Transgender artist Cassils created their artwork PISSED (pictured) in response to the Trump government rescinding the right of trans students to use the bathroom matching their gender identity. The piece is a plexiglass cube filled with 200 gallons of urine they collected from the day the government rescinded the executive order in February 2017. The collected urine represents the physical burden placed on trans people by discriminatory bathroom policies — trans people are forced to hold their urine for hours until they can find a gender neutral toilet or fearfully scuttle in and out of gender bathrooms and hope they’re not stopped, or worse, assaulted. Trans bodies and lives are forced to shrink, to change, to hide. As of the time of writing, the US Supreme Court is making a decision on whether employers can legally fire LGBT people for their sexuality or trans status. There is a human rights crisis unfolding in the US that seeks to legislate LGBT people, and especially trans people, out of public life.
In the UK, a similar human rights crisis has been brewing. As of a 2017 report by LGBT charity Stonewall, two in five trans people had been victims of hate crimes in the past twelve months. A 2017 report by hate crime charity Galop found that 24% of trans respondents had experienced online abuse based on their gender more the 100 times. In 2019 the BBC reported that reported hate crimes against transgender people had increased by 81% since the previous year. Trans people know this: we have felt it in our communities, our friends, ourselves. It is rare to know a trans person who has not been subject of a hate crime. Wait times for Gender Identity Clinics, where trans people can be prescribed hormones and be referred for gender-affirming surgery, are now at over two years for an initial appointment. Last Sunday Pink News reported that the Gender Recognition Act reform, which would streamline the process of changing one’s gender on a birth certificate, had been ‘shelved’ by Equalities Minister Liz Truss, with one government source stating it was ‘low down the list of priorities’.
Amidst this erasure of human rights, on Monday 7th October The Stage published two pieces on the Old Vic’s decision to make their new toilets gender neutral. One piece supported the decision and was written by freelance writer Amber Massie-Blomfield, formerly of Camden People’s Theatre, which already has successful gender-neutral toilets. The opposing piece was written by Sarah Ditum, a freelance journalist, whose article stated that ‘a theatre with inadequate women’s toilets is a theatre that doesn’t care about women.’ Ditum told the Gazette that ‘there is nothing in the piece that could in any way be construed as hateful or fearful of trans people, nor in my wider body of work.’ However, on Ditum’s own blog she writes that ‘the practical consequence of treating transwomen [sic] as women is that the male interest is placed first’, thereby conflating trans women with males. The point of contention here is the notion of binary sex as a fixed material reality that is somehow more real than gender identity, a point that has been repeatedly debunked. Ditum’s conception of not being ‘hateful or fearful’ of trans people is, to be generous, extremely stretched. To conflate trans women with ‘male’ is to cast trans women as men who have layered an artificial gender presentation over their maleness, rendering them as males who cross-dress rather than the women that they are.
Ditum’s article for The Stage was an extension of this fear as she wrote ‘mixed-sex facilities have been a boon to voyeurs wherever they’ve been tried’. No source or citation was deemed necessary for this explosive statement, the reader was expected to nod along with Ditum’s assertion that yes, in every single gender neutral toilet in the world, there have been problems with voyeurs, therefore gender neutral toilets simply cannot work. When one takes a step back, this statement is patently ridiculous: there have been gender neutral toilets down the road at the Young Vic for years, the are gender neutral toilets in the bar at the National Theatre, The Bush theatre had gender neutral toilets during the run of And the Rest of Me Floats without incident, the Barbican has gender neutral toilets on the cinema level, and of course Camden People’s Theatre has had gender neutral toilets as Massie-Blomfield pointed out in her article. There have not been hordes of voyeurs peeking over or under stalls. People go into the bathroom, piss, and leave. The Old Vic has doubled the number of available cubicles, which have floor-to-ceiling walls and doors, and has built two roomier toilets for pregnant people or people with young children, bringing the number of accessible toilets to eight, in addition to a single-stall gender neutral toilet for those who do not want to use the shared facilities. The signs on the shared toilets are a cubicle or urinals, which means nobody will have to see someone using a urinal if they don’t want to. According to her own writing, Ditum conflates trans women with males, and it is the threat of predatory males that Ditum utilised in her article for The Stage. The dog-whistle aspect here is that trans women are males, therefore trans women are a threat, and this threat is manifested in spaces that trans women and cis women can access. This argument fails when one notes that trans women have had the legal right to be in women’s toilets for years, and have been using women’s toilets for decades. You have shared a gendered toilet with a trans person and you likely did not know, because they, like everyone else in the toilet, are there to piss and leave.
