With the ongoing Toilet Provision for Men and Women public review, results could see gender neutral bathrooms across the UK being scrapped. What does this mean for the rights of the trans community?
The so-called ‘debate’ over transgender people and their civil rights has been growing in the UK media for years, coinciding with the increased visibility of trans people. Unlike transphobia in the US, which is usually reserved for the far-right, anti-trans rhetoric in the UK exists across the political spectrum from Tories to radical feminists.
These discussions take place everywhere from The Guardian to social media platforms like Twitter. Most famously, these disputes reached a boiling point online when JK Rowling published her now-infamous ‘TERF Wars’ last June. In Rowling’s rambling 3,690-word essay she carefully disguises her bigotry as feminism and ‘concern’ for the welfare of transgender people. Naturally, the piece went viral, given Rowling’s status as the wealthiest and arguably most influential living writer.
However, outside of social media, a quieter storm of government-approved transphobia has gone mostly unnoticed outside of affected groups. This includes the recent governmental consultation, Toilet Provision for Men and Women.
Interestingly, this review was first announced on Halloween 2020, the same day the UK entered a highly-publicised second lockdown, a subtle move that hid the review underneath further news of the COVID-19 virus.
The deadline for the public to report evidence was recently extended to the 21st of February. Written in seemingly deliberately complicated language, this consultation will decide, based on submitted ‘evidence’, whether or not to promote single-sex only toilets in England. If this policy succeeds, gender-neutral bathrooms will be scrapped.
The review states that “in recent years, there has been a trend towards the removal of well-established male-only/female-only spaces” and that these spaces have been “replaced with gender-neutral toilets”. It continues, stating that gender-neutral facilities “place women at a significant disadvantage”.
Possibly the most infuriating thing about this review is that the claims that women are at risk of violence or other harassment in gender-neutral spaces are presented without a shred of evidence. Not once does the review prove that gender-neutral facilities are a threat to anyone.
The review also deliberately excludes the benefit of gender-neutral bathrooms for trans and non-binary people. A 2017 Stonewall/YouGov survey found that 48% of transgender people don’t feel safe using (single-sex) public toilets. Two in five trans people reported adjusting the way they dressed in public for fear of discrimination or harassment, a number which increases to half of non-binary people.
What the UK needs is more gender-neutral spaces not less. Instead of allocating resources to ensure the safety of transgender people, the government has decided to waste time and money policing public bathrooms.
It’s also important to remember that it is not only trans people that could be affected by this bill. Gender non-conforming cisgender people also rely on gender-neutral facilities to avoid harassment. The review says that it wants to “ensure that everyone is fairly served”, and if this is true, they should consider the considerable amount of people that will be harmed rather than helped by this bill.
This is not the first time in recent years that government action has actively harmed trans people. In 2018, another public consultation was held where people were invited to offer their opinion on whether the UK’s Gender Recognition Act of 2004 should be reformed.
Overwhelming public support in favour of updating the GRA and lessening barriers to transition resulted from this review. However, the government chose to ignore this information and in September 2020 the Minister for Women and Equalities Liz Truss abandoned plans to reform the GRA. For context, the GRA has not been updated since its introduction in 2004. It is considered out-of-date with best-practice standards for European transgender healthcare.
There are many other examples of this kind of practice in the UK that show how subtly transphobia works in the country. There is no doubt that this bathroom review and the abandonment of GRA reform have been introduced under the cover of the pandemic as yet another way to quietly breach transgender people’s civil rights. Transphobic media works along with these laws to create a climate of hysteria and hatred towards transgender people that is reminiscent of the anti-gay media that circulated during the AIDS crisis.
It is important to know that the advancement of trans rights in no way harms women’s rights. These two struggles are not in conflict with each other. They never have been.
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