It’s pretty much a given that, on any night out, I’m going to reach a point of inebriation where I just start trying to use the men’s bathroom. Sitting as students do at the Flodge, or the Marly, or what have you, accompanied by people I feel safe and comfortable with, I’ll either quite genuinely forget or alcohol will unlock the part of my brain that cares more about fucking with cisnormativity than it does my own personal safety. I’ll only ever get as far as the sign on the door before I realise what I’m doing and stumble the extra few steps to the ladies, but those steps are always accompanied by a vague burn of humiliation, the sense of having been caught.
During the day I am hypervigilant. I won’t go on bathroom trips with friends. I’ll walk an unnecessary distance to go to a bathroom where people I know won’t watch me enter. If someone else enters a public bathroom while I’m using it I will wait in my stall in queer limbo until they have left. On particularly dysphoric days, best characterised by an acute feeling of conspicuity, my options are usually the trek down to the gender neutral bathroom next to the Queerspace, or using Courtyard’s unisex accessible toilet and desperately hoping I won’t be stopping anyone who actually requires it from using it. Even as an intern at Queer Screen earlier this year—a necessarily queer-friendly space and one in which I was out—I would still use the ladies’ or the unisex accessible option out of some inarticulate fear of an unknown reaction.
As a “female-passing” trans dude, it’s not the inside of the bathroom which is, for me, the most unsafe part. It’s less about the using of the bathroom and more about entering and exiting the space.
As much as the existence of gendered bathrooms at all is unnecessary, the aggressive gender signage on many public restrooms, while nevertheless helpful when pissed, points to a certain public anxiety about gendered space. The pure semiotics of bathroom signage, the way their genders are demarcated, is one of the most pervasive—and, in many cases, creative—reminders of the gender binary we face on a daily basis. They must be clear, to the point, and unequivocally say “only this kind of body is welcome here”. This is done in some interesting ways.
Some rely on size. The bathrooms in Fisher Library, for example, are signified by comically large gendered stick people—almost twice the height of an average human, they loom silently over the bathroom-goer in a stare-off with each other, as if to say “this stall ain’t big enough for the two of us and the potential complexities of our identities”. I understand the logic of something being too big to miss—helpful for a forgetful thing like me—but I can’t help but wonder if this over-zealousness could be better directed at making the toilets work consistently.
Sometimes it’s not the size of the signage that matters, it’s the frequency. The women’s bathrooms on the Science Road side of the Quad are marked by not two, not three, but five gendered signs, including three on, or around, the door itself. You can absolutely not get lost on your way to them, nor escape the whine of gender essentialism in the back of your head—you’ve had five opportunities to remind yourself what body parts you have! The men’s bathrooms in the Quad, on the other hand—infinitely more simple to get to—become implicitly genderfucked after 10pm when you’re the only one there and they’re the only ones open.
For many establishments it’s not about quantity but quality. I can’t count the number of times I’ve encountered pictures of naked men and women on bathroom doors—artistically impressive and innovative, perhaps, but nonetheless superfluous.
Some don’t feel the need to mention gender at all—for example, inexplicably splitting bathrooms between those who have mustaches and those who are wearing lipstick. On most, if not every single day, I am sporting neither and am left to wonder how many others have been turned away from a public restroom due to the lack of an on point aesthetic.
Taking it to a new level, Palms on Oxford Street has a sign on the door which leads to its bathroom corridor featuring the two gendered stick figures, in which the stick man is groping the stick lady. Apparently not content to simply propagate a restrictive gender binary, the effect of this symbol is also to prescribe heterosexuality in a highly problematic way which also normalises sexual assault.
While debates about gender-neutral bathrooms more often than not feel hopeless, there are small steps being taken, at least, to challenge the way we signify gender. The #ItWasNeverADress campaign, started by tech company Axosoft, reimagines the dress-wearing ladies’ bathroom sign as a person wearing a cape. Partly an effort to challenge perceptions of women and the dismissal of their voices, the campaign also challenges our assumptions about what a person ought to look like to use a certain space. Personally, I would be more than happy for bathrooms to be divided into “superhero” and “civilian”.
All I want, all any trans person really wants, is to feel a little bit less conspicuous, to blend in a little more in what should be such a non-event as using a bathroom. What we’d like is for those who think we don’t belong to be a little more quiet about it. We just have to make a lot of noise about it until then.