I could write paragraphs addressing Ditum’s points in her article, but it is not Ditum who I am addressing in this letter. I am addressing the editors of The Stage, who saw fit to commission and publish articles which framed trans human rights as a debate. After publishing the articles and linking them on The Stage’s Twitter page, the publication and authors received large amounts of backlash, which resulted in The Stage removing the articles from its website and issuing a non-apology that referred to the gender neutral toilets as a ‘divisive subject’ and apologised for ‘polaris[ing] the debate further’. The replies to the tweet from people allied with Ditum emphasised a focus on the amount of women’s facilities available decreasing — a false flag as there will be double the amount of stalls available for women to use. The issue is not the amount of women’s facilities, it is the erasure of trans-friendly spaces. When I pointed this out, I was accused of being a misogynist. Defending the right of trans women to piss in peace is not seen as feminist because trans women are seen as male. The fear of decreased toilet facilities for women acts as the veneer covering the crux of the backlash to the Old Vic: that trans women will be using the same toilets as cis women. If this was not the case, Ditum would not have referenced a fear of ‘male’ voyeurs; the argument would have centred on the amount of stalls (which, I repeat, have doubled).
The Stage commissioned and published Ditum’s article against gender neutral toilets without fact-checking her assertion that all gender neutral toilets are hotspots for male voyeurs. This belies a lack of journalistic integrity, and a desire to generate ad revenue and clicks to their website by using trans safety as a piñata: attack initiatives that prioritise trans safety for financially rewarding outrage-clicks. Ditum’s piece has already found a new home in The Spectator, and the top of the article cites its removal from the stage website due to ‘strong responses’ without mentioning that an opposing article was also removed. Transphobic rhetoric is once again cast as the scrappy underdog, silenced by mainstream media outlets despite transphobic articles regularly being published in The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, and so on.
Meanwhile trans people are acquiring bladder infections through avoiding gendered toilets; a 2015 report stated that 59% of transgender people avoid using gendered toilets. My own experience corroborates this: I avoided using gendered toilets for two years after being assaulted in a women’s bathroom. I was pre-medical transition and was often read as a butch woman, I went out for a drink in a bar with a friend, I was confronted with gendered toilets and chose the one I thought I would be safest in as I was not yet ‘passing’ as a man. When I tried to leave the toilet, heart pounding and hands shaking, a group of women blocked the door and asked what I was doing in the women’s toilet before shoving me hard against a wall. I managed to run out of the toilets and quickly left the establishment, I could not face the humiliation and shame of telling bar staff my gender presentation had not been normative enough to piss in a cubicle without being attacked. I did not tell anyone about this event for a year, the shame was so strong. The bogeyman of the perverted and voyeuristic man puts trans people in danger, as anyone who is not adequately gendered is placed into this stereotype as justification for violence. This also extends to gender non-conforming cis people — a butch cis woman will be subsumed into the threatening male stereotype and will be pushed out of women’s spaces. This is not hyperbole - a cis woman was told she did not belong in the women’s toilets in 2016 after she was mistaken for a trans woman. Policing toilets hurts us all.
The Stage framed the ‘issue’ of gender neutral toilets as a debate. The ‘issue’ of gender neutral toilets is at its core a battle-ground for trans safety and trans ability to access public life without fear. Trans safety is not a debate, it is a right, and attempts to frame it as a debate are contributing the erasure of human rights whether they are conscious of this or not. One cannot divorce The Stage’s articles from the transphobic rhetoric in the UK media at the moment or from the rising hate crimes against transgender people, many of which happen in toilets. The Stage did not commission a trans person to write an article on why gender neutral toilets are important, The Stage commissioned an article from two cis women, including one who considers trans women to be male and has spent much of her career arguing this point. The articles impacted the lives of trans people across the country, with many tweeting their dismay that a well-respected theatre publication could undermine their basic rights and a positive development in theatre accessibility as a ‘divisive debate’ (I will not link those tweets here as I do not wish to direct transphobia to their accounts). That such framing came from inside the theatre industry felt like a personal betrayal: theatre is a place where trans people can engage in self-expression, and if theatre becomes increasingly hostile to trans people and facilities we do not want our lives, jobs and self-expression to be threatened. We just want to piss in peace.
For further reading on gender neutral toilets, see ‘Stalled: Gender-Neutral Public Bathrooms’ by Susan Stryker and Joel Sander: https://read.dukeupress.edu/south-atlantic-quarterly/article/115/4/779-788/3812