Ladies’ loos at the theatre have long been a scandal – forcing women to hang around interminably while men blithely stroll in and out of the gents’. Now, in the name of creating a “supportive and tolerant space”, the Barbican Centre has come up with a new lavatorial outrage, turning both the gents’ and the ladies’ into “gender-neutral” loos.
“What modern gender-fluid madness is this?” I hear you cry. And as a transgender woman, who transitioned from male to female, let me say I totally sympathise.
For by simply slapping new signs on the same facilities rather than creating new ones, the Barbican has actually created even longer lines, as men, too, use those precious cubicles in what used to be the ladies’. Having used men’s lavatories for the first half of my life I can tell you the ladies’ are infinitely better. They smell nicer, they feel safer, and, best of all, they don’t contain men.
But the offensive thing of all about the Barbican’s new measure is that it is actually a perfectly sensible idea done terribly badly.
While I don't use gender neutral toilets myself, they are very important to transgender people who don't identify as men or women – who often fear being attacked if they use either gender's loos. Nobody should have to live like that. Yet single-cubicle unisex conveniences are also common sense, have been around for ever, and don’t need to cause a problem for anyone. They are already everywhere and the sky hasn’t fallen in.
You will have used one yourself. I do regularly in restaurants, in petrol stations, in seaside cafés, on trains, at festivals or indeed anywhere that only has one loo for which you have to borrow the key. What are these if not gender neutral toilets? For decades, too, local councils have been moving towards more secure, family-oriented changing rooms in swimming baths, for example, while high-street changing rooms are usually single cubicle affairs – unlike the gendered communal spaces of the Seventies and Eighties. No one thinks to get upset about that – but mention that something is for the benefit of transgender people and suddenly all hell breaks loose.
I suspect that, in years to come, society will look back on gender discussions of today and wonder what all the fuss was about. Of course, some see people like me as harbingers of a gender apocalypse, but the adjustments most trans people are asking for are small and uncontroversial (in fact the Barbican still has traditional loos elsewhere in the building). And if these changes weren’t connected to the push for trans rights, I doubt we’d be hearing about them at all.
There is indeed a revolution of gender happening among young people, and I can see why many might feel threatened by that at first. Things that once seemed immutable, like our notion of male and female, are becoming increasingly flexible. Gender is such an important part of our everyday lives, and of course people like to know what’s what and who’s who.
But think of the way treatment of gay people has changed since the Fifties. Many thought it would be the end of civilisation if homosexuality was accommodated, but doomsday never came to pass. Gay people are free to date, adopt and even marry now, and it has made very little difference to the lives of heterosexuals.
If gender neutral loos are the way society goes, we’ll get used to that too. The important thing is that we make them good loos: granite sinks; secure doors; an endless supply of loo roll; nice soaps and hand creams wouldn’t go amiss, either. Gender neutral or not, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.
This article was updated at 13:50 on April 7 2017 to reflect the fact that the Barbican also had gendered toilets elsewhere in the building.