Had anyone told us a decade ago that cultural change could be charted by the signs on public toilet doors, we would have laughed in disbelief.
Today, when these once-banal little placards have taken on such weight that anyone advocating the use of specific toilets in schools could be seen as criminals attempting the “conversion therapy” of minors – and end up in court – nobody’s laughing.
I saw the writing on the wall – literally. We’re only ever a few years behind the US with such matters after all, and over the past five I have watched the illustrations above the earnest “gender-neutral restroom” signs that sprang up in public places across LA morph from interlinked ‘Mars’ and ‘Venus’ signs to baffling illustrations of stick men/women clad in the kind of half-skirt, half-trouser ensembles that belong on a Paris runway.
Then came the pompous explanatory small print: “Welcoming everyone, regardless of gender or expression”. As though these weren’t tiny closets designed for the least elegant of human acts, but spiritual lounges where a person might want to linger while pondering the precise nature of his/hers/their identity in relation to others – an identity that is, you understand, unique and deserving of its own specific, self-generated and non-conformist micro-label. (Thanks, guys, but, honestly, I just needed the loo.)
And on my last few trips to California I was gratified to find that many signs now read: ‘We Don’t Care’ or: ‘Whatever. Just wash your hands.’ In the UK, however, there has been no such injection of humour – no such deflation. In fact, a news report on Sunday revealed the most alarming development to date in The Great Toilet Debate. Because now new laws that are being considered to ban the cruel process of conversion therapy – under which gay people are pressured to be straight – may mean that any teacher who tells a pupil they cannot not use opposite-sex toilets is liable for prosecution.
The group Sex Matters, which among other things campaigns to establish clarity on single-sex services, has warned that everyone from teachers and parents to doctors risk being criminalised if they question a child who might want to change gender – or, therefore, want to use any toilet they choose. As grotesque as that is, it’s the risks to children I care about most.
Little girls like those at Jedburgh Grammar School in Scotland, who, according to a report a fortnight ago, are refusing to use the gender-neutral toilets at their progressive secondary school amid reports that male pupils have been seen “waving sanitary products like flags” and urinating in sanitary bins. (Of course they’ve been doing that: have you met teenage boys?). Girls have sometimes gone for days without using the campus toilets, says one local councillor, and risked dehydration for fear of encountering a boy in there, for fear of assault, embarrassment, practical jokes or public shaming.
Whether it’s girls or boys, these children are living through the most vulnerable years they are ever likely to experience. And I can still remember what it felt like as a 10-year-old, when boys would sneak into the girls’ toilets at school, and peer under those pathetic excuses for doors. Those were boys my own age. But thanks to leaked draft guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2019 claiming schools would leave themselves open to potential lawsuits if they did not install mixed-sex facilities or allow trans pupils to “use the single-sex facilities that align with their gender identity if they wish to do so”, the unisex toilets that are fast becoming common in secondary schools across Scotland and the rest of the UK are often shared by boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 18.
Imagine for a second the daily realities these abstract proposals translate to when put into practice. Only in our culture of fear, ideologies trump realities. Just ask the female reporter who wrote over the weekend about her experience in a London branch of Zara, where she was trying on a top in the changing rooms, only to have “two 6ft tall” men join her, exposed in her bra as she was, “as if this were the most normal thing in the world”. Having asked a manager how this could happen, the reporter was told: “We have to be very careful, it’s a very sensitive time and it’s very easy to offend people.” People entitled to feel offence, that is. Not people like her. Not people like the mothers who may see the word “womanly” removed from a new edition of the bestselling guide, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, as the book’s publishers attempt to appease transgender lobby groups.
Money talks, as the publishers and high street chains will soon find out. But children? They will be shamed into suffering in silence. Unless the Equality and Human Rights Commission digs deep enough to consider their right to use the toilet without fear. Surely not that much to ask?