Gender-specific toilets – FFLAG’s view

FFLAG considers the UK Government’s proposal to require gender-specific toilets for men and women in building standards guidance to be wrong and illogical. This is the text of our response to the consultation:

Toilet provision for men and women

FFLAG is the UK’s charity for families with LGBT+ children (of all ages) and their friends. On this occasion, however, we write with concern for all our children regardless of their sexuality, gender identity or gender expression.

The government’s stated position is that “there needs to be proper provision of gender-specific toilets for both men and women, with a clear steer in building standards guidance”. We do not comprehend the logic of the government’s conclusion for the following reasons.

We agree that toilets, both in municipal and private sector locations, are an important facility for members of the public. As a parent-led charity, we are concerned that the sole reference to children in the consultation document describes the need for changing facilities, which we take to mean baby-changing facilities, yet this need is completely consistent with, and can be better met, within gender-neutral toilets.

We invite you to consider how gender-neutral toilets solve the problem that a parent with a child of the opposite sex has in accompanying that child into single-sex toilets. It is safer and more appropriate for a mother to accompany her young son into a gender-neutral toilet facility than for her to take him into a female-only facility. The same is just as true for a father with a young daughter, or for a parent of two children of different sexes. This is a very common difficulty to which no weight seems to have been given in the consultation.

The consultation states that gender-neutral toilets place women at a significant disadvantage because “men can … use both cubicles and urinals, [whereas] women can only use the former”. This flies in the face of our experience of existing gender-specific facilities, where queues regularly form outside the female toilets at busy times. Furthermore, if the building regulations were amended to mandate gender-neutral toilets, combining the hand-washing areas in gender-specific toilets into a single shared handwashing space in a gender-neutral toilet facility would release space to provide more cubicles. A separate area within a gender-neutral toilet facility providing urinals could be offered, if desired, to speed throughput of male users, thus keeping the cubicles free. The combined traffic through the shared space in gender-neutral toilets has the added advantage of increasing security for all users and makes using the facilities much easier for families. You can see how successfully this works in swimming pools and leisure centres, where the trend has moved to provision of mixed changing areas which are entirely cubicles.

The consultation states that “signage should be clear and should not seek to avoid the use of gender-specific language unnecessarily as this causes public confusion”. We invite you to consider the simple fact that all confusion can be avoided by using signage that simply states “Toilets”. It is only when you impose a requirement for gender-specific toilets that signage becomes problematical.

We are pleased that the government appears well-disposed towards gender-neutral Changing Places toilets for disabled people, to facilitate carers/partners of a different sex providing assistance. As noted above, the same consideration should apply in regard to assistance and oversight of minor children.

Gender-neutral toilets are currently the norm on aeroplanes, trains and coaches and are commonplace in many other countries. If the government believes it necessary to mandate gender-specific toilets in the building regulations, surely aircraft, train and coach builders would need to be required to follow suit? This would be an extraordinary outcome and very difficult to achieve, practically and financially.

Requiring the provision of gender specific toilets will also mean that separate unisex toilets will be required for non binary people. This will place an additional burden of costs and practical difficulty on public buildings, which will have to find space to provide male, female, gender neutral, Changing Places and accessible toilets. We know how difficult it is for our trans and non binary children who are frequently challenged when they simply wish to use a public toilet[i]. The insistence on separating and policing toilet use on the basis of two sexes creates problems for parents, children and for anybody whose physical appearance is judged not to meet stereotypical norms. This is an unnecessary stress for people who simply want to use a toilet.

We conclude that this consultation is based upon a flawed understanding of the merits of gender-neutral toilet provision and we call upon the government to reassess its stated position.

[i] Here’s just one example of an incident which happened recently to a 14-year-old from one of our support groups. This young person was challenged coming out of the toilets in a major supermarket. They were assigned female at birth and present in a neutral kind of way. They had been buoyed up that day because they’d been to the hairdresser and, without asking, had been given a ‘male’ style of cut, with sideburns. Although they identify as non binary, they were thrilled that the hairdresser hadn’t read them as a girl. But having gone into the supermarket, they needed the toilet and, after worrying about it, decided they had better use the ladies’ toilet because they didn’t want to be challenged and they knew that people who object to trans people using the ‘wrong’ toilet argue that you should use the toilet matching your birth certificate. So they used the female toilet – and when they exited found that two women had called the security guard who challenged them when they came out, which was very distressing, and totally unnecessary. Insisting on male and female toilets makes it impossible for these young people to make the right choice, yet there is a very simple solution which can benefit all families.