale, call ‘third spaces’: facilities located adjacent to all-female and all-male ones, targeted at trans, gender non-conforming, and gender non-binary people, but open for use by all. Lawford-Smith and Vicendese “see third spaces as a workable solution to the fierce debate over female-only spaces”, and reject the argument that the use of such spaces would force people to ‘out’ themselves as trans.

That argument, as advanced by Finlayson et al. as an objection to third space provision, is indeed spurious. However it is spurious not because, as Lawford-Smith and Vicendese would have it, we could incentivise non-trans people to use such facilities in sufficient numbers that they mask the presence and identity of trans users, but because the original problem only arises in the first place for those who are self-outing as trans by virtue of their inability or unwillingness to pass. You can only out yourself as trans by entering an all genders bathroom if it is the case that you would be recognised as trans were you to enter an all-female bathroom. If we put aside the risk to trans people as a result of male violence in all-male spaces as a problem to which the reduction in all-female provision cannot ethically be the solution (as I think we must, and as almost no-one is), then the chances of a trans woman being challenged in or removed from and all-female bathroom by dint of not being female and the chances of her being ‘outed’ as trans by some feature other than which door she walks through are exactly statistically the same. And yet Finlayson et al. do advance that argument, and Lawford-Smith and Vicendese engage it on its own terms.

Both teams of writers are, I think, distracted by the safeguarding rhetoric, and overlook the psychological structure of the original claim that led to the contestation they are engaged in. The reason that third spaces – or indeed gender-neutral spaces of the type I described above – are repeatedly rejected by trans activists as impractical, unworkable, unnecessary, offensive etc. is because what is being truly, fundamentally demanded is not access to plumbing: it is access to solidarity and recognition.

It is not incidental, and has never been incidental, to the structure of this discourse, that it is these quotidian, ubiquitous resources that are the first, the main and the enduring locus of contestation, of demands for access and refusals to grant it. The concerned mothers and the terrified trans women (much as both have something genuine and frightening – namely, men – to be concerned about) are in reality contesting not the practical question of who should be able to enter female toilets, but the much harder one of who should be seen as having a right to do so.

The shared space of a female toilet has a long-term cultural status as a venue for tantalising female mysteries. Those not allowed access to them are forever wanting to know what goes on inside: why do you always go in groups? What do you talk about in there? Do you do each other’s makeup? Are you talking about us?! Incel and MRA communities have hilariously lurid fantasies not only about the illicit activities (read: ones that exclude men) which women get up to in the loo, but also the luxurious facilities and undeserved comfort with which they are provided at the expense of men’s. A hard-won resource that enables the participation of women in the public sphere, sex-specific toilets were a contested and potentially threatening space from the earliest days of public sanitation.

Entrance into these very spaces – not inferior versions which have all the practical accoutrements but lack their most vital feature, the entrance-by-recognition requirement – is what is at stake.
The kind of pragmatic and generous all-inclusiveness proposed as a practical solution to what is a recognition problem by Lawford-Smith and Vicendese is the opposite of what is being really, genuinely demanded by trans activists and their allies. All-inclusiveness or gender neutrality are like a school dance organised by the teachers: not the same thing at all. Sure, you come and you dance and all the popular kids are there and they have no choice but to share a space with you, but you have not gained entrance into their ranks. You’re still an angry little girl they laugh about in private: not recognised for the interesting and valuable human being you know you are inside.

But it is impossible to mandate recognition. Not impossible as in ‘wrong’ or ‘illegal’, but literally impossible. We do not control the insides of other people’s heads. If we want to be seen by others for what we think we truly are, we have no choice but to be that person as well and as hard as we can, and hope for them to recognise us. And as angry as this makes people, as unfair as it seems, as absolutely contrary to the simple – for many but not all - fact that Trans Women Are Women, this cannot change.

I will give the last word to @Kinesis, a trans woman who made some of the best observations about assimilation, acceptance, recognition and allyship I’ve seen in a while on Twitter: “We need support. But true support, the kind that actually helps, never comes from people who feel forced into placating you. It doesn’t work.”


  1. You write"And as angry as this makes people, as unfair as it seems, as absolutely contrary to [the simple – for many but not all - fact that Trans Women Are Women,] this cannot change."
    "For many but not all," are you saying not all people believe this, but many (implying a majority?) do see this as a "simple fact"? I'm reading along nodding then this kind of hit me. Fact? It isn't a fact at all.
    @Kinesis said transwomen are transwomen, or at least that's what I recall. Where do you stand, dogless Marina?
    My dog makes me a less angry feminist by the way. Dogs are angels among us.